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I’d love to have a dollar for every time I’ve heard the words, “I just want to be happy.” And I hear those words more and more as we increasingly become an individualistic, self-focused society. Sadly, this phrase even comes from the mouths of Christian people as if happiness is somehow God’s perfect will for all of His children.
Now, if the will of God intersects with your happiness then all well and good, but Christians should not live with that expectation. Consider this, if Jesus had made his choices based on happiness he would never have gone to the cross: “Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” Jesus calls his disciples to follow this example, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul?” The answer is NO.
But we’ve been duped, conned by the happiness myth spread by Western culture and bought into by a modern, Western distortion of what is called Christianity but is, in fact, a poor reflection of the genuine article. It’s “a different gospel, which really is no gospel at all,” because the real gospel works everywhere and for everyone, not just those of us lucky enough to live in a prosperous, developed country, and not just by those whose lives happen to be going well most of the time. It’s interesting that books inspired by the “Happiness Gospel” don’t seem to sell that well in countries like North Korea, Iraq and Syria.
The true gospel of Jesus has a cross at its centre – a cross to be taken up daily by Jesus’ followers. The cross is something we die on – die to our selfish desires and motives, die to the need always to be right, and die to the pursuit of happiness when it takes us outside the realms of God’s will and purpose.
For example, I’ve had many conversations in recent years with people who’ve told me they are no longer happy in their marriage. The husband/wife they were once in love with they love no longer, and some of these people have chosen to leave their spouse and children because “I just want to be happy.” Now, I realise that some marriages get to a point where they are beyond repair, and my intention here is not to condemn those who have gone through (or going through) a marriage breakup or divorce. However, I do want to challenge the easy “out” I hear from some people all for the sake of personal happiness. [b]
Every marriage, including mine, goes through tough times. It’s during these times that I go back to my vows and remind myself of what I signed up for: “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, and forsaking all others till death do us part.” These vows, which are easy to say but hard to live by, recognise that there will be times when happiness is absent from a marriage. If we’ve bought into the cult of happiness we’ll find reasons to quit when life gets hard, but if we’ll take up our cross and stay faithful to our vows, there’s something on the other side of such obedience that outshines happiness by far, and that is JOY.
Happiness is based on happenings – life happens to be good. I’m financially secure, things are going well with my husband/wife, my children are behaving themselves, work is satisfying, and my life is conflict free. But when one or more of these things change my happiness vanishes and I want to get it back. I just want to be happy!
Joy, on the other hand, is not dependent on circumstances, it is a gift from God. Author Rick Renner puts it this way, “The Greek word for ‘joy’ is chara, derived from the word charis, which is the Greek word for ‘grace.’ This is important to note, for it tells us categorically that chara is produced by charis of God. This means ‘joy’ isn’t a human-based happiness that comes and goes … Rather, true ‘joy’ is divine in origin … it is a Spirit-given expression that flourishes best in hard times. For example, in 1 Thessalonians 1:6, the Thessalonians were under great stress due to persecution; yet in the midst of it all, they continued to experience great joy. In fact, the Greek strongly implies that their supernatural joy was due to the Holy Spirit working in them. Paul even called it the “the joy given by the Holy Spirit.”
Nehemiah tells us that, “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” The writer to the Hebrews encourages us to fix “our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”  It was joy, not happiness, that got Jesus through his suffering and brought him into an excellent place. What joy God’s people miss out on when they make short-term decisions to get happiness but miss out on long-term joy because of those decisions. I encourage you to allow God to form you through the tough times and you’ll come out the other side refined, mature and full of joy, to live a life beyond happiness.
It’s important in the tough times to know you are not alone, there is a community to support and walk with you. Consider talking to someone and sharing what you are going through – friends, family, connect leaders, pastors, your GP and counsellors.
The Careline – ph 03 9583 2273
Beyondblue – ph 1300 22 4636
Lifeline – ph 13 11 14
Rob Buckingham is the founding pastor of Bayside Church, Melbourne Australia.