How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” ~ Isaiah 52:7
I remember the first time I visited Africa to teach at the International Bible College of Zambia, a group of freshmen from neighboring Malawi arrived with smiles on their faces. They came to the college genuinely happy, after all they were going to spend the next four years learning the Bible and learning more about Jesus so they could take the gospel to their villages, cities, homes, neighbors, schools, etc. What us teachers didn’t know at the time and found out later was that these freshman not only had had a long journey, but had been harassed by the guards at the border crossing. Men with governmental authority and guns stole half their luggage and an equal portion of their money. Even if the students had protested, who would listen?
It would be easy to be dejected and angry, and who could blame them? After all, many of these students were poor to begin with. What they had brought with them was essentially all they owned, and they needed that money for student visas in order to study.
But dejected and angry, they were not.
You see, they had a greater purpose: to know, worship, and follow Jesus. And they trusted that the one who had saved them from the despair of sin could take care of them even when corrupt men treated them poorly. So, they arrived at the college with smiles, happy for the opportunity to learn about Jesus.
Back home, we have plenty; in fact, we have an abundance. Furthermore, we have insurance to cover our abundance so if anyone tries to rob us and rip us off we can receive back similar items. The system doesn’t always work perfectly, but it works. We don’t have to travel long and face dangers. We are free to worship, know, and follow Jesus.
Yet, we tend to be miserable.
Recently a person commented about a church member under my care as pastor: “She seems happy in her unhappiness.” I wish such a statement was limited in scope, but the simple fact of the matter is that many of us seem happy in our unhappiness. Just look at blogs and the comments that follow. Some of us seem to thrive on anger, contention, or passive aggressiveness.
Statistics tell us that pastors do not hold the keys to happiness. Many struggle with depression—some of those stories have even been shared here. In some cases, brain chemistry corrupted by the fall is partially to blame. In other cases it is stress and pressure from our work (ministry) environments. And still in other cases it is our own failings of being happy in our unhappiness.
I’ve heard the line before and I’ve quoted the line before: God is more interested in your holiness than your happiness. I suppose if the two were set apart as being mutually unattainable that might be true. If it comes down to the choice between being holy and being happy, then by all means choose holy. It is better to enter into life with one eye than to have your whole body cast into the fires of hell.
But… God does not present the two as mutually exclusive. In Isaiah 52:7, the prophet refers to the gospel or good news as the “good news of happiness.” Psalm 37:4 exhorts us, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Now it is true that God has no desire for us to achieve a passing and fading happiness in the sinful wrecks of the world, no matter how bright, shiny, and brilliant they may look in the moment. However, God indeed desires us to be happy.
He is the Father, the great provider. What father does not want his sons and daughters to find happiness in the good things he provides them? Our happiness comes from delighting in God and the pleasure of the things he provides.
My own natural switch causes me to tend more towards melancholy than joy. The older I become, the more I realize this nature is not how God intends for me to live in Christ. John Piper’s Christian hedonism is starting to make more sense. In Desiring God, Piper included an appendix on fighting for joy, some of his ideas I will include below.
But before we get there, I want to make one more comment on happiness:
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad. Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negeb! Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him. ~ Psalm 126
The happiness of God’s people stands as a witness. In Christ, our fortunes are restored—we have the grace of salvation that is greater than all the possessions of the world. One day, with Christ, we will possess the world—a new world, perfect and without a single stain of sin. If we understand the greatness of grace against the depth of our sin, then our mouths should be filled with laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy. And in such happy celebration, the world takes notice.
Our happiness is a part of our witness.
What good does it to tell people about the good news of happiness if we can’t seem to find happiness in it? “What good news? You’re miserable,” they’ll reply, and they’ll be right. God desires our happiness, so let’s be happy in him.
For those who struggle with such joy, let us find help in Piper’s outline of fighting for joy:
1) Realize that authentic joy in God is a gift (Galatians 5:22).
2) Realize that joy must be fought for relentlessly (2 Corinthians 1:24, 1 Timothy 6:12).
3) Resolve to attack all known sin in your life (Romans 6:11-13).
4) Learn the secret of gutsy gilt: how to fight like a justified sinner (Micah 7:8-9).
5) Realize that the battle is primarily a fight to see God for who he is (Psalm 34:8, 1 John 3:2).
6) Meditate on the Word of God day and night (Psalm 1:1-2).
7) Pray earnestly and continually for open heart-eyes and an inclination for God (Psalm 90:14, 119:18).
8) Learn to preach to yourself rather than listen to yourself (Psalm 42:5).
9) Spend time with God-saturated people who help you see God and fight the fight (Hebrews 3:12-13, Proverbs 13:20).
10) Be patient in the night of God’s seeming absence (Psalm 40:1-3).
11) Get the rest, exercise, and proper diet that your body was designed by God to have (1 Corinthians 6:20).
12) Make proper use of God’s revelation in nature (Psalm 19:1).
13) Read great books about God and biographies of great saints (Hebrews 12:1, 13:7).
14) Do the hard and loving thing for the sake of others—witness and mercy (Isaiah 58:10-11).
15) Get a global vision for the cause of Christ and pour yourself out for the unreached (Psalm 67).
. John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2003), 352-64.