Doesn’t God Want Us to be Happy?
So does God want us to be poor, sad, lonely—generally unsuccessful in our life and relationships? This view would simply be the mirror opposite of the prosperity gospel. God is not abstractly interested in ensuring that we are either wealthy or poor, successful or unsuccessful; he has far larger plans for us. He has chosen us as his children—co-heirs with Christ of the whole estate. Fellowship in the age of everlasting peace, not where believers live above poverty, but where the poor are rich and there is no more poverty; not where believers are spared a little pain and even tragic news of a loved one killed or seriously injured in war, but where no one gets killed or even fights anymore because sin, evil, injustice, violence, and oppression no longer exist.
It is sometimes said that it is not our happiness but our holiness that concerns God. A helpful way of drawing us back to a God-centered orientation, this contrast nevertheless assumes that happiness is found somewhere else than in God’s glory, which is holiness epitomizes. Created by God—in God’s own image, humanity is the creature who was designed for holiness. More than a static moral quality or attribute, this holiness was to characterize every thought, action, and desire. Things in fact went this way until our first parents willfully determined to set their affections on themselves rather than on God. Immediately, they were unhappy: ashamed, guilty, fleeing from the presence of the best thing that had ever happened to them.
So the problem is not happiness, but that we do not even know real happiness when we see it. More than happiness, we crave power and control over our circumstances, fellow-humans, the whole creation, and even God. We will surrender happiness to being in charge because we mistakenly believe that the latter is the realization of the former.
What we have trouble understanding as Americans—especially Boomers (sorry to pick on my generation again)—is that what we call happiness is really this sense of being in control. Even if we get cold, we are comforted in knowing that we have control of the thermostat and can change it whenever we want. We have choices. We’re in charge. If we get in a pickle, there is nothing that we cannot turn around with the right credit card. But take away the cherished props of our life movie and we can get pretty dramatic. It is like cutting off the oxygen supply to a deep sea diver. Like overweight children sitting on the sofa with their Happy Meals watching a report of starving children in the Sudan, we think that we are better off. But are we? Of course, in one important sense we are, but in the big picture?
Our most significant domestic crisis right now seems to be our health care. We are all, especially us Boomers, doing everything we can to make sure that we do not die—or experience the tentacles of that coming death by unhappiness, discomfort, or sorrow. But we will die. In fact, we are all dying right now. Christ and Everlasting Life versus you and Your Best Life Now: That is the clear choice. At least Osteen has given us the opportunity to see just how clearly that choice stares us down.
God’s glory is most manifest in our salvation. God’s holiness is most vividly portrayed in his salvation of the unholy. That he not only judges righteously, but freely gives his righteousness to the unrighteous as a gift, is an astonishing feat indeed. The benefits for us, however, seem to weighty, too staggering, to be characterized by the word “happiness,” as we typically understand it. It is something more than not being bothered, disappointed, or set back. It is the full possession of riches we were not even aware existed, awakening senses that we did not even know we had. In short, the biblical word for it is joy. Rather than another fast-food meal that we consume by ourselves, it is a feast that we share with each other—indeed, even with the other creatures we dragged into the wasteland. With our Creator and Redeemer as the host, even now we share a foretaste of that joy of the wedding feast whenever we are gathered by the Spirit to receive the word and participate in Holy Communion. The message of American consumerism is a Happy Meal. It offers no foretaste of heaven, just more of the same—with a choice of dipping sauces.
It is neither that God wants us to be successful in our daily living or unsuccessful, but that he has a larger goal that is even sometimes served by temporal suffering. In all of these things, delightful and disappointing, God is working all circumstances together for a good that is beyond a mere absence of discomfort. In fact, God often has to go to extreme measures, taking away our props, in order to get us off of our own glory-trail (viz., thinking we’re “in control”) in order to give us the deeper happiness that he calls joy. When something greater than happiness as we usually define it is the goal, all sorts of things—good, bad, indifferent—can be accepted as part of God’s plan for our life. We do not know whether, in a given instance, God has planned for Bob to be healed of cancer or Sue to get that raise at work. But we do have God’s public, certified, and certain promise that all who die in Christ will be raised for a life that is far greater than even the most pleasant circumstances of our best life now.
If the gospel is not true, then it cannot even make us happy. If Christ was not actually raised bodily in real history, then nothing we say is even useful. That was Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 15: If Christ was not bodily raised on the third day, we are “still in our sins” and have no hope of our own resurrection in his wake. “‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” (1 Cor 15:32). So for Paul, Christianity is not useful for whatever needs we think are important at the moment; it’s true. If it is not true, it does not matter how many marriages it has fixed, how many healthy families it has engendered, or how much stress it has relieved. “If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (v 19).
