Tim Keller said that for the last 30 years, western culture has consistently taught three ideas. From New York to Sydney, from London to Auckland, we have all been fed a diet of three mantras that are so accepted that they are beyond debate. Funneled through Disney films, TV sitcoms and pop songs, we are all drenched with these mantras. The one we will look at today is mantra number one, that happiness is the most important thing in the world. Is this true or false?
In Australia, we have so mastered the art of happiness, of pursuing everything that gives pleasure. We are ranked tenth by the UN of the happiest countries. We have moved to a pain and pleasure culture. We make decisions based on it and ignore God, the giver of every good gift. In this way of thinking, something is right if it makes you happy, and something is wrong if it gives you pain.
Most parents say, “The main thing is that my kids are happy.” Happiness is the highest good. The UN ranks countries on their happiness: Australia came in tenth, and Finland first. Venezuela has the ministry of happiness. One Indian state has a government department of happiness. So important is happiness that we use it as the main standard of working out if something is right or wrong. We have let the tail wag the dog and made happiness determine what is right. Here are two examples.
There are the Christian parents surprised by their 14 year old daughter. She loves youth group, attends a Christian school, and said ‘yes’ to Jesus. But she just can’t see the problem with same-sex relationships and is sure God doesn’t either. Why? Because God is a God of love who wants us to be happy.
Or then there is church-going grandmother. Her grandson has recently told her that he is gay. At first she was shocked. A week later she rightly declared her love for him. But within the month she is openly telling people that same-sex relationships are ok with her and with God. Her view held for 70 years changed overnight. Why? Because her grandson’s happiness is the most important thing in the world.
You expect me to give a big ‘no’ in answer to the statement, “Happiness is the most important thing in the world”. But it’s not that easy. Does God want us to be happy? Our task as Christians is to take every thought prisoner for Jesus. There is more truth than you imagine to that statement. So let’s get our thinking straight on happiness. Let’s pray.
Your son, the Lord Jesus, is the author of life. Help us to resist the urge to think that we are wiser than you on how to live life. May we take every idea our culture teaches and make it prisoners for Christ. For we want you to be Lord of all of our lives.
In Jesus’ powerful name, Amen.
“Happy, Happy, Happy, Happy, Happy, Happy, Happy, Happy!” That is how Jesus started his first sermon. We know it as ‘The Sermon on the Mount’. And the word for ‘blessed’ or ‘joy’ can be translated ‘happy’, Matthew 5:3-7:
Blessed (or ‘happy’) are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed (or ‘happy’) are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed (or ‘happy’) are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed (or ‘happy’) are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Happy are those in an unhappy situation. So why are the poor in spirit happy? It is because the kingdom of heaven belongs to them. Why are those who mourn happy? It is because they will be comforted. Why are the meek happy? It is because they will inherit the earth. Happiness is on God’s agenda for his people. The reason is because God himself is a happy God.
God is the happy blesséd God. Paul begins and ends his first letter to Timothy with a description of God as the ‘blesséd’ or ‘happy’ God, 1 Timothy 1:11: “the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed (or ‘happy’) God”.
I remember listening to the preacher John Piper, saying how God is a ‘happy’ God. I never thought of God as ‘happy’. ‘Merciful’, ‘loving’, ‘kind’: yes, I thought of God as those things. ‘Just’, ‘righteous’, ‘holy’: absolutely, but not ‘happy’. Part of the problem for us is that we separate the meaning of words too sharply. In the Old Testament, there are 22 Hebrew words, and in the New Testament, there are 15 Greek words, that overlap and can have the meaning of ‘joy’, ‘blessed’, ‘delight’, and ‘happy’. All these ideas are overlapping. But around 100 years ago, Christians drove a wedge between ‘happiness’ and ‘joy’, and ‘happiness’ and ‘holiness’. So on this understanding, ‘happiness’ is driven by external events, and ‘joy’ is driven by internal circumstances. We say that “God is interested in holiness not happiness”. But that is not what the Bible is saying. To read that God is “the blessed God” is to read that he is the ‘happy’ God. From everlasting to everlasting, God has been happy. The only thing that intrudes into that happiness is our sin. Our sin causes God grief: first when we sinned; then when he made payment for the sin. And now as forgiven sinners, we can still grieve God by our sin.
