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…”

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Jesus will judge Joe’s salvation, so you don’t have to.

Stop it.

Stop trying to discern who is “really” saved and who isn’t.

I say this as a simple message I’ve slowly learned from reading Scripture. Simply put: there is never a Biblical command or permission for us as individuals in the Church to make decisions about whether other individuals in the Church are actually Christians or not.

There are similar issues, to be sure. We are commanded to discern false teachers, but their position of authority and destructive impact, not to mention their peculiar relationship to the churches they teach, makes their case quite different from Joe in the pew. We are also commanded to discern between false churches and the true Church based on the criteria of love, holiness, and sound doctrine (specifically, a right view of who Jesus is). And finally, we are certainly commanded to judge between good and evil actions and lives, and to call our brothers and sisters to repent if they sin.

But, none of that is the same as a command or permission to decide whether Joe two pews down is a “real Christian” or something else.

There is no such command. Nor is there such a permission.

If Joe is participating in the life of the Church through a local congregation, we have only one proper response: accept him as a brother. If he is a living a life or espousing doctrines that contradict the Christian faith, we may and should by all means call him out and ask him to repent. If he doesn’t, we should certainly exercise church discipline up to and including excommunication, cutting him off and kicking him out. But until (and perhaps only until) that point, we are only allowed to treat him as a wayward brother, someone who has strayed from the truth and needs to return.

The one thing we have no right to do is try to decide whether we’ll see him in glory on Judgment Day. We can’t declare him “real Christian” or “fake Christian,” or speculate about the negative possibilities for his eternal destiny. Why? Because until he is removed from the congregation (which he should be if he persists in unrepentance), we have no ground to stand on from which to make such a judgment, even as a personal opinion. We have only one option: take his baptized identity for granted and treat him as a member of Christ’s Body. Apart from Jesus’ promise to be with us when two or three are gathered to execute church discipline, we don’t have any basis for saying otherwise. So our job is to treat them all as brothers until Jesus comes back to sort out His own household. He is the Judge who sees in the depths of the heart and knows the reality of all faith or pretending. He will make sure of who is His far better than we ever could.

So in case it’s not obvious exactly what I’m proposing, I’ll break it down:

Treat everyone in the congregation of the Church as a “real Christian.” Period.
If they sin or adopt heresy, call them to repent.
If they continually refuse to repent, boot them out.
Treat everyone outside the Church as outside of Christ. Period.

I think this solves lots of problems, and I think it’s Biblical. Nowhere in Scripture do we find commands or permissions to try to discern between true and false, real or fake, members of the Body. Instead, we find strong church discipline and letters which address whole churches as believers. We find acknowledgments than human judgment is utterly fallible and based on the outside, and that only God sees the heart for what it is.

Note that, again, none of this is to say we can’t judge sinful lives and behaviors as sinful, and even seriously so, or judge heresies as heretical. We must do these things, and do them consistently without compromise. But we aren’t permitted to go from “Joe is living sinfully right now [or for a long time]” immediately to “Joe isn’t a Christian.” We instead must bind ourselves to the form of the Church and its authority in this age, where we come together and go through the appropriate processes of discussion and discernment to execute discipline or encourage restoration.

Anything beyond that is a presumption of Christ’s own prerogative over His Church, a denial of His own right to discern and define His bride.

This is not, I want to emphasize, just a part of the “Don’t judge,” “You don’t know their heart!” or “Your Christian walk is just between you and God” cultures. We must judge right from wrong, darkness from light, goodness from evil, and obedience from rebellion. People’s actions do expose, to at least some degree, their hearts. And our walk with God is not our own, but is part of a collective pilgrimage of the whole Church in which we are all members of one Body whose lives affect and determine each other.

But none of that puts us in a place to discern the core: what actual relation someone in Christ’s Church has to Christ. How are we to know who will repent, who is going through a David/Bathsheba fall, who is disrupted like Peter, or who was like Judas all along? We cannot know from our limited perspectives what is really going on, and we must defer to Christ. Our only responsibility is to remove the wicked person from among ourselves, but love them before, during, and after.

Basically, as Romans 14:4 says, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”