Can I Be Holy Without Happiness?

Newly engaged, I was searching for a good book on marriage. I remember coming across one, commended as a modern classic, with this memorable question on the cover: “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than make us happy?”

Hmm. I didn’t like that way of framing it. Why pit holy against happy? Granted, it’s a “what if” teaser on the cover. Still, this didn’t seem like a worthwhile risk to me, even if the tagline was taking aim at a common idol in our generation.

Of course, at one level, I understand, and grant, that many people have a superficial definition of, and associations with, happiness. To the degree that “happiness” refers to our experiencing momentary, superficial, comfort-based, suffering-free, pleasant feelings — and requires no new birth — then yes, true holiness, on God’s terms, will often (if not relentlessly) be at odds with such “happiness.” However, I’m not ready to cede the word happiness to such thin, shallow assumptions. That is not what we find when we come to the Scriptures. Nor do we find a holiness in tension with true happiness. In fact, the two are tied together intimately.

Strange Notions of Holiness

Some of us, favored beyond words to be raised in Christian families and faithful churches, have needed to have our concept of holiness renovated after coming to genuine faith as teens or adults. Looking back, and being sober-minded, the fault was likely not our parents’ or our church’s (for many of us) but our own: we were dead in our sins (Ephesians 2:1, 5), alive in the flesh but lifeless in spirit; we needed to be born again. And when God made us alive in Christ (Ephesians 2:5), we began to see our Creator and his world with new eyes, and eventually also his holiness, and our call to be holy as he is.

The challenge to come awake to real holiness is not unique in our generation. Three hundred years ago, a young Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) encountered such a barrier, and found it, with God’s help, to be surmountable. Writing about the 16-year-old Edwards, biographer George Mardsen says,

Self-discipline had failed as much as it had succeeded. Self-examination was not encouraging either. As early as he could remember, he had resented much of the endless tedium of his parents’ teaching and discipline. Holiness seemed “a melancholy, morose, sour and unpleasant thing.” He did not find delight in lengthy church services. He still had a rebellious nature. He was proud. He had a difficult and unsociable personality, and he did not have signs of charity that were evidence of grace. He struggled with sexual lusts which, despite prodigious efforts, he could not wholly control. (Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 36)

Here Marsden surmises Edwards’s thoughts as a teen (in quotes) based an admission Edwards made later in life, when writing on “the beauty of holiness”: “We drink in strange notions of holiness from our childhood, as if it were a melancholy, morose, sour, and unpleasant thing” (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 13:163).

Edwards is not alone, in his generation or ours. Many of us, in our own unbelief, have imbibed “strange notions of holiness” that seem at odds with happiness, however thinly sliced and temporal our idea of happiness. Having been born again, we need to consider holiness afresh, starting with God’s own holiness, then ours.

Holiness Himself

Holiness begins with God. He is its epicenter. In fact, we might think of holy as an adjective for God himself. We would be hard pressed to take our bearings from any place better than Isaiah’s astounding glimpse of God in his holiness in Isaiah 6. In God’s presence, we overhear the seraphim call to each other, ascribing to God his infinite worth,

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:3)

Perhaps you’ve heard that God’s holiness refers to his otherness or separateness — that he is set apart from his creatures and their sin and their world. They are common; he is holy.

Otherness does get at an important aspect of God’s holiness, but it doesn’t include a vital dimension of what holiness is, as seen in the worship of the seraphim. When they say, “Holy, holy, holy,” they are not just crying, “Separate, separate, separate.” They call out in worship; they are praising God as holy, and delighting in him as holy. They are not disinterested. He is not just other, but good. The seraphim have seen and perceived God’s infinite intrinsic value and worth, and now declare, in the awe of glad worship, “Holy, holy, holy.”

And before the seraphim, and redeemed humans, see and perceive it, God himself perfectly sees and perceives his own value and worth. In other words, God is happy in himself. He is the blessed, happy God (1 Timothy 1:11; 6:15). As Edwards, having put away his formerly “strange notions,” came to see it,

God’s holiness is his having a due, meet, and proper regard to everything, and therefore consists mainly and summarily in his infinite regard or love to himself, he being infinitely the greatest and most excellent Being. (Works, 20:460)

“In Scripture, we do not find a holiness in tension with true happiness. The two are tied together intimately.”

At the heart of God’s own holiness is his perfect regard or love to, or happiness in, himself. Before God is holy with respect to his creation, he is holy with respect to himself — meaning he perfectly sees, perceives, enjoys, loves, and delights in own perfections as “infinitely the greatest and most excellent Being.” Far from holiness in God being in tension with his own blessedness or happiness, they are inextricably linked. The holy God is first and foremost happy in himself.

Heart of Holiness

What about “holiness,” then, in us, his creatures? Unavoidably, holiness refers to our living in this world, our words, our actions, and whether they accord with the value and worth of God. However, we should ask, What is the heart from which springs such external manifestations of creaturely holiness? The essence of holiness in redeemed humans is the heart that regards, loves, and delights in God according to his worth.

The process we call “sanctification” (meaning, to become more holy, to grow in holiness), writes John Piper, is “the action by which we bring our feelings and thoughts and acts into conformity to the worth of God” (Acting the Miracle, 36). Holiness in us, as God’s finite creatures, begins with our truly perceiving and duly prizing God’s excellence and value.

So, not only does true holiness give the greatest happiness, but happiness in God is the heart of holiness. As Piper says elsewhere, “Try to explain holiness without happiness, and you will fail. The essence of holiness is happiness in God.”

And holiness does not end, or stayed contained, in the human soul.

Holiness with Hands and Feet

Holiness also is to be lived in the world. The holiness that has its essence in our hearts is to be expressed and extended into words and actions that make God’s otherwise unheard and unseen value known to other humans. Just as God’s own happiness in himself “went public” in his creating the visible, audible, tangible world, so God means for our happiness in him to “go public” in his created world through our audible words and visible, fruitful lives.

True happiness in God is the heart of true holiness in us. And genuine holiness in us, soul and body, begins with souls happy in God, leading to bodily words and works that conform and testify to his worth.

Happy and Holy

Back to that book tagline that seemed to play off holiness against happiness. I wanted to ask, Why split friends into enemies? Why give place to that ancient scheme, that what God requires of his creatures must inevitably soil our happiness?

“To be truly holy in the world, we must be truly happy in God. And those truly happy in him will be holy.”

There is a kernel of truth we can acknowledge: God cares more about our holiness than the “happiness” that comes from mere temporal comforts. If our definition of “happiness” takes its bearings from secular society, as merely our experiencing momentary, superficial, comfort-based, suffering-free, pleasant feelings that require no new birth, then yes, God does indeed care more about our holiness than that. But I’m not ready to let the world have the word happiness without a fight.

When we see true happiness as deep, thick, enduring, God-rooted joy in God — dazzling in the radiance of the person and work of Christ — we find that such happiness, far from having nothing to do with holiness, is the heart of what it means to be holy. Which dispels our strange notions of holiness as melancholy, morose, sour, and unpleasant. Come, see holiness as beautiful, desirable, and wonderful.

True holiness in the world begins with true happiness in God. And those truly happy in him will be holy.