Christian Living,  Culture

Happiness is not the Ultimate Goal for Christians

Unfortunately it is common to view happiness as the ultimate goal in life. This trend seems to be increasing with more people literally searching for happiness than ever before. Although this might be expected from unbelievers, who don’t know better, viewing happiness as the ultimate goal in life is actually quite common among professing Christians as well.

picture of word for happiness

An illustration of heralding happiness as the ultimate pursuit is an infamous sermon from Victoria Osteen, wife and co-pastor with Joel Osteen (her husband). In front of a church of 40,000+ people in Texas she said the following.

I just want to encourage every one of us to realize when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God–I mean, that’s one way to look at it–we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we are happy. . . . That’s the thing that gives Him the greatest joy. . . .”

So, I want you to know this morning — Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. . . . When you come to church, when you worship him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy. Amen?

Thus, according to Victoria Osteen, God is most happy when we are happy. Therefore, we must pursue our own happiness, because that is what God wants.

There are a variety of obvious problems with the idea that the Christian life centers on the pursuit of happiness. But it is worth noting that this idea is commonplace within the Western church.

This theology of happiness is the kind of theology that thrives today in America and other Western nations. It is based on the assumption that God wants your happiness more than anything in the world. So, you should pursue the things that bring happiness, because that’s what God wants for your life.

The whole premise is that our godliness and relationship to God is related to our own happiness and fulfillment. The problem? That is not biblical.

In contrast to the idea that happiness is the ultimate goal of the Christian, the Bible shows us what our real expectations should be. Although there are multiple passages we could examine to see this, I think two are especially pertinent.

Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.

2 Tim 3:12

This is a truth that is often neglected by Western Christians, but historically Christians have lived (and died) with this truth. Paul was not playing games. He knew what Jesus foretold. That if the world hates Jesus, how much more will they also hate his followers (John 15:18-19).

Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

James 1:2-4

One of my pastors used to say, “If I could change one word in the Bible I would change ‘when you encounter…’ to ‘if you encounter.’” Like Paul, James makes it clear that our lives here on earth will be marked by all sorts of difficulties and circumstances which don’t bring happiness in and of themselves. However, we can take joy out of these difficult circumstances because we know that God is using these trials to perfect us.

This was something the psalmist realized when he wrote, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, That I may learn Your statutes” (Ps 119:71). The affliction in our lives provides a refining process that purges the evil and brings us closer to God, which then results in true happiness.

It is simply bad theology to claim that we should strive after happiness in this life because that’s what God wants from us. Scripture is clear that, as Christians, we should expect bad things to happen to us. Those bad things will not bring immediate happiness in this world. Rather, God has designed these trials to work in our lives, perfecting us into the likeness of Christ (who is himself an interesting example of happiness). Seeking after one’s own happiness as if that is God’s chief delight is not found in the Bible, it is the worship of a different god than the God of the Bible.

Photo by Stan B on Unsplash

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

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