This article originally appeared at Randy Alcorn’s website. For more on the topic, see Alcorn’s new book Happiness (Tyndale; 445 pages) [review], or the smaller version God’s Promise of Happiness (96 pages).
As a young pastor I preached, as others still do, “God calls us to holiness, not happiness.” There’s a half-truth in this. I saw Christians pursue what they thought would make them happy, falling headlong into sexual immorality, alcoholism, materialism, and obsession with success.
I was attempting to oppose our human tendency to put preferences and convenience before obedience to Christ. It all sounded so spiritual, and I could quote countless authors and preachers who agreed with me.
I’m now convinced we were all dead wrong.
There were several flaws in my thinking, including inconsistency with my own experience. I’d found profound happiness in Christ; wasn’t that from God? Further, calling people to reject happiness in favor of holiness was ineffective. It might work for a while but not in the long run.
Tony Reinke gets it right: “Sin is joy poisoned. Holiness is joy postponed and pursued.”
Happiness Versus Holiness?
Consider Leviticus 9:24: “Fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed the burnt offering on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell facedown.” The radically holy God sent down fire, and they did what? They fell facedown . . . and “shouted for joy”! This remarkable response flows from the utter holiness of submission combined with the utter happiness of praise.
Likewise, 2 Chronicles 6:41 says, “May your holy people be happy because of your goodness” (NCV). To be holy is to see God as he is and to become like him, covered in Christ’s righteousness. And since God’s nature is to be happy, the more like him we become, the happier we become.
Any understanding of God that’s incompatible with the lofty and infinitely holy view of God in Ezekiel 1 and Isaiah 6 along with the powerful view of the glorified Christ in Revelation 1, is false. God is decidedly and unapologetically anti-sin, but in no sense anti-happiness. Indeed, holiness is what secures our happiness.
Travel the Royal Road
In Western culture popular opinion holds that high moral standards are foolish, demeaning, and narrow-minded human constructs—impossible to maintain and contrary to happiness. This lie has been remarkably effective. We seem to have to choose between sinning to be happy and abstaining from happiness through self-deprivation.
If we believe the lie that saying no to sin means saying no to happiness, then no amount of self-restraint will keep us from ultimately seeking happiness in sin. John Piper writes:
Enjoy a superior satisfaction. Cultivate capacities for pleasure in Christ. . . . You were created to treasure Christ with all your heart—more than you treasure sex or sugar or sports or shopping. If you have little taste for Jesus, competing pleasures will triumph.
Holiness doesn’t mean abstaining from pleasure; holiness means recognizing Jesus as the source of life’s greatest pleasure. As Charles Spurgeon put it, “Holiness is the royal road to happiness. The death of sin is the life of joy.”
Encountering the Irresistible
Too often our message to the world becomes a false gospel that presents an impossible burden: to be a Christian you must give up wanting to be happy and instead choose to be holy. But “give up happiness; choose holiness instead” is not good news—and therefore it’s not the true gospel. In truth, it bears more resemblance to the legalistic worldview of the Pharisees Jesus condemned (see Matt. 23:2–4).
Theologian Bruce Ware once told me, “Of the eighty kids who grew up in our Bible-believing church, my sister and I can count on one hand those now walking with Jesus.”
If given a choice, people who grow up in evangelical churches will likely choose what appears to be the delightful happiness of the world over the dutiful holiness of the church. Satan tries to rig the game by leading us to believe we can’t have both happiness and holiness. Offer people a choice between being hungry and thirsty or having food and drink, and their choice is obvious. Never mind that the meal may be laced with cyanide or the drink injected with arsenic. Any offer of happiness, with or without holiness, will always win over an offer of holiness devoid of happiness.
“How little people know who think that holiness is dull,” C. S. Lewis wrote to an American friend. “When one meets the real thing . . . it is irresistible. If even 10 percent of the world’s population had it, would not the whole world be converted and happy before a year’s end?”
Like Spiritual DNA
DNA’s double helix is perfectly balanced at the core of human life. Two strands wrap around each other, forming an axis of symmetry and providing a perfect complement for each other.
God has made holiness and happiness to enjoy a similar relationship: each benefits from the other. For those of us who are Christians, our lives should overflow with both. Neither alone will suffice; both together are essential for the truly Christ-centered life.
When Jesus says “Be perfect” (Matt. 5:48), we must recognize that true happiness in him is part of what he intends. Our pleasure is won in the “Aha!” moments of discovering firsthand why God’s ways really are best. And the more we discover his ways and experience the goodness of his holiness, the less we will try to find happiness apart from him.