You want to be happy. You know it in your heart, and research confirms it too.
A few years ago, Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert wrote a fascinating book called Stumbling on Happiness. His central premise is that “people want to be happy, and all the other things they want are typically meant to be a means to that end.” In other words, the reason behind every other reason we do anything — why we work hard in school or why we’re lazy, why we pursue certain relationships or end them, why we sit down to read or binge on Netflix — is an unending quest for joy.
Happiness in the Twilight Zone
Rocky Valentine epitomizes our problem. Rocky stars in an episode of Twilight Zone (airing in the 60s) and is an unlucky, small-time thief who dies early in the episode. In the afterlife, Rocky wakes up next to a man named Pip, who he believes to be his guardian angel. Pip promises to give him whatever he desires. Rocky asks for the best the world has to offer: unlimited luck at the casino, to be desired by beautiful women, for universal acclaim, and more.
At first, the land where Rocky’s dreams come true seems like paradise, but as months go by, the life that Rocky thought he’d always wanted has lost its magic. In fact, it has grown positively distasteful to him. In a moment of rage, Rocky grabs Pip, his “guardian angel,” and says, “If I gotta stay here another day, I’m gonna go nuts! I don’t belong in heaven, see? I want to go to the other place.”
“Heaven?” his guardian angel replies, “Whatever gave you the idea that you were in heaven. This is the other place!”
Then the haunting voice of the narrator comes in, and says, “A scared, angry little man who never got a break. Now he has everything he’s ever wanted — and he’s going to have to live with it for eternity — in the Twilight Zone.”
The Game Is Rigged
The problem — our problem, as Daniel Gilbert points out so masterfully in his book — is that we are terrible at predicting how a particular thing will make us feel. In particular, we all tend to overestimate how good we will feel when our unregenerate “dreams come true.” Inevitably, when we finally achieve our worldly dream or success or relationship, we feel duped because it failed to deliver on what we thought it promised.
But why does it seem inevitable that we will be disappointed? Why does everything around us always let us down?
In Psalm 16:11, David writes, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
God’s presence is fullness of joy, and fullness of joy cannot be found anywhere but in his presence. The game is rigged, so to speak, because the Creator God designed it that way.
God created us in such a way that our capacity for joy is so large that it can only be filled by himself. He gave us other things for our enjoyment, and they have their place, but as Augustine prayed, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
Our ultimate good, our ultimate satisfaction can only be found in God himself.
The Joy Jesus Gives
That may initially strike us as selfish or stingy until we truly contemplate just how frequently and compellingly God has demonstrated that he desires our joy. His good pleasure is to overwhelm us with joy in the face of Christ. When we behold him as he truly is, when we see the horror of our sinfulness and remember anew the precious absurdity of his grace displayed on the cross, God offers us joy as unspeakable as it is unshakeable.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Matthew 13:44)
Once the man in Jesus’s parable found this astounding treasure, he had no need to deliberate over which possessions he could spare to sell. He immediately emptied his house in one huge yard sale, while everyone who came through probably assumed he’d lost his mind.
He was possessed by a greater treasure and a greater joy, knowing that whatever loss he suffered was truly gain.
Unlike with Rocky, Jesus promises heaven’s joy — his joy — to those who trust him. “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). We will taste the joy that the Father has in Jesus. We will be as water balloons hooked up to the water faucet of purest joy — except we cannot burst. More and more bliss, fuller and fuller pleasure. This faucet runs forever and ever.
Only then will we taste the joy of truly having our dreams come true.