After defending the resurrection of Christ as the harbinger of our own, Paul explains in this letter why only a solution as deep as the cross and resurrection of Christ can match the depth of the problem. Our ultimate enemy is not failing to get everything we want out of life, but something much more serious. Sin and death came by Adam. However, righteousness and life came by Jesus Christ, the Last Adam, so that through faith in Christ we too may be raised on the last day (vv 20-28). Death is the penalty for breaking God’s covenant, but those who are in Christ are justified by his righteous life, atoning death, and triumphant resurrection (vv 50-56).
Significantly, when the Apostle Paul addressed the auspicious assembly of philosophers in the famous Areopagus of Athens, Luke reports that many Epicureans were present. Epicurean philosophy held that if there is a God, he is distant and aloof. There is no heaven or hell. “So let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” went their motto. There, if anywhere, we might have expected the Apostle to the Gentiles to woo the group by appealing to their craving for autonomous happiness here and now. Instead of trying to show them how God fit into their scheme, he told them where they fit in God’s story of creation, the fall, Christ’s resurrection, and the coming judgment (Acts 17). Christianity isn’t therapy. It is either true or the Epicureans win hands-down.
C. S. Lewis, author of the Narnia series and Christian apologist, once observed, “I haven’t always been a Christian. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”(1) In another essay, he wrote,
We are defending Christianity; not ‘my religion’….The great difficulty is to get modern audiences to realize that you are preaching Christianity solely and simply because you happen to think it true; they always suppose you are preaching it because you like it or think it good for society or something of that sort. Now a clearly maintained distinction between what the Faith actually says and what you would like it to have said or what you understand or what you personally find helpful or think probable, forces your audience to realize that you are tied to your data just as the scientist is tied by the results of the experiments; that you are not just saying what you like. This immediately helps them to realize that what is being discussed is a question about objective fact—not gas about ideals and points of view.(2)
It all depends on whether we start with what we have decided to be our greatest need or with the God in whose presence we discover needs we never knew we had.
If we begin with ourselves and our felt needs, we may have room for a spirituality that assists us in our self-realization and success in life, but the chief question will be how we can justify God in a world so obviously out of whack. If we begin with God—his holiness, justice, and righteousness as well as his love, mercy, and grace—then there will be a very different question: How can I , a sinner, be justified before this God? Describing his own process of conversion, Lewis explains, “I was the object rather than the subject in this affair. I was decided upon. I was glad afterwards at the way it came out, but at the moment what I heard was God saying, ‘Put down your gun and we’ll talk’…I chose, yet it really did not seem possible to do the opposite.”(3)
We do not “put down [our] gun” until we give up even on religion and spirituality as our way of ascending to heaven. We do not know what is relevant or of utmost concern until God’s word addresses us. Discourses on “modern man” may be occasionally interesting, says twentieth century German theologian Karl Barth.
But who and what [humanity] is before God, as the one addressed in His Gospel, is something which Narcissus as such cannot discover in any age for all the loving exactitude of his self-analysis, self-appraisal, and self-description, and something which he cannot accept even in his most ruthless sincerity. To know himself as the one who is intended, addressed and known by God in the Gospel, he must first be radically disturbed and interrupted in the work of self-analysis by receiving the Gospel of God. Then perhaps a posteriori he can see whether or how far in his self-analysis he was on the right track, or on one which was quite wrong.(4)
Like Charles Finney, Joel Osteen is less a pioneer than a clear example of a wider phenomenon. Even in circles that would not countenance the full-strength version of the prosperity gospel, Osteen’s emphases seem increasingly typical.
Topical sermons, focusing on improving our lives by following biblical principles, easily eliminate the offence of the cross, using the Bible for whatever we want to say, rather than proclaiming it as those who have been sent. In Osteen’s TV sermons (at least the handful I’ve seen) and best-selling book, we learn more about the preacher than about God. We hear more personal anecdotes than biblical exposition. We learn how God gave him a bigger house, a good parking space, gave him the best table in a restaurant, and a seat in first class. For anyone interested in the sociology of pampered American Boomers, Osteen is a valuable source. However, for anyone interested in knowing God in Jesus Christ as he is revealed in Holy Scripture, for anyone wanting to know how God saves sinners, for anyone who senses that there are more pressing issues in life than having their best life now, Osteen will surely disappoint.
1 C. S. Lewis, “Answers to Questions on Christianity”, God in the Dock (DATA), 58 [back to text]
2 C. S. Lewis, “Christian Apologetics,” God in the Dock, 91 [back to text]
3 C. S. Lewis, “Cross-Examination,” God in the Dock, 261 [back to text]
4 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/3.2, 803 [back to text]
Read other essays in this collection:
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This article is a part of a collection of essays written recently by Dr. Horton after his interview on 60 Minutes which aired on October 14, 2007.
© Westminster Seminary California All rights reserved
Permissions: You are permitted to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do NOT alter the wording in any way and you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred.