"I think, more than anything, God wants me to be happy." My friend's words coming through the phone sent a pain straight into the core of my heart. She had left everything: her husband, her church, her seemingly wonderful life, to pursue a relationship and a life that was not cohesive with the righteousness to which God had called her. It was wrong. I knew it. And she knew it. Still, she had convinced her wandering heart that her happiness was at the root of the gospel. That her dejection in her marriage was not due to a holy commitment that two sinful beings had tainted, but instead, her marriage was a waste of time and effort because it no longer satisfied her needs.
I stood in my bedroom, with the phone to my ear, dumbfounded and lost for words. The conversation continued, but those words repeated in my ears: God wants me to be happy. We exchanged goodbyes, and I hung up the phone, and for the first time in a while, reflected on what God wanted for me. You see, I was disconcerted not only because I couldn't believe I was watching a friend's life unravel, but because I didn't know whether what she was saying was right or wrong – does God want her to be happy? Is her happiness of the utmost importance to Him? And if it's not, why? Can I trust a God that doesn't desire for me to be happy?
If I could reverse time and go back to that conversation that day, I know now that I would have stopped her and lovingly corrected her in the mistaken assumption that because God is good and because He loves her, He desires her happiness above all else. "No, friend", I would say, "more than anything, God wants you to be holy."
That is not to say that God doesn't want His children to be happy – He does – but I would discuss what it is that my friend considers "happiness." To many, happiness is considered to be an evanescent, enthusiastic feeling, or maybe it is a sense of contentment or a feeling of general well-being. Regardless of how it's viewed, all of these definitions have a singular thing in common: they are temporary.
New relationships or money in our pockets or a new home bring us temporary excitement and satisfaction. But when those relationships crumble under the weight of sin, our money is spent, or our new home degrades due to the passing years and trends, that happiness fades. It is impossible for any created good to account for our happiness. Happiness is found, not in any created thing, but in God alone.
God does, indeed, desire our happiness. He delights in His children and is gladdened when true happiness is found by them in Him. John 17:13-14 recounts a prayer that Jesus was praying to the Father. Jesus prayed, "Now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy completed in them. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world." Jesus intends for us to be happy, even as the world persecutes us because of our obedience to Him. But our joy–the feeling of great pleasure and happiness–is only complete in Christ, which means that His true joy rules in our hearts.
However, disease, financial difficulty, grief, and other tragic or sad circumstances can prohibit us from experiencing happiness and joy in this life. The fall of humanity in the garden has made it so. The hiss of the serpent. The crunch of a single piece of fruit. And suddenly, happiness was reduced to a momentary, often circumstantial feeling, rather than eternal, deep satisfaction. But God–in His loving-kindness and mercy– applied the debt for our sin to His Son on the cross. Through Jesus, we are justified and redeemed and are given the opportunity to experience happiness in God. Salvation brings healing to human souls by restoring in us the divine image of God. And as this is restored, our ability to know happiness in our Father is restored as well.
Salvation is our means of eternity with Jesus, and it is also our means of restoration. As God restores us in His image, He restores us in holiness. Because of this, true happiness cannot be found apart from holiness. We may desire to pursue happiness apart from holiness because we deem happiness as more important. Or, we buy into the notion that to be a good Christian, we must forego the idea of happiness altogether. But the truth of the gospel explains that there is no happiness apart from holiness, and neither can be found apart from God. Our holiness can never be the basis of our happiness, and our happiness must be in God, who is the giver of all good things. Seeking holiness serves our happiness while sin–specifically under the facade of the pursuit of true happiness–serves our suffering. We have to seek true joy, which can only be found in communion with God through Christ.
Perfect happiness cannot be found on this side of eternity, but it is both promised in the next life and experienced in our earthly life through God's creation and through the Holy Spirit, who brings us life and joy and peace (Romans 14:17). There can still be moments of genuine happiness despite the brokenness of present life, but those moments can only be found when we are centered in the glorious and sufficient will of the Father.
God wants us to be happy, yes, but more than anything, He wants us to be holy.