“I know you don’t believe me, but I do not need Christianity to be happy. I am happier than most Christians I know.” Looking up from his coffee, he smiled and assured me, “I am glad you found happiness in Jesus, but I am quite content without him. I have found my path to happiness, and I am glad you have found a different one. We stand at the same end, it would appear.”
I did not know what to say.
I knew how to share the Joy of the world to the discontent, the miserable, the downcast, but I stood perplexed at this man who told me, in no uncertain terms, “I do not need Christ to be happy.” Wasn’t his heart restless until it found its rest in him? He assured me it wasn’t. Didn’t he have a God-shaped hole in his heart? He swore that he didn’t. And what was more, he truly seemed to be, as far as I could tell, happy.
I knew Jesus was a Comfort for those who mourned, a Light to those in darkness, a North Star to those who wandered the world without hope. I didn’t know what he was to those happy enough in their own way.
Can Unbelievers Be Truly Happy?
I wish I could go back and talk with this man. Instead of trying to convince him, for hours on end, of his unhappiness, all so I could then share Christ with him, I wish I would have spoken the way Paul did when he addressed those he found in Lystra.
He [God] did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness. (Acts 14:17)
Paul did not address the downtrodden, the depressed, the poor in spirit. Here, he addressed those who ate, drank, and when tomorrow came, died. Those with food and happiness enough not to alert them to their spiritual starvation. To such as these, Paul did not start by handing out prescriptions for happiness they didn’t feel they needed. He knew he spoke to a people that I was unfamiliar with: the happy heathen.
Paul says that God satisfied their hearts with food and gladness. Gladness. The only other place in the New Testament where this word appears is in Luke’s citation of another well-known verse: “You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence” (Acts 2:28; citing Psalm 16:11). In Psalm 16, God’s Fatherly presence to his children gives one kind of heart-gladness (a full, everlasting, permanent kind), but his food and common-grace-goodness bestows another. Both are real.
God Makes His Enemies Smile
God allows his enemies to smile. Have you wondered at this?
God allows those who ignore him, reject him, despise his glory, and belittle his name to breathe his air, feast on his food, swim in his waters, hike in his forests, ski on his mountains, laugh, sing, and dance on his lands. He has not yet evicted them. He has not taken back his bread from their plates nor his air from their lungs. Rather — and note the benevolence of the God of the universe — he “gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25).
No good and perfect gift comes down from any other hand but his (James 1:17). He is an abundantly gracious God, even to his enemies. The God constantly sneered at and ignored “makes his sun rise on the evil.” Almighty God “sends rain . . . on the unjust” who despise his glory (Matthew 5:45). This kindness makes angels sing of his mercy and patience.
Gifts Without Gratitude
The man that I spoke with took these gifts from God, enjoyed them, and refused to say thank you.
Man is the only creature other than fallen angels to pay God back so basely. God opens his hand and satisfies the desire of every living thing (Psalm 145:16). He opens his hand to eagles in their treetops, to antelope on the plains, to fish in the sea and flowers of the field. They declare his glory and groan for his return (Romans 8:19–23).
But men and devils do not. Devils contemplate the return of God saying, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” (Matthew 8:29). And men look their fellow men in the eye and say they have no need of Christ; indeed, who is Christ that he should be obeyed? God opens his hand to this creature — best positioned to return to him gratefulness and love — and he will not bother to look up. He does not honor him, nor does he return him thanks (Romans 1:21).
I wish I would have shared with this man how his reasons for happiness — family, friends, health, good food, good drink, good sports — were not just “how things were.” I wish I would have bid him to consider how God watches him, day in and day out, parade about with his gifts while discounting his person.
What Our Pleasures Testify
Instead of telling him that I was sure he is really unhappy somewhere deep down, or trying to debate him as to whether he feels his God-sized hole (which he still has), what should I have told him?
I should have explored all his reasons for happiness, and then told him plainly that these were all gifts from God meant to lead him to God. And that, furthermore, his failure to do so was already a serious crime that must be atoned for, and thus he must be led to Christ, God’s greatest gift to the world. Sin, not just his psychological experience of joy, gave Jesus utmost relevance to him. He had a sin problem, if not a felt joy problem. He stood not only a branch withering apart from the Vine; he stood a branch prepared for the fire (John 15:6).
Paul told the happy heathens that God had not left himself without witness to both his existence and his goodness. And what was this witness’s testimony? Repent. “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4). Beautiful families whisper, repent. Enjoyable careers urge, repent. Sunsets in vacation selfies cry, repent. All of these declare that God is good, benevolent, and patient with his enemies, and that he calls them to turn away from sin and to forgiveness found in Christ.
Word to Happy Heathen
If I could go back to talk with this man, I might say something like the following.
The Christian faith is not merely about man’s happiness, although God gives more joy than you can now imagine. Christianity addresses how sinful men, women, and children can be reconciled to their Creator and live happy lives for his glory. God has placed good gifts to summon you to see God’s ultimate gift: his Son, Jesus Christ. He came to save a people he didn’t have to save. To live a life we couldn’t live. To die the death we deserved to die. And to rise, summoning all everywhere to turn away from their sin, and trust in his finished work on the cross for sinners.
The smartphone in your pocket has everything to do with this God. The music massaging your ears, the colors jumping before your eyes, the gladness of heart and the love you feel are kindnesses from God with one message upon their lips: “Repent and believe.”
Instead of justifying a life apart from God, substituting the gifts for the Giver, the gifts of great joy are given to lead to the Giver. His multi-varied kindnesses, his overwhelming patience, his forbearance give room for faith. Even now he beckons. Even now he invites. Come, heed the message in every good gift of God’s perfect gift — Jesus Christ — and live.