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(part of the Ask Mark Anything series)

Question: How does our own personal happiness glorify (or not glorify) God? -Matt D.

Question: Does God care if I’m happy?

Short answer: Yes, but a lot less than you do.

Longer answer: As a kid I was pretty sure we mostly lived at the church building, so I have had a few years to ponder what God might want from us. One of the ways that people build their view of God is by cherry-picking pieces of scripture they like. You have probably used that expression, cherry-picking, but I had never actually picked a cherry, except at the grocery store where I try to avoid those nasty, gooey ones that lurk in the bin hoping to score a ride to my house. Then, a few years back we took a bike ride along the US/Canada border, on roads that ran through fields of cherry trees. We stopped and bought freshly boiled ears of corn and ate fresh cherries at a picnic table with a group of Japanese tourists who spoke no English, but who also liked corn and cherries. And smiled a lot. And took a lot of pictures. Cherries must be just about the easiest fruit to pick: the trees are short, the berries are bright red and easy to spot, if you drop one it won’t be damaged, and you can pop a few in your mouth along the way. Hence the idea of cherry-picking: quickly grabbing whatever is convenient or easy to deal with, or in the case of scripture, grabbing texts that support your opinion and ignoring the rest.

The great news about this approach is that you will wind up with God wanting exactly what you want, since you really didn’t start with the question, “What does God want?” but with a much easier one: “What do I want?” The bad news is that in doing this, you have literally (if you look at the two questions side-by-side it becomes pretty obvious) made yourself God, and while there are religions that teach this view, it makes me feel icky. Most of the true atrocities (and much of the generally messed up day-to-day behavior) committed by Christians down through the centuries have come about because of this approach to things.

So the cherry-picking answer about God and happiness would include passages like Jesus bringing life “more abundantly,” “Rejoice in the Lord. I will say it again, rejoice!”, “The joy of the Lord is your strength,” “The one who sits in heaven laughs,” and of course all that feasting and rejoicing and trumpet blowing in heaven. By the way I believe that God does laugh, sometimes over our foolishness. Also sometimes he weeps.

Our goal is to be like Jesus, who I am convinced was a fun guy to be around because he went to days-long parties and hung out with prostitutes (I would have done this just to hack off the religious leaders, but his motives were more mature than mine). He also told stories that we find weird but that scholars tell us would have had his audience doubled over with laughter (note that most of these scholars are NOT funny guys, so their reading of the text may be suspect). Ralph Kozak’s portrait shows Jesus as I like to picture him, busting out with laughter, and it resonated with a lot of people, and Ralph sold a ton of these until people figured out they could just print one from the Internet for free, which seems just somehow wrong, and probably did not make Ralph or Jesus laugh very much.

But….this laughing Jesus, who looks like so much fun, and seems to feel like we hope to feel, is also the guy that Isaiah calls a “man of sorrows,”  and is the Jesus who cried over a friend’s death, even though he knew how the story would end (it was another party). This is the Jesus that raged through the temple, kicking over tables and whipping people and I am 100% sure he was not laughing while he was doing it. If you saw the movie The Passion of the Christ you did not spend two excruciating hours enjoying the giddiness of the cross.

As a parent I wanted my kids to find happiness in life, and I wanted this badly enough that I sometimes gave up some of my own happiness to make it happen. But more than them being happy, I wanted them to be WHOLE, with lives full of meaning and purpose. I wanted them to feel compassion, which is often painful, and I wanted them to find happiness in the happiness of others. I wanted them to live lives that were comfortable and secure, but to also ache for the billions on this planet (and millions in this country) who are uncomfortable, or insecure, or abused for their faith or their skin color, or unsure where their child’s next meal will come from. On some level, down deep inside them, I wanted my kids to be unhappy about these things. In my mind, if we raised kids who were so consumed with their own pursuit of happiness that they ignored the genuine pain all around them, we failed as parents. So yes I wanted my kids to be happy, but that wish was way down the list, beneath being compassionate, and honest, and loyal, and forgiving, and empathetic, and generous, and faithful. And putting up with their Dad. And getting a job and moving out.

Research on happiness says that by guiding our kids toward viewing the world this way, we unknowingly made them more likely to discover personal happiness, since deep joy and contentment usually come as by-products of people, purpose, and perspective, not as a result of actions taken in selfish pursuit of personal happiness. I like to think that I share God’s perspective on this, who, as a father, wants us to be happy, but never in spite of, or as a cause of, or because we choose to ignore, other people’s distress. I believe the pursuit of holiness often leads to happiness, while the pursuit of the latter rarely produces the former.

The original question was, “how does our happiness or unhappiness glorify God?” I have known ‘feel good Christians’ who were only interested in God for the personal benefits they received. I have also known what I call ‘feel bad Christians’ who seemed unfulfilled unless they were upset or unhappy about something (or somebody) related to their faith, and I find this more tragic than the first. In short, I believe that our actions are far more important to God than our general mood. Great works of love and service have flowed from hearts filled with joy, but also from hearts torn by deep sorrow. Learning to find joy in doing good on earth is, to me, one of the greatest achievements imaginable. Most of Christianity’s power to bring joy to a believer’s life is linked to the actions of Christians, not the philosophies and beliefs they hold. God is praised when people see his followers doing good, not when they see them feeling good.

I am convinced that God would like for us to be happy. But he’s not losing any sleep over it.

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