But God is complex, and his happiness remains intact among the three persons of the Trinity, even though our sin grieves God. We know that the Father delights in his Son. He told us so, when Jesus was baptized: “This is my son in whom I am well pleased”. He makes me so happy! Jesus talks of his joy or delight in his Father, in Luke 10:21: “At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth”.
We know that right now, heaven is marked by praise and happiness. Luke 15:10 tells us so: “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Who is in the presence of the angels? God is, and he is rejoicing. He his rejoicing or happy over his redeemed people, Zephaniah 3:17: “The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.” Here God is singing over his redeemed people with much joy or happiness. What God felt about his Son, he feels about us in Christ.
I’ve written one love song in my life. It was for Sandy. I wrote it for our first anniversary. It was so good I couldn’t top it: I’m a one hit wonder.
She’ll give you smile, She`ll give you a wink.
She drop you a line, it will make you think.
She is answered prayer over many long years.
When I think of her I fall to my knees.
Do you know you’re answered prayer?
You’re just one reason I know God really cares.
So certain translation are happy to use the word ‘happy’.
Christian preachers for centuries were also happy to use the word ‘happy’. Jonathon Edwards wrote on John chapter 15, “The happiness Christ gives to his people is a participation of his own happiness.” C H Spurgeon said, “May you still come and then may your Christian life be fraught with happiness and overflowing with joy.” Heaven is many things. but it is marked by happiness. To the faithful saints who used their time, talents, and treasures for God, Matthew 25:23 says:
His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!
So the final picture for the Christian is an eternity of perfect happiness, where we enter and enjoy the eternal happiness of our Lord God. For now, God grants the experience of happiness to each person in this world. This is for both unbelievers and believers, Acts 14:17:
He [God] did not leave Himself without a witness, since He did what is good by giving you rain from heaven and fruitful seasons and satisfying your hearts with food and happiness.
One piece of evidence that God exists is that he does good to every human. God lets rain fall. He sends the seasons, enabling us to produce food, so that stomachs are full and hearts are happy. This truth is rightly enshrined in the ‘US Declaration of Independence’. It states that man is endowed by his creator with certain inherent and inalienable rights. These include the right to preserve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
David Murray identifies six different kinds of God-given happiness.
First, there is ‘nature happiness’. This is the joy that comes from appreciating the beauty of creation. From enjoying the beautiful places God has made, whether it is the Barrier Reef or the Blue Mountains, to being refreshed by a cool breeze on hot day, God again and again puts a smile on our faces and joy in our hearts. Recently I went to Uluru with my son. We wanted to see the famous massive rock, and James was wanting to identify his 500th bird. He got to 490!
Second, there is ‘social happiness’. There are the joys of being with family and friends, who love one another. It might be the joy of playing with your grandkids, or delighting in a wife or husband, or experiencing the camaraderie of fellows, colleagues, or team-mates.
Third, we can have ‘vocational happiness’. Our jobs can certainly be frustrating in our lives outside the garden, but we also know the joy and satisfaction of a job well done.
Fourth, we might enjoy ‘physical happiness’. This is when we experience good health, or that feeling after exercise, or recovery from an injury. I counted eight people at MBM aged between 35-45 who broke something in 2019 playing sport. Included here is the happiness that comes from food and drink and rest.
Fifth, there is ‘intellectual happiness’. This is the pleasure that comes from understanding a new idea.
And sixth, there is ‘humor happiness’. I’m a ‘laugh-out-loud’ kind of guy, but Sandy isn’t. But occasionally I can hear her laughing out loud. It’s always the same thing: video clips that her brother sends her.
Here is happiness for all humans to enjoy. God’s desire for us to be happy is seen in how we are created. God gave us taste buds that enjoy chocolate. I saw the Carol King musical. When we came out, we bought what was to me the best ice cream I have ever eaten. In a daze, I walked into a ‘Seven Eleven’ store and said to them, “And they say there is no God!” God gave us ears that enjoy music. He gave us a brain to understand ideas: whether it’s how people work, how an engine works, or how the universe works. God gave us sex organs to experience pleasure. He gave orgasms and endorphins: what gifts from God! God gave us neurotransmitters. He gave us natural antidepressants that are released when the body is in stress or pain, that are also released when we eat chocolate or chilli, exercise, have sex, a massage, or when we meditate. Then God gave humans the ability to research for more antidepressant and pain relief drugs. What a good God? Given that we live in a fallen and sin-cursed world, isn’t it amazing how many different kinds of happiness God has given us? When you understand all six kinds of happiness come from God, then you enhance the happiness by the act of thanking God.
