Do you ever wish you could have a ‘redo’ on something? I could list many such experiences, but one that has haunted me for the past 16 years is my very first sermon.
Coming out of a lifestyle of rebellion and hedonism, I had recently encountered God’s grace through Jesus Christ in a powerful way. Wanting others to experience the love and forgiveness that I had tasted, I was passionate about telling others.
Sensing my zeal, an older gentleman approached me at church one Sunday about preaching a sermon for the residents at the local rescue mission. Regrettably, I accepted the invitation. While I was full of passion, I was operating at a deficit of Bible knowledge.
It was there in south Alabama on a Friday night in 2001, to an assembled congregation of people going through hard times, that I uttered these unfortunate, never-to-be-forgotten words: “God doesn’t care about your happiness! He only wants your holiness!”
I’ve spent the past 16 years discovering that those words are not true. Words like ‘joy,’ ‘gladness,’ and ‘delight’ occur over 500 times in the Bible. The books of Job, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs explore deeply the question of what constitutes The Good Life. The Bible doesn’t just discuss happiness; you really can’t understand its central message apart from the theme of happiness.
Personally, I’m relieved to find this topic so deeply explored in the Bible, because it’s a question that has occupied the heart of every man and woman since the beginning of time. Think about the movies, stories, and advertisements you have seen. Each one is offering some version of The Good Life, some answer to the question, “Where can happiness be found?”
The French philosopher Blaise Pascal made the following observation back in the 17th century: “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”
Contrary to what you might have heard from a zealous young preacher, the Bible majors on happiness and The Good Life.
However, there’s another mistake that is perhaps more common these days. Many people have no problem believing that God wants them to be happy, but then they make the fatal mistake of thinking they get to define happiness.
I call this “Genie Theology,” because this approach to God treats him like a divine genie who exists for no higher purpose than to grant human beings their wishes. Genie Theology is why we are witnessing sexual ethics being redefined in the name of Christianity. Genie Theology is also why it is common in the Bible Belt to encounter people who claim to follow Christ, yet deny that following Christ is supposed to make any noticeable difference in their life.
Yes, God wants you to be happy. But that’s only half the truth. If you stop there, you are liable to make serious errors. Instead, God wants you to be happy, and you have to trust him (and not yourself) to define what happiness is. This second part is the gamechanger. This is where many will choose to walk away.
When we open the Bible, we encounter a vision of The Good Life that is drastically different from anything else we’ve ever seen. In God’s Kingdom, it is better to give than to receive. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. If you want to be great, you must become a servant. Fulfillment comes through self-denial. It’s not the proud and powerful who are blessed, but the poor in spirit and the meek. It’s not the one hungering and thirsting after drink and food and sex who is satisfied, but the one who hungers and thirsts for righteousness.
When you really think about it, none of the things we think will make us happy ever do. They may temporarily bring some measure of satisfaction, but we always end up longing for more. The new house gets old, and the new job gets burdensome. The delicious meal only satiates for a few hours, and the sexual encounter leaves us empty and longing for more.
Into this life of perpetual dissatisfaction, Jesus speaks clearly to us, “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again” (John 4:14)? Do you really want to be happy forever? There’s only one place to find that. His name is Jesus.