Early on, my Christianity was very duty-oriented. My grandfather lived duty at its best as a WWII vet, and my dad diligently taught me to do what life demanded, whether I wanted to or not. My heart and my happiness seemed second-best, at best, and in my latent unbelief, I assumed the same about Christianity. My ache to be happy, I suspected, was more a liability than an asset.
You too want to be happy, and you know it. Like me, you’re a hedonist at heart and can’t escape it. All your life you’ve been trying to satisfy some deep-down longing for real joy by finding that perfect spouse, enjoying good food and drink, knowing popular people, collecting reliable friends, traveling to scenic places, winning at athletic competitions (whether as a player or a fan), achieving success at school or work, and getting your hands on the latest gadgets. Our unsatisfied longings gnaw at us late at night as we scroll through social media and flip from channel to channel.
Most of us aren’t endlessly miserable. We find measures of satisfaction in the moment, but we don’t stay satisfied. We can’t. We still haven’t found what we’re looking for — at least not yet. Why did God hardwire us for joy? Why this universal search for satisfaction?
Surprised by Joy
I remember as a college freshman feeling a kind of fascination with joy. As a kid, we had sung, “I got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart.” Joy, when mentioned in church, often came off so light and flippant. And yet that one fruit of the Spirit’s nine (Galatians 5:22–23) connected most with my deepest longings for happiness I was just beginning to realize as a college freshman, living away from home for the first time.
My parents and home church had taught me I could trust the Bible, and that made all the difference. As a college student, in search of stability and roots on a secular (even anti-Christian) campus, I learned to get my bearings from the Bible, and when I opened its pages, I was amazed by what I found about joy and delight. It was the Psalms in particular that awakened me to the possibility and promise of real joy — that joy is no icing on the cake of Christianity, but an essential ingredient in the batter.
Soul-Thirsts for God
“Delight yourself in the Lord,” says Psalm 37:4 — and not just this command, but then this promise — “and he will give you the desires of your heart.” You mean God isn’t suspicious or frustrated by my desires? He made my heart to desire, and means to satisfy, not smote, my deepest longings?
And where will that happen? In him. “In your presence,” says Psalm 16:11, “there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Real joy comes not only from God as a gift of his hand, but in seeking his face. He himself — knowing him, enjoying him — that’s what he made my desires for. He made my restless human heart for real satisfaction — in him. He made my soul to thirst, and he meant for me not to deny my thirst but slake it, in him. “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1).
Again and again, the Psalms tapped into the soul of God’s people, discouraged the motions of mere duty, and highlighted the central place of the heart — both in honesty about our many sorrows in this life, and in hopefully commanding us to “rejoice in the Lord” (Psalm 40:16; 64:10; 97:12; 104:34; 105:3; 118:24).
To discover that my undeniable longing to be happy wasn’t just okay, but good, and that the God who made me actually wanted me to be as happy as humanly possible in him — it was almost too good to be true. Almost. To learn, and then begin to experience for myself, that God wasn’t the cosmic killjoy I had once assumed, but that he was committed, with all his sovereign energy and power, to do me good (Jeremiah 32:40–41) — it took weeks, even months, for such good news to land. And I’m still not over it today.
But better news was still to come.
All to the Glory of God
I knew from growing up that “the glory of God,” which often seemed like a throwaway Christianese phrase, was real — and important. Turning pages in my Bible, I found it everywhere, like 1 Corinthians 10:31: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
God made the world, and made us (Isaiah 43:7), that he might be glorified. It’s clear, and it creates a crisis for many Christians. Does God mean for us to pursue his glory or our joy? Are his honor and my happiness two tandem pursuits in the Christian life? If so, how do we pursue both?
Then came the most remarkable discovery, through reading John Piper’s Desiring God: our happiness in God glorifies God. God’s design to be glorified and my desires to be happy come together in one — not two — one amazing pursuit: the pursuit of joy in God. Because, as Piper champions, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”
We cannot suppress our new-born hearts and hope to fully honor God. He’s only partially honored by duty.
God Wants You to Be Happy
God is not honored when we pay tribute to our own iron will by saying to him in prayer or in church, “I don’t even want to be here, but I’m here.” No. What honors him, what glorifies him, is our joy, our satisfaction in him. God is most glorified when we say with the psalmist, “You are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you.” “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Nothing makes me happier than to know you, Father, through your Son, Jesus, and to be here with you over your word and in prayer and in corporate worship. You are my joy. You are my treasure. You are my delight. And in those words, and in the heart behind them, with my soul satisfied in him, my God is glorified.
Joy, then, in the Christian life is not optional but essential. God means for us to be happy in him — not perfectly yet, in this fallen, sinful age, but real tastes of the perfect joy to come — and in our happiness in him, he is honored. He is seen to be supreme when we enjoy him as supreme.
Some call it “Christian Hedonism.” Some just call it Christianity. This is how God designed it all along, and how the Bible taught it all along, and what you’ll see throughout church history if you have eyes to see it. And this is a pressing and powerful paradigm in our duty-driven day and increasingly post-Christian society.
Don’t try to escape it: God intentionally and lovingly hardwired you for joy. The powerful allure of pleasure, the search for satisfaction, your endless ache to be happy, the ceaseless factory of desires inside of you, is indeed leading you somewhere: to God himself.