God is a joyful God. In His presence is fullness of joy, and at His right hand are pleasures forever more (Psalm 16:11). The joy of the Lord is our strength (Nehemiah 8:10). The kingdom of God is about righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17). God is not a choice between joy/happiness and holiness. He is not either/or about it; He is both/and. Nobody is truly happy apart from holiness, and a person who is living holy but has no joy in it is doing it wrong. Joy is, as C. S. Lewis said, “the serious business of heaven.”
No doubt, in times of hardship, it can be difficult to be happy — or to live holy. Yet the choice God calls us to make is not between happiness and holiness. It is the choice of happiness through holiness, to know the supernatural joy of the Lord and to experience, as Mike Bickle puts it, “the superior pleasures of loving God.”
Neither holiness nor happiness are necessarily instantaneous. There is an initial sanctification in which God sets us apart for Himself as His own people, and this it what it means to be “holy” — to be “set apart” for God. The Christian life is a life of discipleship, learning what it means to be holy and how to live that out. Christian discipleship, then, is a process of growing in holiness — but also in happiness. “God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness,” Paul says (1 Thessalonians 4:7) — but in the same latter in which he also says, “Rejoice always!” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
Sometimes Christians have excused behavior they know to be unholy with the excuse “God wants me happy.” But the way to correct that error is not by suggesting that God is indifferent or may not want us to be happy after all but, rather, by telling the truth about holiness and happiness: God wants us to be both holy and happy, and the way to happiness is through holiness.
Often enough, I have heard Christians talk down on happiness, saying that God wants you to be holy, not happy — and as I consider their disposition, sometimes I think they really do believe that God does not want them happy! That way of thinking puts happiness and holiness in competition. But the truth is that they are not. God speaks often of happiness in the context of holiness. For example, notice how the book of Psalms opens. It sets the tone for the rest of the psalms:
Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and who meditates on his law day and night. (Psalm 1:1-2 NIV)That is about divine happiness — it is an exclamation: “O the happiness!” or “O the bliss!” It is not about the fleeting thing that the world (the wicked, the sinners, the mockers) reach after and call “happiness,” but which turns out to be a pocketful of lint. It is about the joyful, godly life that God has for us, even in the here and now.
Those who do not understand holiness do not really understand happiness. And those who live holy lives yet are desperately unhappy have not adequately understood holiness. Holiness is a life of intimate fellowship with God, in all weathers. So is happiness.
What I mean by happiness is contentment, peace and joy. No doubt, the culture around us often gets it wrong. But I’m not giving up the word “happiness” for that reason. Rather, I want to show people the way to true and lasting happiness. Because what the world is really seeking is contentment, joy and peace — which is happiness, and what God longs for them all to have. They’re just looking for it in all the wrong places.