It is a Christian duty,” said C. S. Lewis, “for everyone to be as happy as he can.” To some, chasing your own happiness sounds profoundly egocentric—the sort of thing that toddlers and self-absorbed teenagers do and responsible adults grow out of. That’s tragic because the Scriptures keep telling us to, and showing us how to, rejoice in God. And it’s tragic because there are four excellent reasons to pursue joy and delight in God with all your heart. “Joy,” you see, is not a stoical resilience that sits buried beneath a miserable exterior, in contrast to “happiness,” which involves smiling a lot. As one guy in my church puts it, we are looking for a joy that reaches the face.
The first reason is that if you want to glorify God, which I trust all Christians do, the best way of doing it is to delight in Him. Enjoying someone is the best way of honoring him or her. When I tell my wife how happy she makes me, I am not being self-centered or treating her as a means to an end, but praising her in the most powerful way possible. When I visit people in our church and they thank me, and I respond that I’m really happy I came, nobody ever snaps back that I’m a selfish person for doing what makes me happy. Relationships don’t work like that; the most glorifying thing I can do for others is to find them enjoyable. It’s the same with God. That’s why worship involves singing so much: it basically involves being happy in God and then telling Him about it.
The cross—in so many ways history’s darkest moment—took place because Jesus was pursuing the joy of redeeming mankind.
The second is that pursuing our highest joy, in God, is one way Jesus says we experience the kingdom. He taught that it “is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matt. 13:44 ESV, emphasis added). We encounter Jesus and His reign and are so overwhelmed with delight at what we have found, so excited about being able to enjoy Him, we give up everything in order to get Him. That’s what conversion allows us to understand—that all we have, our possessions and hopes and relationships, are trivial in comparison to the eternal joy that is to be found in Jesus. So we sell them all to get the only One who makes us lastingly happy. And when that happens, fattened calves get served, wine flows, and the noise of dancing is heard miles away.
Third, pursuing our highest joy, in God, is also how we fight against sin in this life. This one sounds strange, because we’re accustomed to hearing terms like “pleasure-seekers” and “hedonists” applied to people who do naughty things. But truthfully, the problem is that we seek pleasure too infrequently, not too often—the type of pleasure God has in mind, that is. Jeremiah described rebellious Israel as a people who had abandoned the fountain of living waters and hacked out for themselves broken cisterns to drink from instead (Jer. 2:12-13). People who do that, Lewis argued, care too little about their own joy, not too much. To paraphrase him in The Weight of Glory, if you really care about your happiness, you won’t fool around with drink and sex and ambition but will devote yourself to the infinite joy found in God, just as a child won’t bother with mud pies in a slum if he’s offered a holiday by the sea. The Scottish preacher Thomas Chalmers called this “the expulsive power of a new affection.” The heart will always look to rejoice in something beyond itself, so rather than trying to squash desire, we should instead look to satisfy it—in God.
The fourth reason is that pursuing joy is what Jesus did, right to the cross and out the other side. One of the most mind-blowing verses in Scripture is Hebrews 12:2, which tells us to look to Jesus, “who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” The cross—in so many ways history’s darkest moment—took place because Jesus was pursuing the joy of redeeming mankind. A few verses later, the writer mentions Esau, “who sold his own birthright for a single meal” (v. 16). Jesus traded in short-term intense suffering for long-term intense happiness. Esau did the opposite, swapping the blessing and promises of God for a bowl of stew, of all things. Therefore, the writer urges us: Imitate Jesus, consider which course of action will lead to your greatest long-term happiness, and take it. Don’t swap a kingdom for a casserole.
So there are four good reasons to pursue your own joy in God (not to mention the fifth one, which is that it’s commanded in Philippians 4:4). Doing so glorifies God, allows us to experience the kingdom, helps us fight sin, and teaches us to imitate Jesus.
C. S. Lewis was right: “It is a Christian duty for everyone to be as happy as he can.”
In next month’s magazine, Andrew Wilson will conclude his series on joy by discussing how we can pursue it, even in difficult circumstances.