It’s true that God wants you to be happy. The question really becomes, “Where do we find happiness?” And the answer to that question in the Scriptures is God Himself. King David writes about having a relationship with God, “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” (Psalm 16:11). David acknowledges that joy (and its offshoot happiness) comes from God’s presence. Eternal pleasures, or happiness, is found at God’s right hand, a metaphor for a close relationship with God. Our Paul commands, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). To rejoice in something means to find joy in it. God is the source of all real joy and happiness.
To truly flourish as a human being, then, can only occur in relationship with the living God. The reality of human flourishing flowing from relationship with God is made clear from the very beginning of the Scriptures when God creates humanity in his image (Genesis 1:26-28). To be made in the “image” and “likeness” of God means to be in a relationship of royal-sonship and servant-kingship with the Lord. People were made to be made in God’s image as God’s “son,” having a close covenantal bond of love between the two. They were then tasked with a job to do: to steward creation and be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28). Notice, however, that the task is built upon the relationship. We do not attain our value as human beings from what we do. We have value because of our connection to God as his image-bearers. Now, that relationship with God is marred by sin, but originally, human beings flourished because they were connected to their Creator. Are you?
So the path to happiness means we first must be reconnected to our Creator. This cannot happen through our own doing, but as the Scriptures say, “For by grace, you have been through faith; it is a gift of God. It is not from works so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Only receiving the gift of forgiveness through Jesus can we have a relationship with God. But, obviously, just because we may have a right relationship with God doesn’t automatically mean we start living in a way that brings us happiness.
Because the opposite of happiness is selfishness. And all of us, even those who claim the name of Jesus, still struggle with selfishness. Sure, there may be an initial rush of happiness when we get our way. But that quickly wears off and we realize that living for ourselves is bankrupt. Jesus Himself warns us a selfish lifestyle when he says, “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25). What Jesus is saying here is that all those people who want to still direct their own life, live for themselves, and generally pursue their own happiness at the expense of others will lose their life. He means that they will lose connection to the source of ultimate happiness (God), and important our sources of happiness like community and friendship. Selfish people end up destroying their own lives. On the other hand, if we live for God—if we “lose” our lives for Jesus’ sake—we will “find” our lives: we will have real happiness, peace, meaning, and satisfaction.
So what does losing our lives for Jesus’ sake actually look like? For the most part, it looks like service. The apostle Paul teaches us what a life lived for God looks like, “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13). We must never seek to use our freedom in Christ for our own selfish desires (“the flesh”). Instead, we must serve others through love. What Paul is essentially saying is that the path to real happiness comes through serving others. This is dynamic is clearly illustrated through marriage. When a spouse is selfish in marriage, it leads to misery. But when a spouse seeks to serve the other, there is real joy and happiness. Or as Paul says, “Husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church” (Ephesians 5:28-29). The flourishing of a husband is found when his wife flourishes, and vice versa. Happiness comes through pursuing the happiness of others as pastor John Piper has said.
But what about suffering? Does not difficulty destroy our happiness? Yes, it might if we are finding happiness in the wrong places. Remember, the question isn’t so much, “Should I pursue my own happiness?” The question really is, “Where do I find happiness?” I would contend that if you are attempting to find happiness in anything other than God, you will be disappointed. Because everything in this life can be taken away, except God. If you are banking your happiness on your relationships with other human beings, or your own looks, of your own reasoning and intelligence, or (God forbid), your circumstances, you are setting yourself to be crushed. The author of Ecclesiastes attempted to do such things but found all those things utterly incapable of producing lasting happiness (Ecclesiastes 2:1-21). His futile attempts to find happiness in the things of this world lead to declare, “So I hated life, for the work which had been done under the sun was grievous to me; because everything is futility and striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:17). Maybe one of the sources of your despair is that you’re chasing after the wrong things?
But let’s take a case study. Let’s say that someone is finding their happiness in a relationship with God and through serving others. But then tragedy strikes. Something happens that confines them to a bed, or a wheelchair, or pretty much prevents them from having a “normal” life. Can they be happy? In God, yes. Because our happiness is not tied to our abilities or “quality of life.” It is tied to knowing God and having a relationship with God. And you still are connected to God in those circumstances. Furthermore, while physical capabilities may be diminished to serve others, you can always serve others through prayer. It doesn’t take much to pray too. Maybe what I have written sounds too rosy, too optimistic. And of course, there is a large space for lament in our lives due to the brokenness of the world. There is a whole book of the Bible devoted to lament after all (Lamentations). So being angry with God or questioning God is not necessarily at odds with still finding ultimate happiness in him. We’re humans, not robots. And so building a durably happy life takes a life time and often much suffering to walk through. But maybe what I’m proposing still sounds too “spiritual-platitude-ish.” I guess my question is: What’s the alternative? I mean, if you don’t go down the God route for happiness, then what? You yourself determines what makes you happy? I feel like in that circumstances you’re placing your hope in something incredibly broken and vulnerable: yourself. I don’t know about you, but I fail all the time. Fail in my work; fail as a parent, spouse, and family member. Believing that I could determine for myself what could give me lasting happiness seems far-fetched. And it probably is far-fetched to you too.