Such a question actually reveals a common mistake of pitting holiness and happiness against each other. “God is more interested in you being holy than happy,” so the line goes.
Some of my favorite theologians fall prey to this subtle dichotomy. And this includes one of the best thinkers I love (David Wells). In charity, and in much gratitude for everything I have learned from his writings, I’ll post a few paragraphs from his 2014 book where this tension arises, and I’ll make a friendly amendment later.
“By distancing holiness from happiness, we create a false dichotomy.”
In attempting to criticize the therapeutic definition of the faith in so many pulpits, he writes:
In this psychological world, the God of love is a God of love precisely and only because he offers us inward balm. Empty, distracted, meandering, and dissatisfied, we come to him for help. Fill us, we ask, with a sense of completeness! Fill our emptiness! Give us a sense of direction amid the mass of competing ways and voices in the modern world! Fill the aching emptiness within!
This is how many in the church today, especially in the evangelical church, are thinking. It is how they are praying. They are yearning for something more real within themselves than what they currently have. This is true of adults and of teenagers as well. Yes, we say earnestly, hopefully, maybe even a little wistfully, be to us the God of love!
Those who live in this psychological world think differently from those who inhabit a moral world. In a psychological world, we want therapy; in a moral world, a world of right and wrong and good and evil, we want redemption. In a psychological world, we want to be happy. In a moral world, we want to be holy. In the one, we want to feel good but in the other we want to be good. . . .
God stands before us not as our Therapist or our Concierge. He stands before us as the God of utter purity to whom we are morally accountable. He is objective to us and not lost within the misty senses of our internal world. His Word comes to us from outside of our self because it is the Word of his truth. It summons us to stand before the God of the universe, to hear his command that we must love him and love our neighbors as ourselves. He is not before us to be used by us. He is not there begging to enter our internal world and satisfy our therapeutic needs. We are before him to hear his commandment. And his commandment is that we should be holy, which is a much greater thing than being happy. . . .
It is true that there are psychological benefits to following Christ, and happiness may be its by-product. These, though, are not fundamentally what Christian faith is about. It is about the God who is other than ourselves, who is the infinite and gracious God.
Now it’s certainly appropriate to push back on culturally defined “happiness” (like consumer-centered materialism, sexual liberation, and self-centeredness in all its many forms). And it’s certainly right to push back on the idea that holiness is non-essential in the Christian life. And it’s certainly right to attack the idea of God as nothing more than a Santa Claus for our felt needs. God self-exists outside of us. He is the wholly pure Creator to whom all creatures will give an account.
But by distancing holiness from happiness we create a false dichotomy.
Happy or Holy?
When in doubt, glance at the Redwoods of the church: the Puritans. Two in particular can help us respond to the modern attempt to separate happiness from holiness so cleanly. For example, Thomas Brooks (1608–1680) authored a 450-page book under the apt title: The Crown and Glory of Christianity: Or, Holiness, The Only Way To Happiness (1662). It’s a massive defense of the interconnectedness of human happiness and holiness that runs on and on, point after subpoint, to make the case irrefutably clear from Scripture.
“Holiness differs nothing from happiness but in name,” Brooks boldly writes near the opening of the book. “Holiness is happiness in the bud, and happiness is holiness at the full. Happiness is nothing but the quintessence of holiness.”
“The soul’s true happiness is no incidental byproduct of holiness. True happiness is true holiness.”
Near the end of the book, he reiterates the point, “An absolute fullness of holiness will make an absolute fullness of happiness. When our holiness is perfect, our happiness shall be perfect; and if this were attainable on earth, there would be but little reason for men to long to be in heaven.”
Or we can cite the formidable Matthew Henry (1662–1714), a celebrated Bible scholar who saw the same thing. “Those only are happy, truly happy, that are holy, truly holy,” he wrote on Psalm 1:1–3, going so far as to write “goodness and holiness are not only the way to happiness but happiness itself.”
These Puritans knew it well. The soul’s true happiness is no incidental byproduct of holiness. True happiness is true holiness.
More recently, John Piper dialed in the point with an even finer adjustment in an Ask Pastor John episode: “Happiness is part of holiness,” he said. “If you tried to describe for me what it means to be a holy person, leaving out happiness in God, you can’t do it. There is no such thing as holiness minus happiness in God. Happiness in God is — I will risk it — the essence of holiness.”
But do the Scriptures support such claims about how inextricably intertwined holiness is with happiness?
The Psalms are incredibly helpful here. The Psalmists often address those who are “blessed” — and by “blessed,” they mean those who are “truly happy.”
So who are the blessed, the truly happy?
The truly happy are those who are, in some measure, truly holy, and it’s a theme that carries right through the Psalms in places like Psalms 1:1–2, 19:8, 32:8–11, 34:8–14, 40:4, 106:3, 112:1, 119:1–2, 22–4, 69–70, 143–4, 128:1–6.
But not only are holiness and happiness (or blessedness) joined in the Psalms; they get linked together in the Proverbs, and very tightly by Jesus in his Beatitudes (Matthew 5:2–12).
“At the core of our being, we don’t want to be happy or holy. We want to be happy-holy, like God.”
And preceding any possibility of finding true happy-holiness is the profound reality that our sins must be permanently and forever removed before a holy God. The beautiful reality of justification in Christ bridges the happy-holiness of the Psalmist and our forgiveness in Christ, by faith alone (Psalm 32:1–2, Romans 4:7–8).
However incompletely, Christians taste this true happy-holiness as we live out our union in Christ. In him, we find the inseparable organic connection between our obedience and our joy, between our pursuit of true holiness and our experience of true happiness (John 15:1–17).
The Happy-Holy God
So, at the core of our being, we don’t want to be happy or holy. We want to be happy-holy, like God. God is the fountain of joy and delight; he is a happy God, satisfied in his eternal self-delight, and this happiness is part of his glory (1 Timothy 1:11). And our glorious God is, at the same time, an awesome blaze of unpolluted holiness, revolted by all of man’s depravities (1 Timothy 1:8–10).
What, therefore, God has joined together, let no theologian separate.
The Choice We Face Today
In reality, our quest for happiness is driven by a primal urge, an urge as ancient as the first man and woman, an urge that predates postmodernism, modernism, the enlightenment, and Freud.
“What, therefore, God has joined together, let no theologian separate.”
Like every generation before, we face the same ancient choice, and it’s not a choice between happiness and holiness, but between two different quests for happiness (one evil, one holy).
Quest #1 is a pursuit of the happiness promised by the false securities and comforts and idols of our world, but turns out to be false lies that grieve.
Quest #2 is a true happiness found in God, a genuine delight in him, an eternal and unending treasuring of his glory and holiness above all else.
So there’s the key. The battle for this true holy-happiness is a daily spiritual battle for the faith to choose the right happiness.
To return to that same podcast episode, Piper well summarized the daily faith-battle of the happy-holiness: “When we say God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him, we are saying the essential warfare of holiness, or sanctification, is the warfare to be satisfied in God.”
There’s a weight of truth in that statement worth deep and long reflection.