Happiness is big, and perhaps it’s always been big. Its pursuit is enshrined in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. The comic strip Peanuts told us happiness was a warm puppy. Before it was a common expression, “Don’t worry, be happy” started life in 1988 as a song by Bobby McFerrin that went to No. 1 on the charts. The most popular course today at Yale University is one on happiness. I even knew of a Christian who justified leaving her husband and family for another man because “God wants me to be happy.” Yes, happiness is a major cultural idea.
Yet try finding the concept of happiness in the Bible. The word “happy” as translated in the King James version of the Bible is actually better translated as “blessed,” and more contemporary translations use “blessed.” God never promised happiness, at least as we understand it in human terms. He promised a lot of other things – grace, forgiveness, salvation, protection – but not happiness, at least as we understand it in popular culture. He did, however, promise joy, and joy in all things and circumstances.
In Can I Have Joy in My Life?, the late R.C. Sproul considers this promise of joy, and suggests that joy can be found not only when life is good but also when one is experiencing hardship, suffering, and difficulties.
Joy is not only an attitude or a way of thinking; it is a quality of our existence as believers. It can be found in all things, Sproul says, including pain, suffering and loss. He suggests that the idea of happiness is more aligned with what benefits ourselves and our own circumstances, while joy is what benefits others. It is not self-directed but other-directed. The source of our joy is “the assurance we have in redemption in Christ,” he says, and the knowledge that our name is written in the Book of Life.
Until his death in December of 2017, Sproul led Ligonier Ministries, based in Sanford, Florida. He wrote numerous books, articles, sermons, and speeches on Christianity, church history, theology, Calvinism, Reformed theology, and related topics. The Crucial Questions series now includes some 30 topics which are free as eBooks, and volume on conscience is a part of the series.
We live in a time and culture that prizes happiness to such a degree that we willingly sacrifice what matters. Instead, as Sproul writes, we should consider joy, for joy in our lives will accomplish far more than any transient idea of happiness.
Top photograph by Julia Caesar via Unsplash. Used with permission.
It's interesting. Randy Alcorn has written a large volume called Happiness in which he argues against the idea that joy and happiness are two different, separate concepts. Instead, he argues that God does want us to be happy, but we are akin to the C.S. Lewis quote about children playing with mud pies or sand or whatever while we fail to experience the complete picture of the grand joy/happiness that God has for us in Christ. Anyway, I would recommend Alcorn's book to complement this one. It does come down to arguing semantics to some extent, but nevertheless Alcorn has a lot of good things to say.
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