Interview with

Senior writer, desiringGod.org

Audio Transcript

This week Randy Alcorn joins us on the phone. Randy, thank you for setting aside some time to sit in on the Ask Pastor John podcast for a few days.

Well, it is a pleasure, Tony, great to be with you.

Randy is a friend of ours, and a pretty well-known author. And his new book is titled: Happiness. It is encyclopedic. I love it. And, spoiler alert, Happiness will be my selection for the book the year for 2015 — for whatever that’s worth.

It is worth a lot to me.

Well thank you, Randy. It was a very easy choice for me. It’s just about everything you ever wanted to know about a Christian understanding of happiness, as told by Scripture and the long line of preachers and theologians in church history. I’m grateful for it.

Randy, as you know there’s a longstanding division in Protestant theology that goes like this: Happiness is a bubbly and superficial and circumstantial feeling that comes and goes. Joy is a deep-seated and enduring affection that endures. We see this in books and we hear this in sermons all the time. Joy and happiness are fundamentally different. You wrote your book to refute that discrepancy. So in summary fashion, how should Christians rightly think about happiness and joy?

I think the first thing we need to realize is that historically there was no such distinction in the church and in the English language. You simply look up a secular dictionary, say Webster’s Dictionary, and you will see joy defined as happiness and happiness defined as joy. They are synonyms. They have overlapping meanings. Biblically, I have asked people, “Could you show me any passage that suggests some contrast or even substantial difference between happiness and joy?” And there just is no such thing.

What I did was I used the Logos Bible software that we are both familiar with and I went through the Puritans and Spurgeon and Wesley and found the words “joy” and “happiness” used in close proximity within five, six, seven words of each other. I found again and again and again they were used synonymously — completely interchangeably.

Here are examples of that: Jonathan Edwards cites John 15:11, that Jesus’s joy might remain in you, to prove this point: “The happiness Christ gives to his people is a participation of his own happiness.” He didn’t have to say, “I actually mean joy.” Well, of course that is what he meant. And Richard Baxter said, “The day of death is to true believers of happiness and joy.” And William Law spoke of the happiness of a lively faith, a joyful hope.

Then there’s Spurgeon, who again and again, said, “The more often I preached, the more joy I found in the happy service.” And he said, “Despite your tribulation, take full delight in God, your exceeding joy this morning and be happy in him.” He started one sermon this way: “Oh, cheerful, happy, joyous people. I wish there were more of you. Let the uppermost joy you have always be Jesus Christ himself.” And then one other Spurgeon: “May you still come and then may your Christian life be fraught with happiness and overflowing with joy.”

So this is just a really recent thing that developed, and one of the first people I found who really spoke out against happiness and contrasted it with joy was Oswald Chambers. And I love Oswald Chambers. My Utmost for His Highest is a great book and so are other books that he wrote. But it is just pretty startling some of the things that he said that were so dramatically anti-happiness.

But if you look at different Bible translations, there is actually more than 100 verses in Scripture in various Bible translations. Now I am not talking about paraphrases like the Message, but actual Bible translations with teams of Hebrew and Greek scholars that are also English experts — and they use happiness and joy together in these 100+ verses.

For instance, in the NIV, “For the Jews it was a time of happiness and joy, gladness and honor.” (Esther 8:16). Or the Holman in Jeremiah 31:13: “I will turn their mourning into joy . . . and bring happiness out of grief.” Or the NLT: “Give your father and mother joy! May she who gave you birth be happy” (Proverbs 23:25). And there it is just all of these examples that go on and on. The New English Translation: “You, O Lord, have made me happy by your work. I will sing for joy because of what you have done” (Psalm 92:4). Or Psalm 32:11: “Rejoice in the Lord and be happy, you who are godly.”

And so it is just a really false affirmation that happiness and joy are fundamentally different. John Piper writes about this very thing: “If you have nice little categories — joy is what Christians have and happiness is what the world has — you can scrap those when you go to the Bible because the Bible is indiscriminate in its uses of the language of happiness and joy and contentment and satisfaction.” And Joni Eareckson Tada says similar things. She says, “Scripture uses the terms interchangeably along with words like ‘delight,’ ‘gladness,’ ‘blessed.’ There is no skill of relative spiritual values applied to any of these.”

