Does God want me to be happy? Or does God want me to be holy? Which is the priority? Such a question is really vital. This time it comes in the form of an email from a listener named Megan.
Megan writes, “Hello, Pastor John! I’m with you when you say that Christian Hedonism says my happiness is not at odds with God’s will for me. But what about the dark season of trials? In these seasons it seems my happiness is not as significant as God’s intent to grow my holiness. How would you describe the pain of trials in light of Christian Hedonism and God’s desire for my joy?”
If human life apart from Christ and salvation had zero happiness, and God’s goal was to bring us from the condition of zero happiness to great happiness in God, I suspect God would not need to introduce any hardship or discipline into our lives in order to bring us to the experience of supreme happiness in him. But that’s not the real world.
“Holiness is the newness of the human heart that no longer finds sin and self more desirable than God and goodness.”
Human life apart from Christ and salvation does not consist in zero happiness. It consists in a thousand experiences of godless happiness. When Peter describes the pre-Christian life among the Gentiles in his day, he says it consists in “living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry” (1 Peter 4:3). In other words, the world outside Christ abounds with what Hebrews 11:25 calls “the fleeting pleasures of sin.”
When God saves us, brings us into relationship with Christ, declares us righteous, justifies us in union with him through faith, he’s not working with people who have zero happiness and need to be given some. He’s working with people who have a thousand experiences of pleasure and happiness that are not rooted in God.
These pleasures do not flow from a sight of God’s glory. These people are not abounding with thanksgiving to God for his goodness. They do not reflect the character of God and his holiness.
I never thought of it quite this way before. This is amazing. Through conversion, God now has in his family, in his house, children who are deeply contaminated. All of us are deeply contaminated with the world from which he is saving us, because we still find so much pleasure outside God and his ways and his will.
Ephesians 4:22 says, “Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires.” In other words, the process of sanctification, the process of becoming holy, is the process of ceasing to have sinful desires and growing in our enjoyment of holy desires.
To put it another way, holiness is the newness of the human heart that no longer finds sin and self more desirable than God and goodness. To become holy, to be sanctified, is not something different than becoming happy in God. Sanctification is precisely the divine work by which we are weaned off the pleasures of the world onto the pleasures of God.
Here’s an important point. When Megan says, “In these seasons of darkness and hardship, it seems my happiness is not as significant as God’s intent to grow my holiness,” this shows a serious confusion about what holiness is.
“Holiness is the condition of heart in which God is our greatest happiness.”
She is treating holiness as one thing and her happiness as another thing. She’s treating holiness as one thing, which God pursues through dark seasons — and that’s exactly right — and she is treating happiness as a separate thing, which God seems to be neglecting in those seasons of darkness. That’s not the way the Bible sees holiness and happiness. This is the most important sentence: Holiness is the condition of heart in which God is our greatest happiness. That’s holiness.
The unholy heart is the heart that finds God boring or offensive or finds faults in him. The holy heart sees God as its supreme treasure and is supremely satisfied in God. When we’re perfectly holy, we will have perfect satisfaction. That will come someday in heaven.
Hebrews 12 describes the discipline of God toward his children like Megan conceives it. She’s right. The aim is to make us holy. It says God disciplines us. God disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. This is Hebrews 12:11: “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
Now, notice a couple things. The holiness he is pursuing through this discipline is a peaceful fruit. That means a sweet, restful, pleasant fruit. That’s the goal. When he says the discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, he’s not suggesting that the discipline doesn’t hurt. It wouldn’t be discipline if the spanking didn’t hurt. He’s pointing to the fact that the outcome really is pleasant and not painful.
“Sanctification is precisely the divine work by which we are weaned off the pleasures of the world onto the pleasures of God.”
That’s the goal. The goal of holiness is supreme pleasure in God that breaks all the fleeting pleasures of sin. It severs the root of all those other pleasures so they lose their power and they don’t control us anymore. Then we walk in sweet obedience to Jesus because he has come to satisfy our hearts.
This is why James says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2–3). Paul says, “We rejoice in our sufferings” — why? — “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3–4). Hope, of course, is a joyful emotion.
No Other Pleasure Will Do
My answer to Megan’s final question: “How would you describe the pain of trials in light of Christian Hedonism and God’s desire for my joy?” is that the pain of all the trials in the life of God’s children is indeed aimed at their holiness.
That’s true because holiness consists precisely in the heart forsaking the fleeting pleasures of sin and growing in the enjoyment of the permanent pleasures of God. That’s what sanctification is. That’s what God is doing in the hard seasons.
The reason God put such a high premium on the pleasures that we have in him, even at the cost of great pain to us in the dark seasons of our life, is that no other pleasures can satisfy us eternally, and no other pleasures can glorify God forever.