The Myth of Perpetual Christian Happiness

Does God want you to be happy?

Before I can even get the question mark out, most Christians will resoundingly affirm that, “Yes, of course a loving God wants me to be happy!” It’s merely taken for granted in the modern understanding of an omni-affectionate God, that God’s highest pursuit would be my immediate happiness.

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So, the Willy Wonka meme is overplayed, and this is way snarkier than I’d ever say it. But…the point is nonetheless made.

And thus, when life inevitably comes crashing down as a fallen world fails us, we wonder what went wrong. After all, has God not said, For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jer. 29:11) This verse is the first in the catechism of modern Christian comfort. The great irony is that in this verse God is speaking to a people group who’ve lost everything. The exiles in Babylon that Jeremiah writes to have lost family members in a Babylonian siege, they’ve lost their homes, their careers, their financial assets, everything. They were not happy. They had no circumstantial reason to be. And yet, they were afforded hope, because God still loved them and sought a future of ultimate joy for them.

It reminds me of the ironic disappointment of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus. At one point, literally talking with a resurrected Jesus (unbeknownst to them), they expose their hearts by confessing, The chief priests and our rulers handed (Jesus) over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” (Luke 24:20-21) Allow me to paraphrase. They’re saying, “We thought Jesus was going to save us, but he just got crucified instead.” See, when you have a more sober biblical interpretation, you realize that Jesus, God’s Son, saved us precisely by getting crucified for us. But these disciples thought Jesus couldn’t save them, BECAUSE he got crucified. This suggests the Emmaus disciples were looking for a Messiah other than one that would save them from their sins. They were seeking a Messiah that would save them merely from some negative life circumstances. Every single one of us makes the same mistake.

Every one of us, as our first instinct, would identify something other than our own self-centered sin as the culprit trying to steal our happiness. “If I could just get ahead at work. If I can just get through school. If I could just get my finances in order. If I could just get this health problem taken care of. If I could just lose those last 5 lbs. If I could just get my husband to be a little more _________, THEN…”

Put differently, many modern Christians merely want a little “chicken soup for the soul” and “their best life now” and this quest for perpetual happiness in a fallen world is not only short-sighted and false, it’s unhealthy. I can prove it. If you were perpetually happy in a fallen, sinful world, you’d have to either be delusional or a sociopath.

For instance, people in the hospital who are loaded full of dilaudid, morphine, or oxycodone are typically happy, because things feel good. They’re also incapable of operating heavy machinery…because they’re delusional. They’re not in touch with reality. The situation hasn’t actually gotten better. Instead, their sensors of reality have been numbed. They’re temporarily insane and therefore don’t realize how bad certain things are. In a fallen world, it’s possible to impair yourself in such a way that you feel good much of the time. The exchange, however, is that you become proportionately out of touch with reality – DELUSIONAL. From a spiritual perspective, American excess is largely the legal, capitalistic self-medication of unhappiness. The American Dream itself is virtual reality.

On the other hand, if you realize how bad certain things are in the world, and yet you’re  still completely happy, you’re a SOCIOPATH. Let me put it this way – let’s say circumstances in your life are great, everything is going exactly the way you’d hoped for – great job, great marriage, great health, great friends – you’re perpetually happy. Wonderful. What about everyone else on the planet? If you are perfectly happy while other people are falling sick, starving, being oppressed, dying without Christ…then you’re a sociopath. You care for no one but yourself. A sociopath, by definition, is one who lack’s any social conscience. Consequently, this incessant quest for my own personal individual happiness is a self-centered and sinful illusion.

So, let me say it again very clearly: If you are perpetually happy in a fallen, sinful world, you’d have to either be delusional or a sociopath. If it isn’t obvious, neither of those is in step with a child of God.

The negative circumstances under which we suffer in this life are not really the things that enslave us and therefore are not worth all of our energy to attempt avoiding or escaping. They’re simply further evidence that we live in a fallen world. It means you and I were built for a bigger and better world.

The thing that really enslaves you and me is the sin that freezes our heart and clouds our judgment. Consequently, we don’t need a Messiah who makes circumstances in this world a little better. We need a Messiah who, by paying for our sins, redeems us to a new life entirely.

“He was crucified, but we thought he would redeem us.” (Luke 24:20-21 para.) Like Cleopas on the Road to Emmaus, when people fail to see the depth of their slavery to sin, they’re looking for a Messiah to help them feel a little better, who will improve their circumstances, not redeem them.

As a Christian, the grace and promises of Jesus Christ fuel me to a deep and unshakeable joy and optimism. A Christian grieves the problems of this world, but with a foundational hope underneath (1 Thess. 4:13). As one who has struggled throughout life with occasions of severe anxiety and depression, the gospel gives me an anchor to weather storms. The gospel has such buoyant force that it prevents me from hitting rock bottom. And yet, understanding that I’m a mere stranger in this world, a visitor, an ambassador for Christ in a deeply broken world, gives me the permission to not be happy all the time. And that’s actually quite liberating.

No, despite what I might say in the moment when you ask, I’m not always having a good day. But I’m also, in truth, never really having a bad day, because, in Christ, I have a constant awareness that a day is coming when “bad” won’t exist, in the presence of the Lord. And that allows me to be a real person right now.

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5 thoughts on “The Myth of Perpetual Christian Happiness

  1. Jen says:

    Thank you James! This was perfect timing for me as these days have not been happy.
    I was made for another world 🙂

  2. Gene says:

    We appreciated receiving the helpful and thoughtful blog. A slight variation of an old “rule” comes to mind which might be relevant: “If you think everything is wonderful you don’t understand the problem.” But as you point out there is a clearly reassuring side that gives us confidence.

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