What does true happiness look like?
Is the concept of happiness even biblical?
I’ll never forget the trip I took to Jakarta, Indonesia, many years ago for a speaking engagement. If you’ve never been there, it has some of the worst smog of any city in the world. My eyes burned, and breathing was difficult after being there for only a short time. The traffic is notorious. Imagine Los Angeles and New York combined and multiply all of that by a factor of 10. The living conditions in many areas are deplorable.
I was sitting in the back of a luxury sedan that had been sent for me. Part of the route to my hotel went down a dirt road through a run-down section of Jakarta. Somewhere along that rutted, dusty path, the Lord spoke to my heart. “Look out the window.”
I saw about six boys in tattered clothes playing with dented Coke cans in a black pool of water. “Those poor kids,” I thought.
Until I saw the smiles on their faces.
Despite their circumstances, they were having a great time, floating their cans through the murky water.
As we rolled past them, I heard the Lord say to my heart, “I see their joy; what’s your problem?”
That moment has stuck with me. I wrestled for some time with the glaring contrast of those kids’ smiles against the backdrop of such dirty and desperate circumstances.
It would be easy to dismiss those kids’ happiness as nothing more than the innocence of youth. “They just don’t understand how bad they have it,” we might say. Maybe so. But I think the Lord was revealing something deeper to me that day.
It got me reflecting on what happiness really means. Some Christians distinguish between happiness and joy. “Happiness” is shallow and subject to our ever-changing circumstances while “joy” is considered a deep satisfaction that transcends our problems.
Author and theologian Randy Alcorn doesn’t agree.
He’s done an extensive study of happiness and says Hebrew and Greek words throughout Scripture often use “joy,” “gladness,” “merriment,” “happiness,” “delight,” and “pleasure” interchangeably. Their meanings are like circles that overlap.
Take, for example, the word so commonly translated in Scripture as “blessedness.” It originally meant “happiness.” When the King James Bible was written in 1611, people knew “blessed” was a synonym for “happy.”
That’s why Randy thinks the distinction between happiness and joy is a false one. Every human being seeks happiness because the desire for it is wired into our humanity. But doesn’t the idea of seeking happiness make you cringe a little? Somehow happiness just doesn’t fit with our image of what God is all about. We think of the “blessed” person as a holy, devout believer who has God’s favor on them because of their strict obedience. Holiness should be the goal, not happiness.
But what if instead of telling people not to seek happiness, we teach them to seek happiness in the right place – God Himself? What if the path to happiness is based in holiness because God is who He is and has done for us what He’s done for us?
And what about our circumstances? There are many, many people who are weighed down by life. They’ve got cancer. They have a family member who’s been in a car accident. Or their loved one has lost a job. The list of ailments we face is endless. How can we find happiness when truly awful problems conspire to pull us down?
That is a legitimate question we all must face and work through. I think the right starting place to answer it is here: there’s no need to pretend with God. We can cry out in our pain to the Lord with openness and honesty, just as David did in the Psalms.
But let’s also remember what Paul wrote in Philippians 4: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again, I say rejoice.” That profound truth, you’ll recall, was penned while he was being imprisoned in a dungeon.
There’s also Psalm 45:7 (also quoted in Hebrews 1) which references Jesus and says, “God has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.” Based on verses like that, we can rightly argue that Jesus was the happiest person who ever lived.
But Jesus was also known as the “Man of Sorrows.” Yet, even with the cross before Him, Jesus drew people to Himself. He not only had sorrow in His life, His state of mind was one of happiness – happiness in His Father, happiness in His Father’s plan of redemption, happiness in His relationship within the Trinity.
I think Scripture is asking us to reassess our true circumstances. What’s the true reality of who we are and the difficulties we’re facing if we’re a child of God? When we are able to reconcile those seemingly disparate realities, we’ll enjoy the true happiness found in Christ.
As lofty as these concepts appear, author and theologian Randy Alcorn is able to break them down into thoroughly biblical ideas we can understand and adopt in our lives. He’s with us on today’s broadcast, “Longing for Happiness,” to share from the extensive research he’s done on what the Bible teaches us about happiness.
I hope you’ll join us. I’m confident it will transform what you believe about happiness. You can hear the broadcast on your local radio station. Or tune in anytime online or via our free, downloadable mobile phone app.
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