What If They’re Happy Without God?

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Author, Questioning Evangelism

How do we witness to happy people?

Telling miserable people that Jesus can meet their deepest needs seems easy compared to warning satisfied people about the wrath to come. I’m talking about people who, from all outward appearances, seem just fine without God. They don’t appear to feel guilt or shame about anything. They don’t seem to long for something transcendent to add meaning to their lives. They don’t mind sleeping in on Sunday morning and lingering leisurely over brunch. In fact, they look forward to it.

We could try to convince them that, deep down, they’re really not that happy. But I don’t recommend that tactic. To be sure, we do have biblical warrant for telling unhappy people there is something else — Someone else! — that can really satisfy them. I call this “misery-based apologetics.” Jesus modeled this for us when he told the woman at the well, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13–14).

But when people don’t seem all that miserable, it’s hard to get them to feel something we think they should feel.

Meet the Relatively Happy

Despite our best efforts, we rarely convince people that their lives really do stink. I imagine the frustrating interchange between a Christian and a happy non-Christian might sound like this:

Aren’t you looking for something more in life?

Like what?

Meaning, purpose, fulfillment, y’know. Stuff like that.

Not really. I really like my job right now, and my girlfriend and I are doing really great. Did I tell you we’re going to Maui next month?

Well, okay. But those kinds of things don’t really last, do they?

That’s okay. Hawaii’s got other islands.

But don’t you ever wonder if there’s more to life than just temporal things?

I used to. But I haven’t lately.

Isn’t there a God-shaped vacuum inside you?

What in the world are you talking about?

Don’t you think life will someday become unhappy?

Perhaps, if we keep talking.

Misery-based apologetics can work well — with unhappy people. But we also need “joy-based apologetics” for people on the other side of the emotional spectrum.

Joy-Based Apologetics

The apostle Paul modeled “joy-based apologetics” when he proclaimed good news to pagans in Lystra and Derbe, as recorded in Acts 14. Having seen Barnabas and Paul heal a crippled man, the crowd bowed down and worshiped them, calling them Zeus and Hermes. The evangelists would have none of it. They told them to “turn from these vain things to a living God” (Acts 14:15), claiming they were bringing them “good news.” We can learn much from what they said next. They pointed to good gifts as reflectors of good news.

“He [God] did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” (Acts 14:17)

Do you see what they’re saying? They’re drawing on the doctrine of common grace and Jesus’s teaching that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). They’re telling people to look at the joy they have in their hearts and ask who or what might be behind that.

They’re affirming that unsaved people can actually have joy in their hearts. I know we might bristle at that and want to insist that every non-Christian deep down really groans in conscious misery. But that’s just not the case, and Paul and Barnabas recognized that.

Reasoning from Gift to Giver

Many non-Christians view Christianity as a happiness-killing religion. They think most Christians are miserable, and they don’t want to be like them. Evangelical Christians, in particular, are often known more for what they’re against than what they’re for. We can surprise non-believers in thought-provoking ways by talking about the joys we share in common with them, just as Paul and Barnabas did. I particularly love the fact that food can be a pre-evangelistic prop. While savoring a meal together, we can emote, “Isn’t food delicious!” and marvel that God made the world with seemingly infinite culinary variety.

Or we can talk about other blessings that flow from God’s common grace — natural beauty in the physical world, joyous relationships that bring intimacy and pleasure, aesthetic delights such as art and music that celebrate creativity. We can highlight displays of human kindness that stand out in our polarized world, making us wonder if we all do share a common humanity, placed on the same planet by the same Creator.

Lesser Pleasures Are Pointers

At some point after these potential starting points, we can turn the conversation more specifically toward the gospel. There’s more to life than just temporal happiness. It’s not that temporal happiness is bad or sinful. (Well, some of it certainly is.) But these momentary pleasures are pointers, not ends. They can persuade us that God is good. Even better, he’s gracious, pouring blessings on people who don’t deserve it — people like you and me.

We share our story and tell how God has brought us overarching, timeless happiness that adds meaning and fullness to many temporal happy experiences. Finding relief from our greatest source of unhappiness — our sin that separates us from God and messes up all sorts of aspects of life — we can find joy and happiness in even the smallest things.

The pleasures of temporal life provide a bittersweet launching pad for conveying the gospel. Earthly happiness is great but fleeting. Earthly pleasure promises more, but then disappoints. If we affirm both sides of that coin — the promise and the disappointment — we can articulate that there is more. But we won’t find it without God, without his sacrifice, without a cross. There is more to life than temporal happiness. There’s the eternal kind. Jesus calls it the abundant life (John 10:10), and he died so that more may have it.