In Defense of Christian Happiness

by David Prince November 25, 2015

In his new book, Happiness, Randy Alcorn writes, “Among Christ followers, happiness was once a positive, desirable word.” He then notes, “Only in recent times have happiness and joy been set in contrast with each other.” Alcorn adds, “I believe this is biblically and historically ungrounded and has significant downsides, as we’ll see later” (ix). Alcorn’s excellent book goes on to make a biblical, theological, and historical case for Christian happiness.

We have all heard the way happiness is frequently pitted against genuine, vibrant Christian spirituality:

God does not want you to be happy, he wants you to be holy.
It does not matter whether you are happy, as long as you have joy.
Satan wants you to try to be happy, but God wants you to be faithful.

Whatever one thinks of this approach in pitting happiness against Christian sanctification, it must be acknowledged that it is a novel perspective among Christians throughout the ages. Most Christian teachers have taught a vital and indivisible relationship between joy and happiness and between holiness and happiness. Perhaps “happiness” is used in ways that are a bit broader than “joy,” but the terms are virtually synonymous. Most theological dictionary definitions of “joy” describe it by using the word “happiness.” Alcorn amasses a mountain of quotes from throughout church history affirming a Christian quest for happiness. Consider a few examples:

Ignatius

“I pray for your happiness forever in our God, Jesus Christ.”

Augustine

“Every man, whatsoever his condition, desires to be happy.”

Thomas Watson

“He has no design upon us, but to make us happy.”

Jonathan Edwards

“Happiness is the highest end of the creation of the universe.”

“There is no man upon the earth who isn’t earnestly seeking after happiness, and it appears abundantly by the variety of ways they so vigorously seek it; they will twist and turn every way, apply all instruments, to make themselves happy men."

George Whitfield

“Is it not the end of religion to make men happy, and is it not everyone’s privilege to be as happy as he can? Does [Jesus] want your heart only for the same end as the devil does, to make you miserable? No, he only wants you to believe on him, that you might be saved. This, this, is all the dear Savior desires, to make you happy, that you may leave your sins, to sit down eternally with him.”

J. C. Ryle

“Happiness is what all mankind wants to obtain—the desire for it is deeply planted in the human heart.”

Charles Spurgeon

“Those who are beloved of the Lord must be the most happy and joyful people to be found anywhere upon the face of the earth.”

John Piper

“If you have nice little categories for ‘joy is what Christians have’ and ‘happiness is what the world has’, you can scrap those when you go to the Bible, because the Bible is indiscriminate in its use of the language of happiness and joy and contentment and satisfaction.”

Andrew Fuller: Happiness as an Apologetic for Biblical Christianity

I would like to add one more historical witness in defense of happiness that Randy Alcorn does not mention—Andrew Fuller (1754-1815). Fuller frequently spoke of happiness and the desire to be happy, and he also leveraged the universal desire for happiness apologetically. It is interesting to note that Fuller nowhere defends happiness as a legitimate apologetic lens but simply assumes his readers will consider it an obvious category (along with holiness, conversion, love to Christ, morality, humility, and veneration of the Scripture). Fuller explains,

Though the happiness of creatures be not admitted to be the final end of God’s moral government, yet it is freely allowed to occupy an important place in the system. God is good, and his goodness appears in having so blended the honor of his name with the felicity of his creatures, that in seeking the one they should find the other. In so important a light do we consider human happiness, as to be willing to allow that to be the true religion, which is most adapted to promote it. (Complete Works, Sprinkle Edition, 1988, vol. 2:49).

Fuller contends that biblical Christianity leads to genuine happiness, unlike false religious systems, because it promotes peace of mind, provides eternal promises, and alone meets all of the burdens of human life and eternity (Complete Works, Sprinkle Edition, 1988, vol. 2:50-52). According to Fuller, Christianity is the greatest source of happiness and other systems of thought ought to be evaluated as to whether or not they promote happiness among adherents. As a Calvinist, Fuller acknowledges,

“Nothing is more common with our opponents than to represent the Calvinistic system as gloomy, as leading to melancholy and misery. Our ideas of God, of sin, and of future punishment, say they, must necessarily depress our minds” (Complete Works, Sprinkle Edition, 1988, vol. 2:206).

Fuller refutes such notions and begins his refutation by explaining the kind of pseudo-happiness that Christianity does indeed reject,

It is granted that the system we adopt has nothing in it adapted to promote the happiness of those who persist in enmity against God, and in a rejection of our Lord Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation. While men are at war with God, we do not know of any evangelical promise that is calculated to make them happy. (Complete Works, Sprinkle Edition, 1988, vol. 2:206).
Our system, it is granted, is not adapted to promote that kind of cheerfulness and happiness to which men in general are greatly addicted; namely, that which consists in self-deceit and levity of spirit. There is a kind of cheerfulness, which resembles that of a tradesman who avoids looking into his accounts, lest they should disturb his peace and render him unhappy. This, indeed, is the cheerfulness of a great part of mankind, who shun the light, lest it should disturb their repose, and interrupt their present pursuits. (Complete Works, Sprinkle Edition, 1988, vol. 2:207).

In refuting the idea that biblical Christianity in general, and Calvinism in particular, works against happiness and cheerfulness, Fuller writes,

We read of “joy and peace in believing,” of “joy unspeakable and full of glory.” Those who adopt the Calvinistic doctrine of the exceeding sinfulness of sin, and of their own lost condition as sinners, are prepared to imbibe the joy of the gospel, supposing it to exhibit a great salvation, through the atonement of a great Savior, to which others of opposite sentiments must of necessity be strangers. The Pharisees who thought well of their character and condition, like the elder son in the parable, instead of rejoicing at the good news of salvation to the chief of sinners, were disgusted at it; and this will ever be the case with all who, like the Pharisees, are whole in their own eyes, so whole as to think they need no physician. (Complete Works, Sprinkle Edition, 1988, vol. 2:210).

Fuller continues,

The tendency of a system to promote present happiness may be estimated by the degree of security, which accompanies it. The obedience and sufferings of Christ, according to the Calvinistic system, constitute the ground of our acceptance with God. A good moral life, on the other hand, is the only foundation on which our opponents profess to build their hopes. Now, supposing our principles should prove erroneous, while they do not lead us to neglect good works, but to abound in them, from love to God, and with a regard to his glory, it may be presumed that the Divine Being will not cast us off to eternity for having ascribed too much to him, and too little to ourselves. But if the principles of our opponents should be found erroneous, and the foundation on which they build their hopes should, at last, give way, the issue must be fatal. I never knew a person, in his dying moments, alarmed for the consequences of having assumed too little to himself, or for having ascribed too much to Christ; but many, at that hour of serious reflection, have been more than a little apprehensive of danger from the contrary.

After all, it is allowed that there is a considerable number of persons amongst us who are under too great a degree of mental dejection; but though the number of such persons, taken in the aggregate, be considerable, it is not sufficient to render it any thing like a general case. And as to those who are so, they are, almost all of them, such, either from constitution, from the want of a mature judgment to distinguish just causes of sorrow, or from a sinful neglect of their duties and their advantages. Those who enter most deeply into our views of things, provided their conduct be consistent, and there be no particular propensity to gloominess in their constitution, are among the happiest people in the world. (Complete Works, Sprinkle Edition, 1988, vol. 2:213-214).

Elsewhere, Fuller summarizes simply but profoundly, and I offer it as a fitting conclusion, “The truth is a system full of joy—‘good news, and glad tidings of great joy.’ Then be cheerful and happy, not morose and gloomy” (Complete Works, Sprinkle Edition, 1988, vol. 1:530).