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As long as you’re Happy

February 12, 2012

Have you ever stopped and considered the topic of ‘happiness’? I did the other day and actually found it quite a perplexing topic of thought – it’s hugely complicated and also kind of frightening.

How do you actually define happiness? And how important is that definition?

Can happiness actually be misleading? can it even be damaging?

Is a desire for happiness natural? Or is the pursuit of it sinful?

I think one thing we can be most certain of is that wherever you look in society we are driven by a desire for happiness. Almost every business claims that ‘if you purchase this product it will bring a level of happiness.’ Varying companies play to the extreme of this ideology; to the point that they don’t just promise happiness at the purchase of their goods but guarantee unhappiness if you neglect to buy into what they offer.

So how do we define happiness and who determines what will make me happy?

In terms of defining ‘happiness’, most dictionaries really struggle to come up with a ‘one size fits all’ definition. It’s a word that is so often used in everyday language that its meaning is too broad. It can range from “I am so happy that it’s not raining today,” to “I am so happy that I married my wife Rebekah” to even “I’m just happy to be alive.” Different contexts obviously convey different expressions of happiness, to the extent that one version of ‘happiness’ can probably end up meaning something entirely different to another version.

In many ways this isn’t really a problem. Of course we will have varying levels and intensities of happiness in our lives. You can’t compare the relief of the fact that it’s not raining today to the sense of relief one gets from surviving a car crash and the happiness to be alive that that brings.

But I think there are certain issues and concerns regarding the understanding of happiness that we need to be mindful of, otherwise what appears at first as happiness can end up bringing devastation.

My first concern is an issue of substance. So often we can be tricked into chasing momentary happiness. A pleasure that is so fleeting that we often find ourselves questioning how worthwhile it was in the first place. This kind of happiness can be so quick and superficial that we may not even feel comfortable calling it happiness – but it’s this kind that society feeds on. My generation has grown up with a “fast food” sort of mentality – “I want quick pleasure and I want it now and if I don’t get it now I won’t be satisfied!” I would argue that more often than not this attitude is very damaging and we can often short change ourselves by fighting for a quick fix and forfeiting something far more glorious and substantial.

For example with the ‘fast food’ analogy then yes the food is readily available and yes it fills the hole but only a fool would build his diet and lifestyle around fast food. It’s quick and easy but in the long term massively detrimental. Who in their right mind would pick a greasy, unhealthy burger over a well prepared and succulent roast dinner – No one!!

This leads us to the next concern of mine, which you can read about in my previous blog entitled; the unconscious choice. Every day people all over the world are making very poor choices in terms of searching for happiness and they are doing it without even fully realising it.

This happens simply as a result of not thinking through the implications of our choices. Joe Bloggs may not directly choose obesity as a lifestyle, but he did choose to eat all those burgers and cakes and chips and as such he ended up at the logical destination.

You see a lot of Christians actually shy away from this idea of pursuing happiness. I don’t, I think it’s a totally Godly characteristic. I would even argue the bible is full of encouragement for believers to pursue pleasure, happiness and fulfilment.

A.W. Tozer once said the following:

“God is committed to your holiness, and not your happiness.”

Now I am a big Tozer fan, in fact he is one of the reasons why I am doing this blog – the tag line at the top is also a quote of Tozer’s, however I feel that this reference to holiness and happiness is unhelpful and misleading.

The reason for my perspective here is simple. True holiness actually brings about true happiness. God’s desire for us to be holy is intrinsically linked to God’s desire for us to be genuinely happy. What I think Tozer is really telling us here is that God is committed to your holiness above your fleeting and sinful sense of happiness – which of course I agree with. But after reading the bible you couldn’t possibly attempt to tell me that God desires our holiness above our happiness.

The pursuit for holiness and the pursuit for happiness is actually the same pursuit.

The problem is what sort of happiness are you pursuing and where are you looking for it? All too often we fight for the less substantial happiness at the expense of something truly wonderful – and we may even do it without realising it.

