God means for you to seek the highest happiness there is to experience. The Bible teaches this, and many of the great saints of church history have taught it explicitly. But many twenty-first-century English-speakers stumble over such an idea.
One of the reasons is simply a phenomena of language: it evolves. New words are continually introduced, and old words, once commonly used, drop out altogether. And some words, still in use after hundreds of years, now mean something different than they once did — like the English word “happiness.”
Actually, “happiness” can still cover a broad range of human experience. But for many contemporary English-speakers — particularly Christians, in my experience — the definition has narrowed. They consider “happiness” a transient, even trivial kind of pleasure, usually derived from circumstances. They reserve the term “joy” for deeper, more substantial and durable pleasures. They would affirm the Peanuts philosophers who stated,
Happiness is finding a pencil, pizza with sausage, telling the time.
Happiness is learning to whistle, tying your shoe for the very first time!
Happiness is two kinds of ice cream, knowing a secret, climbing a tree.
Happiness is five different crayons, catching a firefly, setting him free!
But they would say joy comes from more profound things, like God’s salvation (Psalm 51:12). This differentiation would have confused our English-speaking forebears from a couple centuries ago.
Happiness Is Not Trivial
I’ll give you an example all Americans will recognize. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson asserted that all people “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” For Jefferson, “happiness” was something more profound than the pursuit of the pleasures of pizza with sausage. He was dreaming of a nation where people would be free to devote their lives to pursuing what they believed would bring them the deepest, widest, most durable pleasures possible here on earth.
A few decades before this Declaration, a young Jonathan Edwards had far deeper and far more durable experiences of pleasure in mind than Jefferson when he wrote,
Resolved, to endeavor to obtain for myself as much happiness, in the other world, as I possibly can, with all the power; might, vigor, and vehemence, yea violence, I am capable of, or can bring myself to exert, in any way that can be thought of.
“Our longing for happiness is hardwired into us. By God.”
By “the other world,” Edwards was referring to heaven and then the new creation. This clearly was no trivial pursuit of transient, circumstantially-based experiences.
Our recent narrowing of the meaning of “happiness” both devalues the word and causes unnecessary confusion. We should stop it, Christians especially, because the Bible doesn’t define happiness so narrowly, as Isaiah illustrates:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” (Isaiah 52:7)
The Bible, in fact, “is indiscriminate in its pleasure language” using words like happiness, joy, contentment, delight, and satisfaction essentially as synonyms describing the same kinds of experiences.
Happiness is not trivial. Human beings take it very seriously. And we can’t help it.
It’s Serious Business
A Frenchman, Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), actually captured this in one of the most poignant paragraphs in history:
All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves. (Pensées, Loc. 2049)
As soon as we read this, we all recognize this is true of us. When given a choice, all of us pursue a course we believe will result in the most desirable sense of well-being — what the word “happiness” really means. We orient our lives — even end them — according to this pursuit. Our longing for happiness is hardwired into us. By God.
“Happiness is not trivial. Human beings take it very seriously. And we can’t help it.”
God created human beings for happiness. That’s what God provided and promised Adam and Eve. The only thing he originally forbade them was a choice that would destroy their happiness (Genesis 2:16). Even the deception that enticed them to choose what God forbade was a false promise of greater happiness (Genesis 3:4–6).
Seeking happiness is not sinful. Sin is seeking happiness apart from or in defiance of God.
Seek God, Not Happiness?
But doesn’t this make an idol out of happiness? By elevating and encouraging the pursuit of happiness, are we making it a competitor with God?
While a particular pursuit of happiness might indeed be idolatrous, to contrast the experience of happiness itself with God is a confusion of categories. John Piper brings helpful clarity:
When I say I desire happiness, I mean, “I want to be happy.” But when I say, I desire a biscuit, I do not mean, “I want to be a biscuit.” Happiness is not an object to be desired. It is the experience of the object.
So it may not be idolatry to say, I want happiness more than I want any other experience. God is not in the category of “experience,” and so you are not ranking him. You are (know it or not) preparing to find him.
Idolatry is not wanting happiness supremely. Idolatry is finding supreme happiness in anything other than God.
This is why C.S. Lewis said, “It is a Christian duty, as you know, for everyone to be as happy as he can” (A Severe Mercy, 189). He, like all the great saints of Scripture and history, knew the “unblushing promises of reward” — of the happiness God holds out to us throughout the Bible. And that these are not invitations to idolatry, but to true worship. For our greatest pleasure is always the measure of our greatest treasure.
Fill the Infinite Abyss
Everyone everywhere seeks this profound happiness. But sooner or later, we all come to the realization that the happiness we most want isn’t found in anything on earth. We have an inconsolable longing deep in our souls. We hear this longing in the Preacher’s ancient lament of “Vanity!” (Ecclesiastes 1:1–11) and in David Foster Wallace’s modern lament, “We’re all lonely for something we don’t know we’re lonely for” (Infinite Jest, 1053, note 281).
But the inconsolable nature of this longing is a clue, as Pascal says,
What is it then that this desire and this inability [to realize the good we long for] proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God himself. (Pensées, Loc. 2049)
The whole of Scripture bears witness to this: that only in God is “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11); that besides him, apart from him, there is nothing worth desiring, nothing that will bring satisfaction, on earth (Psalm 73:25); that only in God will our restless, happiness-seeking souls find rest (Psalm 62:5–7; Matthew 11:28–30). Only the infinite God can fill our infinite abyss.
Credit: Jon Bloom