There is so much tragedy in the world. Doesn't God want us to be happy?
Do what makes you happy,” we’re told. “You’ve got to make sure you’re happy. Your happiness is the most important thing.
In a 2006 article in Time magazine, journalists David Van Biema and Jeff Chu cited a Time poll that indicated that more than six out of ten Christians surveyed expressed a belief that God wants people to be prosperous. In the same poll, 17 percent of Christians said they considered themselves part of the “prosperity gospel movement”—an expression of evangelical religion that emphasizes God’s desire for our happiness and prosperity here on earth.1
This movement—known variously as Word of Faith, Health and Wealth, Name It and Claim It, and Prosperity Theology—affirms as its central tenet the belief that God loves us and wants us to be happy. He does not want us to experience suffering, illness, poverty, pain, or unhappiness.
An Unhappy World
What are we to make of this assertion? Does God want us to be happy above all else? Is that the goal God has for us in this world? Or does he have different priorities for human beings?
The claim that a powerful God most desires human happiness stands in stark contrast to reality. Just look at the billions of hungry and poor in our world. Think of those suffering from disease, addiction, and abuse.
Prosperity theology also runs counter to what is expressed in the Christian Scriptures (the Bible). Throughout the biblical narrative we read accounts of steadfastly faithful and pious men and women enduring incredible suffering. Sometimes their trials are merely the result of life in this world. But at other times, their tribulations are the direct result of their faithfulness to God.
In fact, the poetry and songs in the book of Psalms testify to just how “normal” it is for God’s people to face difficulties. Jesus himself suffered torture and death as part of his obedience to God and God’s plan. Biblical accounts simply do not ascribe “happiness” as the result, goal, or reward of faith.
More than Happiness
So what does God want for us? If not happiness, then what?
Biblical writers consistently affirm that God is more intent on the character of his people than on their comfort. God is more interested in the kind of persons we are becoming than our mere pleasure.
To put it another way, God is more focused on our lasting holiness than on our fleeting happiness. God is determined that the circumstances of our lives—including our struggles and pain—will be lovingly used to shape our lives to become more like that of his Son, Jesus Christ.
The apostle Paul, a major Christian figure who himself suffered immensely for his faith—we’re talking imprisonment, torture, and deprivation2—wrote to his friends these words about the “unhappy” experiences in his life: “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”3
Paul does not dwell on his suffering; he recognizes that times of hardship refine us, shaping us into people of perseverance, character, and hope. More than that, Paul makes it clear that hard times do not mean God has ceased to love us or care about us. On the contrary, God is lovingly using these experiences to mold us into people who more fully reflect his own love to the world.
In fact, Paul continues:
We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him. . . . For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.4
This is not to say that God causes pain in the lives of his children, but rather that he uses our pain and struggles for our own good. Our experiences are neither wasted nor pointless.
At one level this makes perfect sense. If we are genuinely interested in developing a more solid character—being more loving, gentler, kinder, more patient, stronger—then we must admit that such traits are not developed in easy, comfortable times. Such virtues are born of the personal and spiritual growth done in hard times. We learn little when life is easy—when we’re “happy.”
Yet that learning does not happen without effort. It would be just as easy—if not easier—to emerge from difficult experiences as a bitter person rather than as a better person. It is our dependence on the grace and love of God during such times that makes them formative in our lives rather than destructive.
Does God then want us to be “unhappy”? No. In fact, biblical vocabulary offers several alternatives to which “happiness” pales in comparison.
For example, Jesus promised his disciples something much deeper than happiness: through their faith in Jesus and endeavor to remain in his holy love, the disciples would experience complete, full joy.5
As Paul endeavored to live a holy life in relationship with God—and suffered greatly as a result—he found contentment in life. From a prison cell in Rome he wrote, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through [Christ] who gives me strength.”6
Some of the most joyful, contented people I have ever met have been followers of Jesus who understood that despite the circumstances of their lives, they were truly blessed. They bore wounds from life experiences but knew God’s love nevertheless. And they would not consider exchanging their “holiness” for mere “happiness” even if they could.
Similarly, it is easy enough to find men and women who seem to have everything in the way of material comfort—what the world says should make them happy—but who lack the abiding sense of contentment that authentic happiness provides. I have to wonder whether they would consider a trade.
“[God] has saved us and called us to a holy life,” Paul said, “not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace.”7 Pursuing this holiness grants us something much more lasting than temporary, earthly happiness. We will receive eternal life in communion with God. Our emotions are fickle; our happiness fleeting. But eternity with God is invaluable.
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us,” wrote Paul.8 Earthly happiness is not the ultimate objective; eternity with God is the supreme goal.