God actually does want you to be happy

The only worse teaching than “God just wants you to be happy” is “God doesn’t want you to be happy.” Of course, not that many people teach this specifically, but a number of people come close. Some of them do this by hammering in a more spiritual sounding point, something along the lines of “God is more interested in you being holy than being happy.” And, technically speaking, they’re right. If God had to pick between giving you a holiness boost and a happiness boost, I’m sure He’d pick holiness.

But the problem lies in the question itself, not so much in the answer. Or, to be clearer, asking whether God prefers your happiness or holiness more is already a bad way of putting things. It’s kind of like asking if my I would rather my son be happy or healthy. If I love him, I want both very much and would not wish to choose between them. But at the same time, a large part of the reason I want him healthy is because it will make him happy. A basic problem with unhealthiness is that is leads to unhappiness, or at least makes happiness all the more difficult. While I definitely wouldn’t mind making Nathan temporarily unhappy to make him healthy (I’ll get him his shots and medicine as needed), the point of that temporary unhappiness is so he can play happily later instead of being miserably ill. If the cure were worse than the disease in the long run, I’d probably pass it up.

What we tend to miss, then, is that holiness is a lot like health. In fact, holiness could be considered spiritual health. Health, after all, is when the various parts of our body work together in the right order and harmony. Holiness is when the various parts of our lives—thoughts, feelings, and actions—work together in the right order and harmony as defined by how God has made us to live.

This is why, for all our disagreements, I think John Piper is really getting at something important with his so-called “Christian Hedonism.” Piper is very right to say that there is nothing wrong with wanting or trying to be happy. Instead, what makes trying to be happy right or wrong is the way in which we do it. Sin may make us happy in the short term, but it causes misery in the end. Living by faith in Christ, on the other hand, may make us unhappy today as we take up our crosses, but it will turn out far for the best. And while Piper usually focuses on the eternal payoff, holy living pays off in the “short-long term” as well. Sexual restraint protects us from broken homes, broken hearts, and often broken bodies. Generosity and mercy build meaningful relationships and improve mental health. Getting wasted every weekend may be fun, but all too often leads to regrettable choices and mistakes that can never be undone. And this list can go on. Virtue is hard work and can involve suffering, but it makes a brighter life. Vice can be thrilling, but it quickly drags us into the lonely dark.

All of this comes back around to creation, to the subject of my last post. God made life to be lived and enjoyed. He smiles to see His children playing on the playground of the world. But He won’t—He can’t—tolerate sinful play. However much fun it may seem in the moment, it will ruin everyone’s day. This is the great sin. What God wants is to call His children in as the night falls to feast on bread and wine, with joy and laughter bought at the steep price of His true Son’s blood.

So, why make this point? Am I picking on words and phrases to be a pain or know-it-all? By no means! This is something that I believe causes serious trouble when forgotten. This is because everyone wants to be happy, and they feel that, in some way, it is right for them to look for happiness. And it is God who crafted their hearts with this desire. So when they hear it preached that God’s not concerned with their happiness, or if they only hear rules and “don’t’s” without a clear explanation of how God gives these commands because He truly does want their smile, it is far too easy to conclude that God is simply against joy and fun. They start to view God as a grumpy old man aggravated by seeing young people enjoy themselves. And I’m not talking hypothetically. This is something I have seen and heard myself.

Once this mistake is made, their God-given desire for happiness leads them away from the very unhappy picture of God they have developed. And while sinful pleasures aren’t as good for joy long-term as God is, they’re way better on any time scale than the Curmudgeon God who they have come to believe gave us Christianity. This becomes their excuse for sin. And sin will ruin their happiness, which God will not take lightly. God will not, of course, let them get away with their excuses, but we should be taking those away first with good theology. If we don’t, they won’t be the only ones having to give an account.

What we should be teaching, then, is not the technically correct answer to the misguided question of whether God prefers happiness or holiness. Instead, we ought to say, “Of course God wants you to be happy. But He knows better than you do what makes us happy. After all, He designed up. So let’s crack open the Bible and see what God has to say about what makes a happy life. You ask if partying will be involved? Let’s turn to Revelation 19:6-9…”

Advertisements

God wants you filled with jam

G. K. Chesterton had a way with words, a way with humor, and a way with Christian thinking. These qualities are what make the inspiration for the title of this post. It comes from his book, What’s Wrong with the World (a book which, according to Chesterton, is what’s wrong with literature). It opens with a partial answer: what is wrong is that we don’t know, care, or agree about what it would look like for things to be right. This leads to brief discussion about how efficiency, so prized in his day, for its own sake is meaningless. Doing things efficiently is only valuable inasmuch as what you are doing itself is valuable. Almost everything you can do will be efficient toward one goal but inefficient toward another. This brings him to the following:

Maeterlinck is as efficient in filling a man with strange spiritual tremors as Messrs. Crosse and Blackwell are in filling a man with jam. But it all depends on what you want to be filled with. Lord Rosebery, being a modern skeptic, probably prefers the spiritual tremors. I, being an orthodox Christian, prefer the jam.

If this doesn’t crack you up, my condolences. But while it’s obvious what makes the quote funny, it’s less obvious what he means. Why exactly would a Christian prefer jam to spiritual tremors? To put the question a different way, what’s so Christan about being filled with jam?

The connection between Jesus and jam may not be obvious, but it’s important. It goes all the way back to creation. It goes back to God’s choice to make our world, not just a world of ghostly spirit beings, but a world of real, tangible, images of God in fatty, bloody flesh.

When we think about creation, there are a lot of ways to talk about its point. What is the point of created life? We could say that it is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, but that’s not very specific. What does glorifying God mean and look like, anyway? Does that mean the point of life is an endless church service, praying and singing and doing sacraments? I’m sure that sounds right to someone, but why did God make such a big world if that was all that mattered? Some people accuse God of being boring because of church, but they forget that it was His idea to send us there only once a week. So what are the other six days for?

Maybe the other six days are for glorifying God, too. But again, what does that look like, if not church? It can’t simply mean reading our Bibles and praying, otherwise even (or especially?) the most spiritual people will struggle not to have a life of mostly filler.

So maybe the point of life means giving God thanks and praise in everything we do. This seems more likely, but more questions arise. Does this mean we’re missing the point whenever we do, well, anything without before and after offering a special prayer of thanksgiving and praise? I realize we’re all sinners, but… Is living life how God intended actually quite that, dare I say, tedious?

Chesterton recognized that it is not. He saw the secret to created life: God made it for living. He understood the old quote from Irenaeus, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” God is happy and glorified in all of our enjoyment of His creation, including the whole of our lives. God made this world and every part of our existence, and just like a father who builds a playground, He laughs to see His children playing. This doesn’t mean, of course, that He tolerates misbehavior or ingratitude, which unfortunately color so much of our lives. But even when we enjoy creation without gratitude, or when we live a happy life riddled with sin, the living and the enjoying are still good in themselves, just compromised and corrupted.

Right at the heart of Chesterton’s philosophy was this simple truth. God made life to be lived, lived in joy and gratitude rather than endless dour introspection or sanctimonious blessings on every last thing. We should always remember the Source of life, but the best way to honor Him to precisely to live the life He provides. So be filled with jam, do the work God has set out for you, love the people He has put in your life, and trust in Christ to sanctify the whole thing. We don’t go wrong by enjoying life too much, but by cutting our enjoyment short by poisoning pleasures with sin or ingratitude. So kill the sin, thank God, and live.