Just like the chap in the film I mentioned in my last blog; a husband who cheats on his wife because he foolishly prioritised a momentary sense of happiness and pleasure for something that is so much more fulfilling.

When I am an old man with grey hair and a head full of memories I want to look back at my life and see something beautiful. I want to look back and see decades of enjoyment and adventure shared with my lifelong partner, lover and best friend; Bex. I want to see us raise our own family together, I want to be able to share with that generation stories of the majesty, faithfulness and greatness of God – therefore I need to fight for it today. I want to fight to resist sexual temptation because I recognise that both my marriage to Bex, and my growing family are way more substantial.

In Jeremiah 2 God is described as the ‘fountain of living waters’. Also in Psalm 16 King David says the following:

“In His presence there is fullness of Joy, and at His right hand pleasures everlasting.”

There is nothing wrong with being a person who pursues pleasure – in fact God commands it! But don’t settle for the dirt and grime that you can find so easily in this life – lift your heads and lift your expectations – don’t be so easily pleased.

  1. Jennifer green permalink

    True happiness is bringing a life into this world and seeing the parents faces for the first time. I get to do that for a living 🙂

    • That must be an absolutely amazing feeling. I would love to have seen my face when my son was born – it is such a special and momentous occasion. But then if that is true happiness does that mean that anyone who doesn’t get to bring a life into the world will never be happy?

  2. I think I agree. With the clarifying caveat (for emphasis) that pursuing happiness doesn’t make you holy. But pursuing holiness does make you happy. In other words, one can pursue happiness only by taking the “roundabout” way of pursuing holiness. Also, one should not think that the happiness of holiness entails the ease of holiness. Holiness comes through sacrifice and hard decisions. A genuine and “happy” humanity only comes as a result of putting to death the old humanity.

    • Well said my friend. I totally agree.

      Although I would also like to add that I don’t think we should look at happiness as a nice consequence to holiness but as a part of the motivation for it. We cannot shake off the fact that as humans we desire happiness – I think you’re right in reminding us that lasting happiness comes as a result of hard work and cost, but it’s that end result of lasting happiness that, I think, should motivate us to work hard. The reward for the soldier is victory – that’s why the soldier fights. The reward for the school boy is a good education that’s why he studies. The reward for the faithful husband is a enjoyable and long lasting marriage, that’s why he works hard to serve his wife and remains faithful to her.

      We are told that Jesus endured the shame of the cross, for the joy that was set before Him. So like you say, holiness comes through sacrifice and hard decisions, but the gladly take them on for the happiness that comes as a result.

      • Yes I can agree with that.

        I think I just wanted to flag up the difference between:

        A) I really want to be happy. Time to put overs to the side for a moment and centre on my own happiness.

        B) I really want to be happy. Time to stop focussing on my own satisfaction, and time to start looking outward.

        Both are “looking for happiness”. But one is doing it in a much “stronger” sense.

      • Hmmm….just to be extremely controversial I think I might slightly disagree. I think it’s possible to kind of mix both A and B together and get a better alternative (which we can call C). This is where you actually focus on your own satisfaction; gleaned only from looking outward and serving others.

        For example one friend goes massively out of their way to drive his mate to the airport for a holiday in the early hours of the morning. Not only does it put this chap out but it reminds him that he isn’t going on holiday – which is seriously depressing. However he loved doing it because he sought pleasure in serving his friends. In fact he found way more pleasure putting himself out than if he had stayed at home.

        I think it’s quite appropriate to start seeking my own satisfaction in serving others. I’m also likely to do it more often that way – becomes less of a chore and more of a hobby. John Piper calls this ‘Christian Hedonism’.

        What are your thoughts?

  3. That’s a fair comment Sir. Happiness is so subjective. God loves to be the subject!

  4. Jez, I really am torn on this. I certainly agree that holiness is pleasureable. But I suppose I’m VERY cautious because of what I can see this sort of view collapsing into, or naturally supporting.

