I’ve been overwhelmed recently by a wave of acquaintances, all professing believers, who have modified or abandoned certain biblical convictions for the sake of personal happiness. There is the pastor who divorced his wife in order to embrace a homosexual lifestyle and “find Jesus” in the gay community. There is a pastor’s wife who abandoned her faithful husband and children in favor of the freedom of a single lifestyle. There is a woman who is divorcing her chronically ill husband because she desires to be cared for rather than to serve as a caretaker.
All of these people are tied to the same conservative Christian community and should know better. They do know better. But how is it that they have each walked away from obvious biblical principles? It seems that they have bought the lie, created long ago but perpetuated by our culture, the Hollywood ideal, and even the founding documents of this country, that “I deserve to be happy.” And that conviction, fueled by the selfish human heart and prodded along by the evil one and this complicit world, begins to override all other previously closely held convictions, including biblical inerrancy and till-death-do-us-part.
In each of these situations, certainly there was great difficulty and anguish. There was initially the desire to fight to do the right thing. The pastor struggling with same-sex attraction resolved to kill that compulsion. The wife of the chronically ill husband sought to serve well. But somewhere along the way, fuel for the fight was expended, and right and wrong became confused with happiness and unhappiness.
At its root, the problem is a misidentification of the source and nature of happiness. It stems from wrong thinking regarding who knows best what is good for us. Left to ourselves, our definition of what is good for us will always stray from God’s definition, which is what is truly good for us. Therefore, when influences outside of biblical truth, including the fantasies of the entertainment world, the examples of unbelieving friends and family, and even our own perception of our circumstances, begin to overwhelm our pattern of thinking, it’s a very short walk from “I’m fighting this” to “I deserve this.”
Discerning believers must keep in mind that frequently the idea I want to be happy is just a sanitized, justified version of I want my sin. It is shorthand for I want to be happy outside of God and what He has declared to be good for me. And if you listen closely to this culture and its disciples within the nominal church, you can hear echoes of Eden: "Did God actually say, 'You shall not eat of any tree in the garden'?" Behind that first sin was the newborn conviction of a right to autonomy from God and the lie that a personal brand of happiness could exist there. In spite of the knowledge of God’s good law, when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate… (Gen 3:1, 6).
And what did she lose, she and her husband? They lost God. Ironically, they lost the source of true happiness. For their sin, they were removed from His presence (Gen 3:22-24).
The psalmist captures for us the true import of that loss by how he describes the value of God’s presence and the heartache of those who chase other brands of happiness, other gods:
I say to the LORD, "You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you."…The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply…The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance…I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure…You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psa 16)
The Lord Himself is the source of true joy and happiness. There can be no happiness apart from His presence and an unfettered relationship with Him. But as the scene in the garden shows, we cannot embrace our sin and Him at the same time. Thankfully, within that third chapter of Genesis, God promised a provision for the defeat of sin and the reconciliation of God to man. He promised a seed, who would crush the head of the serpent, that seed being Christ (Gen 3:15; Heb2:14-15). Christ died to save us from the tyranny of the pursuit of “happiness” and its penalty, hell, in order that we might be returned to the true source of happiness, God.
When people who profess to be believers turn from God in Christ, the true source of happiness, so that they might pursue personal pleasures and comforts outside of Him, they repeat the sin of the garden, and come perilously close to what the writer of Hebrews describes as trampling underfoot the Son of God and profaning the blood of the covenant by which He was sanctified, outraging the Spirit of grace (Heb 10:26-31). They sell their birthright for a bowl of stew (Gen 25:29-34; Heb 12:14-17). The horrible irony is that their “happiness” can only lead to misery.
What a sad poverty to cast aside this great gospel in favor of the isolation from which the Son died and was raised to rescue us. How blind to prefer that slavery simply because our flesh and the world and the devil have convinced us that because it seems easier it must be better. When we see people falling for that lie, when we feel ourselves being tugged by it, we should view it in the context of a serpent lying to a woman in a garden, convincing her that what God has said is good is bad and what is bad is good. We should understand that the result is not happiness but misery, not life but death.
And consider that the thorns in the flesh represented by our battles with sin and our difficult circumstances are the very vehicles through which we may experience true joy in the strength of Christ at work in us. Those who walk away from the difficult in favor of worldly happiness forfeit the surpassing joy of saying with Paul, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, harships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10). The truth is that the strength of Christ is absent from those who follow after the happiness of the world. They will never know the joy of weakness strengthened by Christ.
When we are looking for happiness in things outside of God, we are in danger of falling for a lie. Let’s pay much closer attention to the influences in our lives. We must guard our hearts and minds by filling them with the truth of the Scriptures, investing ourselves in meaningful conversations with other believers for the purpose of stirring one another up to love and good works, and praying that the Spirit would assist us in watching for the dangers posed by our flesh, the world, and the evil one.