GK Chesterton said, “The atheist sees beauty but has no one to thank, thus no one to be happy in”. Our happiness is doubled when we can praise God who gave us so many things to make us happy, whether it is the steak, the sunset, the song, or dare I say, the sex. It’s why we say grace before we eat and after we have sex with our spouse.
But the one kind of happiness that is unique to Christians is ‘spiritual happiness’—what we often call ‘joy’. ‘Spiritual happiness’ only comes when your sins are forgiven. It outranks all the other forms of hapiness. Psalm 32:1-2:
How joyful (‘happy’ or ‘blessed’) is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How joyful (‘happy’ or ‘blessed’) is the man the Lord does not charge with sin and in whose spirit is no deceit!
Oh the happiness that we are made right with the happy God! It is a false line we draw when we say that ‘happiness’ is for the world but ‘joy’ is for the Christian. It’s a false line when we say that ‘happiness’ is driven by external factors, and ‘ joy’ is driven by internal circumstances. It’s a false line when we say that God want us to be ‘holy’ not ‘happy’.
When I dropped off my kids at school, I would say, “Have a great day, have a happy day, but most of all, have a holy day”. In my own way, I didn’t want to drive a wedge between ‘holiness’ and ‘happiness’. As Christians, happiness is not our enemy.
Here are some conclusions. ‘Happiness’ is a great way to share our faith. Work on the assumption that everybody wants happiness. We need to say a few things to our non-Christian friends and family. First, we Christians get to enjoy everything you have and more. Second, the kinds of happiness we share with you is doubled, for we get to thank God for it. Third, happiness without God will sadly pass away with them. There is a happiness that they are missing out on—the best and deepest expression of happiness, Isaiah 52:7:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” (ESV)
If you are not yet in Christ, let me be clear: you have been allowed to enjoy six kinds of happiness on earth. It has been given to you by the God that you are ignoring. Every one of those kinds of happiness will pass away. You have not tasted the ultimate happiness until you meet Jesus. With him there is a happiness which is eternal. What is heaven if it is not the fulfillment of earthly happiness? What is hell but the absence of the happy God, where there is no God and there is no happiness? We like to say at MBM that if you are not a Christian, life on this earth is as good as it gets. If you’re a Christian, life on this earth is the worst that it will ever get.
This means that there is a happiness for all of us even in our times of suffering. We count it pure joy when various trials comes. There is purpose in the pain. These sufferings are making us more like Christ. Spurgeon was right when he preached, “Despite your tribulation, take full delight in God, your exceeding joy this morning and be happy in him.”
Happiness like everything comes on God’s terms. Christian’s tragically sin away their happiness. When people—Christian or non-Christian—violate God’s wisdom and live contrary to his instructions, there is a price to pay. You cannot enjoy the Christian life and refuse to stop and pray and feed on God’s word. Happiness requires us to deny ourselves and to deny our children, and not just indulge our desires. Happiness is found in saying ‘no’ to short term enslavement to the pleasures of sin for the long term deep holiness. Happiness comes when we learn to be like the God who said it is more blessed to give than to receive. There is more happiness to share than to keep. Happiness requires delayed gratification. Romans 8:18 tells us, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” Suffering comes before glory. The hope of the glory brings the happiness of hope in the suffering. That is why we can be sad and happy at the same time. Jesus was the man of sorrows but with happiness before him, Hebrew 12:2:
For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Even the horror and suffering of the cross was to secure Jesus’ happiness and ours.
Let’s go back to the original question. Is happiness the most important thing in the world? No. Happiness is important and a gift from God, but it is not God. The world abuses the gift of happiness by making it an end in itself. We too can make happiness an idol. Western society has done just that. Pursue happiness for its own sake, and you will lose it. Experience happiness without reference to God, and you actually miss out on it. Non-Christians may have mastered six of the seven types of happiness, but such happiness will not last.
True happiness can only ever be on God terms. That involves trusting that God is good and he wants our happiness. Will we trust him? For us to do that, we need to let him tell us how to live. But that is the sticking point of our culture. That will bring us to the second mantra of our culture: we don’t let anyone tell us what to do, including God.