I talked with a young woman who viewed the Christian life as one of utter dullness. She knew that following Christ was the right thing to do, but she was certain it would mean sacrificing her happiness.
Where did this young woman, who was raised in a fine Christian family and church, acquire such an unbiblical notion? What are we doing—what are we missing—that leaves many of our children and our churches laboring under such false impressions? Why do we think it would be unspiritual for the Christian life to be centered on what God calls the good news of happiness (Isaiah 52:7)?
Celebration and gladness of heart have characterized the church, including the suffering church, throughout history. Scripturally, the culture of God’s people is one of joy, happiness, gratitude, eating and drinking, singing and dancing, and making music. It’s not the people who know God who have reason to be miserable—it’s those who don’t.
Unfortunately, children who grow up seeing church as a morose, hypercritical place will turn their backs on it in their quest for happiness. Those who have found happiness in the church, and ultimately in Christ, will usually stay or return.
If we want our children and grandchildren and future generations to seek God as the answer to their deepest longings, we must teach them the foundational truth that He is by nature happy. They need to see that the God who brings them the Good News really can (and longs to) “change their sadness into happiness” (Jeremiah 31:13, NCV).
When we understand that the God of the Bible is both happy and powerful enough to overcome our greatest grief and suffering and to give us cause for eternal happiness, Satan’s arguments against trusting God will lose their power.
Sadly, few churches teach that God is happy—or wants us to be happy. We are unintentionally silencing the biblical revelation of one part of God’s nature, at great loss to the church, families, and individuals.
I believe it’s vital that we not leave our children and future generations of Christians to figure out for themselves that God is happy. Most never will. How can they, unless their families and churches teach them and demonstrate God-centered happiness in their own lives? We need to tell them that sin, suffering, shame, and unhappiness are temporary conditions for God’s people. We’ll once and for all be righteous, healthy, shame free, and happy. Once we’re in His presence, we’ll never again experience the anger, judgment, and discipline of God we see in Scripture (all of which are appropriate and important, but even now do not nullify His happiness or love).
What if our children and grandchildren learned from childhood that to know God is to know happiness—and to not know Him is misery that propels us to search for happiness where it can’t be found?
What if, without having to explore the world’s sin, as Augustine did, they could understand his prayer after his conversion: “There is a joy that is not given to those who do not love you, but only to those who love you for your own sake. You, yourself, are their joy”?[i] What if they understood Augustine’s words, “They who think there is another, pursue some other and not the true joy”?[ii]
What if our children saw in our families and churches a breadth of Christ-centered, ultimately optimistic happiness and were taught that this happiness originates in God, not the world? How might it fulfill these words: “That the generation to come might know, even the children yet to be born, that they may arise and tell them to their children, that they should put their confidence in God” (Psalm 78:6-7, NASB)?
Imagine if our churches were known for being communities of Jesus-centered happiness, overflowing with the sheer gladness of what it means to live out the good news of great joy! And what if when our families left church and went to school, work, restaurants, and musical and dramatic performances, they didn’t feel they were walking away from God but toward the same happy God they’ve been worshiping?
Envision how contagious the doctrine of God’s happiness could be if taught and grasped and lived out. What if we really believed the gospel doesn’t just offer us and our children and our communities and our world what we need but offers us what, in the depths of our hearts, we want?
What if when suffering came, we faced it with an underlying faith that erupted into genuine gladness and thanksgiving? What if instead of looking away or being paralyzed by the needs of this world, we—with humility and gladness—reached out to intervene for the hungry, the sick, the unborn, the racially profiled, and the persecuted? Wouldn’t our children be less likely to leave the Christian faith, push away church as a bad memory, and pursue the world’s inferior happiness substitutes that will ultimately destroy them? I’m not talking about contrived happiness as a pretense or a strategy for church growth, but the genuine happiness that naturally flows from God and the gospel.
Jonathan Edwards said, “It is of infinite importance . . . to know what kind of being God is. For he is . . . the only fountain of our happiness.”[iii] Sadly, some imagine that following Christ boils down to, “Just say no to happiness!” My hope and prayer is that we can counteract that misconception in our families and churches with a biblical doctrine of happiness, built upon the happiness of God. May we teach them that “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).
[i] Augustine, Augustine’s Confessions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 52.
[ii] Augustine, The Confessions of Saint Augustine (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1900), 255.
[iii] Jonathan Edwards, “The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth,” Select Sermons.