Be warned, this is a sensitive subject. It is sensitive because it gets to something that is hard for us to view objectively or to sacrifice, namely, our own sense of happiness.
Let’s begin by noting that happiness is a legitimate, Biblical facet of a good, godly, life. Happiness is one of the things God wants for us.
But here’s the problem: immediately, upon hearing this, we think that we know what this happiness is, because we have become accustomed to believing that my happiness is determined by me.* If something makes you happy, good for you, but it might not necessarily make me happy. Therefore happiness, for me, is what I decide it is. The conclusion, then, is that 1) if God wants me to be happy, and 2) if I decide what makes me happy, then 3) God wants me to pursue what makes me happy. I see and hear this idea often. It makes up about 50% of what you find on Facebook. I suggest, however, that it is only self-centeredness clothed in religious garb, passing itself off as if it were Christianity.
A moment’s reflection should reveal that a me-centered approach cannot be the path to happiness, for at least one simple reason: what one person pursues to make them happy will, inevitably, conflict with another person’s pursuit of happiness. So what happens then? Either the two people must learn to compromise and get along – at the expense of some of amount of the happiness of both of them, or one will be able to achieve his happiness and the other will not. Either way, this way of thinking about happiness and how to pursue it must inevitably lead to conflict with others and puts one into a competition with others, with the result that all the things that come with competition – jealousy, slander, envy, gossip, hatred, malice – are born and flourish. Living in constant competition, with jealousy, etc. cannot be the way to happiness! Much less is it what God wants for me. (And let me suggest that if someone’s happiness lies in being jealous, malicious, slandering, etc., then something is really wrong with them.)
There is another reason this cannot result in happiness for everyone: it is that happiness is, to a large extent, learned. That’s right, happiness is not necessarily innate, it is not “natural.” It is learned. Why are some people thrilled by roller coasters and other people are frightened by them? Because that is how they have learned to react to them. Why do some people exhibit road rage and others never do? Because they have learned these things.
The fact is that our emotions are not supposed to be our masters. We are to be the masters of our emotions, and that includes teaching ourselves to like some things and to dislike others. “I have learned, whatever state I am in, to be content” (Phil 4.11). Did you hear that? “I have learned.” We can put this another way: if we begin with the flawed idea that my happiness is determined by me, and that I naturally know what makes me happy, what we have done is put selfishness in the driver’s seat of our lives. The flesh is now in control, and this is exactly opposite of the way a Christian is supposed to live (Romans 8, Galatians 5, etc.). Starting with a self-centered idea of happiness will only make us worldly people, and being worldly will not make us happy.
But let’s get back to this idea of learned happiness. From the time we are young we are taught, in many ways and from many sources, that happiness lies in the flesh, that it lies in selfishness, that it lies in me. All of us learned that idea and we have spent much of our lives believing it. But one of the Bible’s purposes is to teach us the truth, and one of the truths it has to teach us concerns what makes us truly happy. The Bible wants us to know that our true happiness lies not in ourselves, and surely not in the world, but in our relationship with God. Our true happiness consists of knowing that we are in a right relationship with God.
Now here’s the thing: we have to learn this, and that means that we have to un-learn the lie (which we have believed) that says my happiness is determined by me and me alone. Let’s be honest: how often have we said “I know, happiness is about being right with God,” but we still think and act as if that were not true (and we’re still not happy)? The reason we continue to look for happiness in other things is because we are just not yet convinced that happiness really does lie in our relationship with God. We haven’t learned it enough, we haven’t un-learned the world’s idea of happiness.
It is precisely because Paul re-learned what true happiness is that he could say that he was content in any circumstance. His happiness was not determined by his physical circumstances. It wasn’t even determined by his own feelings of happiness. No, Paul had come to learn that real, true happiness is being right with God; and if we have that, nothing else really matters (hence his ability to be content with anything in life).
When we learn what real happiness is, then some amazing things happen. We stop the competing, the jealousy, etc. that goes with the selfish idea of happiness. Immediately life gets much easier because none of those things which we thought were essential to our happiness matter very much to us any more. The burden of satisfying the unsatisfiable god of selfishness is lifted. And once our mind is taken off of ourselves, we are open to grow as Christians in our relationship with God (which makes us even happier!) and with others.
Yes, God wants us to be happy, but He (i.e., not me) is the one who knows what will make us truly happy. I have to learn it from Him, and if I will do that, I will be happy.
*I am not here discussing a related truth, namely, that you can decide whether to be happy or not. That is, I believe, a legitimate observation, but it is not what I am getting at in this article.
Here are some Bible verses that speak to this topic.