God wants me happy, doesn’t he? The answer to this question is not as simple as many of us would want to think. In fact, we often find ourselves face to face with the difficult question of where our personal happiness falls on God’s list of priorities. This is because we often believe that we need to choose between (a) chasing our personal happiness and (b) following God’s path for us.
For example, many people ask whether or not God would want them to stay in an unhappy marriage. If we know Scripture, we know that God permits divorce, but only in extreme cases. The path God intends for all married couples to walk is a path of lifelong commitment. But what is love grows cold? What if conflict rises? What if sadness and frustration permeates the relationship? Many couples feel caught between two bad options. Option one is to chase personal happiness through getting a divorce. Option two is to follow God’s path and remain in a miserable marriage. Is God really calling us to choose between happiness and faithfulness?
And this dilemma applies not only to difficult marriages. It applies to us when we see the pleasures of sin contrasted with the disciplines of righteousness. It applies when we see the benefits of hoarding contrasted with the sacrifices of giving. It applies when we see the appeal of revenge contrasted with the call to forgiveness. Does God even care whether or not we are happy?
Joy and Happiness
A note before going forward. Some Christians make much of the difference between happiness and joy. I see this differentiation as being neither biblical nor helpful. It is not a biblical distinction because there is no passage that pits happiness against joy. And there are not different Hebrew or Greek words that are contrasted to make a distinction. And even in English, the words are basically interchangeable. It is nearly impossible to describe happiness without talking about joy, and vice versa.
Some see the distinction as follows: Happiness is based on our circumstances, while joy is not based on circumstances. I think this is wrong for a couple of reasons. First of all, neither the biblical words or the English words warrant this distinction. Second of all, happiness and joy are always based on circumstances. If someone is happy (or joyful) for no reason, this is silly. Our happiness is always based on something. In Scripture, we are not simply told to rejoice but to rejoice in the Lord (Philippians 4:4). And Jesus’ disciples were not simply told to rejoice, but to rejoice that their names were written in heaven (Luke 10:20). In other words, there must always be a basis for joy.
I think the valid point people are attempting to make by pitting happiness against joy is that there is a shallow happiness that is based on fragile circumstances, and there is a deep happiness that is based on solid ground. This is undeniably true. For the purposes of the rest of this article, though, I will use happiness and joy interchangeably.
God Longs for Our Happiness
When we look at Scripture, we can celebrate the fact that God clearly desires human happiness. Many passages demonstrate this. Here are just a few. 1 Chronicles 16:27: “Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and joy are in his dwelling place.” Psalm 16:11: “You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” John 15:11: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” Luke 2:10: “But an angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” And finally Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” God’s design for human beings is that we experience joy.
Perhaps the problem that we run into is that we make the happiness supreme instead of making God supreme. Many of us see happiness as our destination and God as little more than our travel agent. And so if we don’t like the route God is taking us on, we abandon ship and hitch a new ride. We conclude that is God’s path is not bringing us happiness, then it must not be God’s path. It must be that it is his path for most people, but not us. It may even have been his path for all people in centuries past, but times have changed.
If God is simply our travel agent to planet happiness, then we certainly have not embraces the biblical idea of an almighty God who rules over all. Instead, we have replaced him with a vending machine God who needs to adjust to our whims or we will dethrone him.
Happiness in Discomfort
James writes, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2). What a strange thing to write! How in the world could we be happy in the midst of trials? Why would we embrace discomfort instead of seeking relief from it as soon as humanly possible? Most of us don’t thank God for our trials. Instead, we ask God to remove our trials.
The Apostle Paul was able to rejoice in his trials, though. God gave Paul a “thorn in my flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). This seems like a strange gift for God to give. We don’t know what exactly the thorn was, but we do know why God gave it. He gave it to keep Paul “from becoming conceited” as a result of the heavenly visions that God had given him. Paul asked God to take the thorn away, but God chose not to do this. He chose instead to leave Paul in discomfort so that God’s power would be demonstrated in Paul’s weakness. How does Paul respond? He says in 2 Corinthians 12:10, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Paul delighted. Paul found happiness in his extreme discomfort. He wasn’t happy about the discomfort. He was happy about what God was doing through the discomfort. There can be happiness in discomfort.
When we realize that there can be happiness in discomfort, the rest of the Bible starts to make more sense. After all, it was uncomfortable for Abraham to leave his country and head for the promised land. It was uncomfortable for Noah to build an ark in the middle of the desert. It was uncomfortable for Moses to go back to Egypt. And it was certainly uncomfortable for Mary to become a virgin mother.
God is constantly calling his people to discomfort. This is because God, as a good Father, is perfectly fine with lead us into temporary discomfort that will bring eternal happiness. Just as a father makes a child wait to eat, just as a father limits his child’s video game time, and just as a father teaches his child to say please and thank you, God is a good Father. When the child is unhappy about the discipline from his parents, the discipline and discomfort ultimately opens the door for long-term happiness and fulfillment. The short-term discomfort is a small price to pay.
God does desire our happiness. He desires it deeply. But we are foolish if we try to bypass God in order to chase happiness. He is the source of all joy. He is the fountain of all life. And the happiness that God brings will transcend the horrible discomfort and the crippling disappointments that we will face in life. Don’t lose hope. Don’t abandon God’s path. Temporary discomfort is a small price to pay for long-term joy.