“God doesn’t want us to be happy. He wants us to be holy.” Ever heard someone say that? (Okay, some of you heard me say that this past weekend.) Sometimes, the phrase is offered as a response to the so-called “problem of evil”: if God is both good and omnipotent, then why is there so much suffering in the world? In particular, why do Christians suffer?
Doesn’t God want me to be happy? Well, yes. And no.
Here’s the “yes.” To say that God doesn’t want us to be happy doesn’t mean that God wants us to be un-happy. Positive emotions are part of our human makeup and a gift from God. And as I suggested in the previous post, God as our Creator has designed us in such a way that we flourish when we live as he has commanded us to live. Psychological research teaches that getting rich, finding the right job, and marrying your high school sweetheart can all bring some happiness, but only for a while. For a more lasting sense of well-being, we need to intentionally practice such things as gratitude and hopefulness, kindness and forgiveness, regardless of the circumstances.
And here’s the “no.” We need to avoid answers to the happiness question that are of the name-it-and-claim-it variety. And we need to stop quoting verses like Romans 8:28 and Jeremiah 29:11 as if they meant, “Don’t worry. God wants you to be happy, and will get rid of all your troubles. You’ll see. So just have faith and be patient.” These ways of thinking are too captive to the values of a consumer-driven, quick-fix culture, and distort the teaching of Scripture accordingly.
Jesus taught that instead of being anxious about the material things we think we need, we are to trust our heavenly Father and seek the kingdom (Matt 6:25-33). And while happiness can be received as a gift, we are not commanded to be happy. We are commanded to be holy:
You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own. (Lev 20:26, NIV)
“Be holy!” can sound like the cranky command of a grumpy God, one who’s looking for an excuse to punish infractions of the rules. That may even be our stereotype of an Old Testament God that inexplicably turns gracious in the New. But look at what the verse says: “I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.” God has chosen his people for a special relationship, and he wants them to be like him.
The apostle Peter echoes that Old Testament refrain:
Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Pet 1:13-16, NIV)
We are to be holy in all we do–which includes how we think. Our minds are to be alert. We are to be consciously critical of the desires we already had before we heard the gospel. We do that not because we fear God’s wrath but because we are obedient children who want to be like their Father. And our hope is not set on accomplishing or obtaining worldly happiness, but on the grace we will receive when Jesus returns to call us home.
God commands us to be holy, but not because he’s trying to spoil the party. We were created for relationship with him, and it’s in that context that we discover what human life was meant to be. That may include the positive emotions that we identify with happiness, but it’s so much more.
God doesn’t want us to be happy in the way our consumer culture defines it; he wants us to be holy. So let’s substitute a more biblical term for the notion of happiness: God doesn’t want us to be happy, he wants us to be blessed.
But what does it mean to be blessed? The answer may be a little surprising for those of us whose minds and hearts are still stuck on worldly happiness. That will be the subject of the third and final post.