    One is a theological view whereby it’s taught that Christian living will be easy because if you focus on the beauty of God and his love, and on the pleasure of holiness, then the Christian life will just come “naturally.” To be honest, I feel I’ve tried that and found it brought me to despair and sin. I’ve recently read N.T. Wright’s “After You Believe” which I think has finally provided me with a Biblical alternative. Of course, the God’s love and what have you IS a motivating factor, but it isn’t sufficient to rule out the need for very conscious moral effort. I think this is something we desperately need to recapture in the church, which has mostly just absorbed modernist romanticism (I’m using the word in its more technical sense, to refer to that historic movement) without thinking.

    Secondly, too often I see evangelism turn into marketing, whereby the gospel is sold as the greatest product you could ever have to enrich your life. I find this tragic as I think consumerism is one of the things we most desperately need rescuing from. We moderns so badly need to be pulled out of ourselves and our desires and outwards to God. This is a really massive issue for me. As such I’m very scared of placing personal pleasure toward the centre of our motivations.

    Now, I’m not sure whether the view you’re commending actually does merge with these. Perhaps it doesn’t. But I’m just explaining that it’s near enough in the neighbourhood for me to be cautious.

    Also, I’m interested in exploring what “joy” means in the Bible. I have a hunch that the modern word has collapsed a lot of “joys” into a single concept of “pleasure”. I wonder if we need to pry open some richer meanings. That’s just a hunch though.

    • Hi Martin,

      I think this may be an issue where we will have to agree to disagree slightly. Although I certainly understand and appreciate where you’re coming from.

      I don’t believe that the Christian life will come easily or naturally as Paul reminds us we have an ongoing battle between the spirit and the flesh – we want to honour God and yet sometimes we still fail. There’s nothing easy about it – but I do believe we can have steady victory over sin and I do believe part of achieving that is focusing on God’s beauty and love. In fact, in reality it should be a really easy decision: in one corner you have got pornography (momentary pleasure) in the other corner you have your bible (a tool to develop your relationship with Father God more and build towards a much more substantial pleasure). It should be an easy decision but we are depraved, proud, foolish and naive and we often choose that which is more damaging – exchanging a glory for that which does not profit.

      Also, I am confident that our “need for very conscious moral effort” should in fact be rooted in the impact of God’s love. Jesus says “If you love me, you will obey me.” That’s not an attempt at emotional blackmail – that’s a fact. If you love me, you will naturally want to obey me. The Old Testament talks about God’s law being written on our hearts. In a very real sense this has become the most personal relationship possible – intrinsically linked to love. God’s love for us is what pulled us out of the miry pit in the first place and our love for him is what compels us to live appropriate to our calling (in view of such mercy). This keeps the whole thing saturated in grace and not legalism. I want to honour Him – I am pleasured by honouring Him – not in a shallow and superficial way but because I am in love with Him.

      Finally, I wholeheartedly agree that consumerism is something we need to be rescued from, however I think there are two factors to consider here. Firstly I actually happen to believe that the gospel and its implications are “the greatest product you could ever have to enrich your life.” Its the only thing available that can take you from darkness to light, from death to life, from the absence of God to relationship with God. Secondly we can learn a lot from how Paul communicated with his audiences (and also for that matter how Jesus did too). Both were highly skilled in communicating eternal truths in a way that was accessible to their listeners. You can see just in how Paul writes his letters that he has thought a great deal about who will be reading them. Ultimately I would love to see our world rescued from the shallowness of a consumerist mindset. However seeing as our world is currently living in consumerism every effort should be made to communicate in the language it understands. As such I don’t have a problem in marketing the gospel. As long as we don’t compromise on its content.

      • Hmm. I think we have a mixture of agreement (which is possibly downplayed by a misinterpretation of each other’s language), but also some very real disagreements, including some stuff I feel very strongly about. I doubt we’ll get much further in discussion right here and now so I’ll it on “hold” for the time being =)

      • Fair play sir. It’s been a healthy discussion.

  5. Aye. I think I’ll write an article or two around these issues at some point. I’ll let you know when I do and welcome your feedback.

  6. I look forward to it mate.

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