From time to time we hear people say things like, “I know God wants me to be happy.” Some TV preachers make similar statements, declaring with broad smiles that since we’re God’s children, He wants us to be happy, frequently interpreted to mean we can have and do anything we want.
But is happiness really God’s primary goal and desire for us?
This came to mind while reading the online journal of a friend who has waged a lifelong battle with Cystic Fibrosis, a debilitating, genetic disorder that affects the lungs primarily but also other organs. There is no cure for CF, and it’s one of the most widespread life-shortening genetic diseases around the world.
David, who has far exceeded doctors’ projections for his lifespan, often speaks about the joy of the struggle he and his family have experienced. It’s noteworthy, however, that he rarely uses the words “happy” or “happiness.” Because the difference between joy and happiness is almost as dramatic as night and day.
Much of what David’s had to endure in his treatments have not made him, his wife or children happy. Despite all that hardship – and there’s been a lot of it – they have never lost their joy.
Joy, especially for followers of Christ, comes from within. It involves emotion, but is based more on enduring faith and trust in God rather than external events. It can enable us to experience peace and comfort even in the midst of severe difficulties. That’s why we’re exhorted to, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2).
Happiness, however, is largely predicated on happenings. I can feel happy about getting a new car, but if someone backs into it in the mall parking lot, my happiness suddenly disappears. If I receive a promotion and a sizable salary increase at work, I feel happy. But if I return home and discover major repairs are needed, consuming my pay raise and more, then as the Everly Brothers used to sing, “bye-bye happiness.”
So what does the Bible say about this? In some Bible translations the word “blessed” is translated “happy.” But this doesn’t describe a state of perpetual bliss. In fact, Psalm 94:12, which says, “Blessed is the one you discipline, Lord, the one you teach from your law,” has also been translated, “Joyful are those you discipline” and “Lord, happy is the man you discipline….” How often do we feel happy when undergoing some form of discipline?
Another passage, Psalm 1:1, states, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked…” but also can be translated, “How happy is the man who does not follow the advice of the wicked….” In many cases, the alternate uses of “blessed” and “happy” seem directly related to one’s willingness to obey and uphold God’s laws and standards.
This isn’t to say God is opposed to seeing us happy. He doesn’t frown when we listen to a comedian who provokes us to belly laughter. God’s not annoyed when we enjoy a nice vacation, get that hoped-for new job, earn good grades, or even receive an unexpected gift. He just wants us to maintain a proper perspective, recognizing life isn’t always happy – or fair.
As King Solomon wrote, “When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, no one can discover anything about their future” (Ecclesiastes 7:14). The New Living Translation expresses it this way: “Enjoy prosperity while you can, but when hard times strike, realize that both come from God. Remember that nothing is certain in this life.”