Does God want me to be happy or holy? It’s a common question, and Josh, a listener, writes in to ask: “Pastor John, my pastor, who knows and loves the gospel, chose this as the main point of a recent sermon: ‘God desires our obedience more than our happiness.’ Now, to me, this feels very much like law and not gospel. He did explain this as trusting him and obeying him even in hardships, but doesn’t the gospel do more? Doesn’t it give us happiness IN obeying him?”
I remember 40 years ago when I was teaching at Bethel College that I had two colleagues, Art Lewis and Al Glen. I don’t think they would mind my saying this.
They had a friendly controversy going on. They would pass each other in the hall. I watched this happen several times and laugh. They would pass each other in the hall and one — I won’t even say which one said which — one said to the other, “Love Jesus.” And the other would say back, “Obey Jesus.” And they really did have a little controversy about where the note should be struck.
And my guess is that all of us need some correcting from time to time. I fear that sometimes. You know, I can get on a roll with a truth that I love and talk about it for weeks and weeks and realize, there are some things that are going unsaid that need to be said or what I am saying is going to get bent out of shape.
So I would want to be very careful before I passed any judgment on this pastor for the sentence, “God desires our obedience more than our happiness.” My first agenda would be, as people might guess, “What do you mean by happiness?” Because my guess is he means something that probably would mean I would agree with him.
So, for example, what if he means that God desires you to deny yourself that pornography more than he desires you to have the pleasure you will get from looking at it? And if that is what he means, I agree with him. Or what if he means that God desires you to stay in that conflicted marriage more than he desires for you to enjoy the relief you would feel after you get a divorce? If that is what he means, I would agree with him. Or what if he means that God desires you to get up off the couch and play with your children when you are tired more than he desires for you to have the pleasure of resting while you neglect your children? And if that is what he means when he says God desires your obedience more than your happiness, I agree with him.
So I must be careful and we must all be careful not to jump to judgment without defining terms. But I do totally empathize with Josh’s concern, if that is the only way his pastor talks about happiness in relation to obedience. If he does only talk like that, he is going to create a biblically false picture of the gospel and of the Christian life. Just this morning I was studying John 17 in my personal devotions and I read this. Jesus said, “These things I speak in the world that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word and the world hated them, because they are not of the world” (v. 13–14).
So, “I speak to you and great joy fills you.” Then, “I speak to you and great hatred comes against you” — in two sentences back to back. In other words, Jesus intends for us in the very acts of obedience that bring down the hatred of the world to be happy — to be fully happy in him — that his joy would rule in our hearts. And I know that many people use the word joy and happiness as different experiences: Happiness is superficial and based on circumstances, while joy is deep and based on Jesus.
And, of course, there is such a thing as superficial happiness and there is such a thing as deep and unshakable joy, but that distinction in the words themselves won’t hold up in the Bible. The Bible doesn’t have a word for superficial happiness and non-superficial joy. They all flow into each other. All the words for joy and happiness and gladness and rejoicing and pleasure and delight, they are all used both ways in the Bible. They are used superficially and they are used deeply. You can’t carve it up that way. We must simply make clear at every point, what does the Bible mean and what do we mean in our preaching.
The main reason I don’t like the sentence, “God desires our obedience more than our happiness,” is that God commands us to be happy and, therefore, obedience to that command is happiness and can’t be the opposite of happiness. It is a category confusion to juxtapose and oppose happiness and obedience when happiness is commanded. When happiness is commanded, happiness is obedience.
So the Bible says, “Delight yourself in the Lord” (Psalm 37:4). The Bible says, “Be glad in the Lord” (Psalm 32:11). The Bible says, “Rejoice in the Lord” (Philippians 3:1). The Bible says, “Rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16). The Bible says, “Do your acts of mercy with cheerfulness” (Romans 12:8). The Bible says, “Serve the Lord with gladness” (Psalm 100:2). So it can be very misleading at best to say God desires your obedience more than your happiness, because obedience to these commands is happiness.