My Dad was called to the pastorate when he was twenty-one years old, but he didn’t grow up in a Christian home. Both parents were alcoholics and basically abandoned his siblings and he on weekends. Dad relates the story of hanging out in a church parking lot on Sunday mornings as worship ended, but instead of being attracted to genuinely happy people who were smiling, warm, and joyful, he was repulsed by what he perceived to be their unfriendly, hostile, and sour attitudes and personalities. He thought at the time that if that’s what being a Christian was about he didn’t want any part of it. Shouldn’t Christ-followers be happy people?
Many preachers avoid the topic of happiness because of the infiltration of self-help pop psychology into certain segments of Christian leadership. “Happiness” preachers offer nice advice on how to live and neglect the big story of how God has been at work in the past, present, and future, and how our stories are folded into God’s story of redemption, mission, and hope.
We react to this type of what I call “Bubble Gum Theology” in preaching. I see posts from well-meaning pastors who’ve had it up to their ears with positive, prosperity prophets short-changing the Gospel. But I wonder if we don’t react too far in the negative direction, as if our job is to let people know how miserable following Jesus is supposed to be.
Titles like: “Why God Doesn’t Care If You’re Happy” and “God Does Not Care About Your Happiness” try to offer a needed corrective, but miss the point.
Throughout the Scriptures, God is obviously concerned about people and motivated by love for them. His rescue mission is designed not only to rescue us from Satan’s grip but to save us from ourselves and our own destructive decisions. We want to be happy, but our pursuit of happiness gets us in trouble. So, what is the preacher to do? We start by being positive about the happiness God offers.
Five Reasons to Be Positive About Happiness
1. Happiness is a Prime Motivator
Aristotle states in Nichomachean Ethics that the end at which all human activity is aimed is eudaemonia. This Greek word has traditionally been translated as “happiness.” While many have argued of what exactly this happiness consists, I do not believe anyone has ever seriously challenged the fundamental notion that the desire for happiness is a prime motivator of human behavior. Denying this fundamental human drive will alienate us from our hearers. The problem is not with what people want, but with how they understand it and how they go about pursuing it.
2. God Designed Us for Happiness
The desire for happiness is a prime motivator because God designed us to experience happiness. The Psalms open with: “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night (Psalm 1:1-2 NRSV). Jesus said of himself: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10b NRSV). I can’t imagine that the life Jesus came to give us is anything less than what we would call “happy:” a blessed, meaningful, flourishing, fulfilling life of purpose. God cares about our happiness.
3. Confusion Needs Clearing Up
What we need to clear up is what happiness means and how we experience it. Madison Avenue spends billions convincing us happiness is found in consumerism, yet consumerism has not filled the empty void. We look for happiness in relationships, and while we’re inherently relational beings with healthy relationships forming an important part of a satisfying life, trying to find ultimate fulfillment in spouse, kids, friends, or co-workers will leave us searching for more.
We can clarify what leads to happiness: a life of mission, of experiencing God’s love, and helping others find their place in God’s story. The blessed life to which God calls us is a life lived for a higher purpose in response to a higher calling.
John Wesley linked holiness with happiness: “As the more holy we are upon earth the more happy we must be (seeing there is an inseparable connection between holiness and happiness); as the more good we do to others the more of present reward redounds into our own bosom” (God’s Love to Fallen Man). Our people need to see a positive alternative to the manner in which life is generally lived.
4. Happiness Is Attractive
Much hand wringing and worry has been spent on how millennials are leaving the church in droves. But if millennials, and any other generation for that manner, encountered a community of Spirit-filled, hopeful, happy people, they would look for reasons to show up and be a part of that community. The joy of the Lord is attractive and people who are experiencing the fulfilling, meaningful life that God desires for us will attract others into experiencing a life-changing relationship with Jesus.
5. Help People Avoid Unhappiness
I find it ironic that happiness is a prime motivator and yet so many undertake attitudes and actions that guarantee unhappiness. It’s always been this way: “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 14:12 NIV). When people pursue any number of the cheap, counterfeit versions of happiness that the culture offers, they always find unhappiness, misery, broken relationships, suffering, and pain. I care about people and I want them to live the life God offers. Even John Wesley pursued happiness in ways that led him down the wrong path. He said in his early life he had surrounded himself with everything the world held out as a path to happiness, yet he confesses that “…still I was not happy. I wondered why I was not, and could not imagine what the reason was. The reason certainly was, I did not know God; the Source of present as well as eternal happiness” (John Wesley, Spiritual Worship).
What are we doing to help people discover the source of happiness in the present and for eternity? The two are linked. The abundant life Jesus offers begins with faith and ordering our lives according to his leadership and plan. People are looking for happiness. We can show them how to find it.