There’s a popular Christian adage something like: “God is concerned about your holiness, not your happiness.” I’ve said it myself. At first glance, it seems like a spiritually mature sentiment.
The problem is, it creates a false dichotomy. God actually cares very much about our happiness. Holiness and happiness were never intended to be pitted against each other. On the contrary, growth in holiness increases happiness.
It’s also important to consider the implications of this message: to believe that holiness involves the sacrifice of happiness is to deny the goodness of God’s law. Such denial dishonors God. Submitting to his commandments, statutes, and rules should bring us delight.
In the Psalms we see this repeatedly, particularly in Psalm 119:
In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. . . . Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it. . . . My soul keeps your testimonies; I love them exceedingly. (vv. 14, 35, 167)
Following God doesn’t dissipate joy; it fuels it.
More Holiness, More Happiness
This, of course, doesn’t mean the pursuit of holiness won’t involve sacrifice. Crucifying our flesh is painful. It’s easier to indulge greed than to fight it. It’s easier to have a loose tongue than to bridle it. It’s easier to feed bitterness than to absorb the cost of forgiveness. There are pleasures we may want but of which we cannot partake, and our self-denial will hurt at times.
However, none of this means God calls us to sacrifice happiness for the sake of holiness. Though in the moment of temptation it feels as if we must choose between the two, we’ll ultimately find that every choice to pursue holiness results in more happiness, not less.
We will find that every choice to pursue holiness results in more happiness, not less.
When I consider the fleeting joy of indulging sin, it’s nothing compared to the sweeter happiness of following Christ. Giving money away always leaves me happier than hoarding it. Biting my tongue always leaves me happier than the sting of regret over rash words. Using my time to serve others always leaves me happier than being self-consumed. Engaging in spiritual disciplines always leaves me happier than neglecting them.
This fruit of happiness is rarely immediate, though. Walking in obedience is uncomfortable and, at times, even painful. Sin, on the other hand, provides immediate pleasure or relief to our cravings.
When I’m in an argument with someone, it feels good to vent my anger and use my words as weapons. When I’m not in the mood to help my neighbor, it feels good to ignore her text and watch TV. However, since true happiness is found in Christ, habits of disobedience eventually lead to deeper misery, while habits of holiness ultimately lead to deeper happiness.
Culture preaches that nothing is worse than denying our desires—it’s the cardinal sin of our age. But Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23–24). Denying ourselves and taking up our cross daily is the only way to follow Jesus and thus the only way to happiness.
Once, a rich young man asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life. By all appearances, the man had committed himself to a morally blameless life. Yet Jesus saw his heart was enslaved—he was a worshiper of wealth. Moved with love, Jesus said, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me.” Unable to see the greater worth of Jesus, the man walked away sad (Mark 10:17–22).
Following Jesus costs everything, yet it offers infinitely more.
Following Jesus costs everything, yet it offers infinitely more. It is giving up our vain obsession with appearance for the greater beauty of Christ. It is giving up sexual impurity—even if that entails a life of celibacy—for the greater intimacy of knowing God. It is giving up power and fame for the greater glory of being called children of the Father. It is striving after love, peace, kindness, and goodness for the greater reward of life in the Spirit.
Embrace Your Desire
If we, like the rich young ruler, weigh the cost of discipleship and turn away sad, it’s only because we haven’t understood Jesus’s true worth. The call to holiness isn’t a weight to languish under but an invitation that propels us toward true happiness. Nothing we sacrifice compares to the joy of knowing Jesus.
Charles Spurgeon once said, “Let us show to the people of the world, who think our religion to be slavery, that it is to us a delight and a joy! Let our gladness proclaim that we serve a good Master.” Our desire for happiness isn’t an impulse to put to death; it’s one to embrace. It drives us to Christ, helps us fight temptation, and testifies to the world of our Savior’s surpassing worth.