I just think it is absolutely true and it is one of those things that we need to say. Look: Don’t talk of joy as this unemotional transcendent thing and happiness as this worldly thing, because when we do that, we are pushing people, who all seek happiness, away from the gospel. Scripture says it in both the ESV and the NASB translations of Isaiah 52:7 in the early context of the Messiah’s redemptive work, it calls the gospel: “the good news of happiness.”

Amen! Well said. And you yourself did the lexical work behind all this. How many Greek and Hebrew terms did you study?

I think there were about 22 primary Hebrew words and about 15 primary Greek words all interchangeable. I mean, it is just amazing. Especially in the parallelisms in the Psalms you have these different Hebrew words, sometimes four different Hebrew words for happiness or gladness used in the same verse. And it is just like we do in English if we say it is a bright, beautiful, sunny day. The sky is blue. We are not saying a bunch of different things. We are saying the same thing in different words.

You mentioned Oswald Chambers distinguishing happiness/joy, and it’s problematic. His impulse, and others, is to distinguish Christian joy from non-Christian happiness. If we use the same language, happiness and joy, how do we make this distinction between the joy of Christians and non-Christians?

Well, it is interesting that in Acts 14:17 the apostle Paul who is speaking to unbelievers, I think it was at Lystra, said of God, “He did not leave himself without a witness, since he did what is good by giving you rain from heaven and fruitful seasons and satisfying your hearts with food and happiness.” And some translations say “gladness.” They could say joy. But what he is saying is that in God’s common grace he gives provisions such as food and even happiness to unbelievers. So an unbeliever, being made in God’s image even under the fall and under the curse can have a certain taste of happiness.

So I think what Paul was doing was building a bridge to the gospel through identifying God as the universal source of happiness. But, yes, of course, there is a significant difference between the happiness of believers and unbelievers. David spoke of people whose reward is in this life in Psalm 17 and a number of the psalms. And Abraham spoke to the rich man in hell saying, “Remember that in your lifetime you received your good things” (Luke 16:25). And what he is saying there is: You had your opportunity, and God in his common grace gave you an experience of good things, including tastes of happiness. But they are over now that you have died, because God is the primary source of happiness and the world is full of secondary reference points of happiness.

But even the atheist when he takes a walk in the woods, sees the beauty, and just marvels at it — and he may in his own way celebrate the beauty and see a deer and just marvel at this — the happiness he is experiencing is coming from the hand of God. The fact that people don’t believe in God doesn’t change the fact that God is the only source of happiness. Tragically, however, if he dies in his atheism and he goes to hell, hell is the one place in the universe where God is not present, except in his wrath. And, as a result, he is cut off from happiness.

No God, no happiness. No God, no good.

David Murray, who we both appreciate, identifies six different kinds of happiness. He talks about nature happiness, social happiness, vocational happiness, physical happiness, intellectual happiness, and humor happiness. All of those in God’s common grace are available, except the final one which David calls “spiritual happiness.” He calls it a joy that at times contains more pleasure and delight than the other six put together. And that is the thing that you can’t have until your sins are forgiven and you are reconciled to God — you are made right with him.

That is why Psalm 32:1, using the Hebrew word asher, a very common word that means “happy,” says, “Happy is the man whose sins are forgiven.” And then in verse 2, “Happy is the one whose transgressions are not counted against him.” Now you are made right with God, you have a deep, reality-based happiness. It’s based upon the truth that you are made right with the happy God of Scripture who created you and wired you to be happy. But up until now, up until your sins are forgiven, you have been trying to satisfy your happiness and find it in all of these cul-de-sacs and dead-end streets. But now you truly found it in God.

And when you find it in God, then you can look at nature and have greater pleasure in it. It is what Lewis talked about with the first things and the second things. If you put the second things first, then you lose, in many ways, the value of those second things. But if you put the first things first, and the first thing is really the first person who is God, then everything else falls in place.

And as Chesterton said, the atheist sees beauty but has no one to thank, thus no one to be happy in.

Yes, exactly.


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