Baker Publishing Group
[O God,] You have made known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.
King David of Israel, in Psalm 16:11
Can a simple definition set you on a disastrous life course?
It can, if you’re reading from the wrong dictionary.
Look up the word “happiness” in the quirky lexicon written by renowned curmudgeon Ambrose Bierce, for example, and here’s what you find:
Happiness, n. An agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another.1
A vastly greater literary light, William Shakespeare, turned the tables on Bierce’s definition, yet still came up with a depressing outlook on the topic. In his play As You Like It, he writes, “O, how bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man’s eyes!”2
How is it, I wonder, that something so appealing and desirable as happiness could generate such bad press? How could a commodity so universally coveted generate such dismal reviews? I’d be willing to bet that notions as jaundiced as these fester into existence when a man or woman desperately pursuing happiness fails to find it.
All of us want to be happy. All of us want to enjoy life, have fun, and experience the delicious pleasures this world offers. I think psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers is right on target when she writes, “True happiness is what makes life worthwhile. Yet happiness can be elusive—despite the fact that we seem to be wired for it.”3
And why does happiness so often elude us? Anna Quindlen, a Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist and author of the book A Short Guide to a Happy Life, suggests that some of us miss out on happiness because we’re just not looking. “I think a lot of us sleepwalk our way through our lives,” she writes, “when, if we really opened our eyes, we would realize how much we were missing.”4
The moment of clarity hit for Quindlen at age nineteen when her mother died. She refers to those years as “before” and “after,” and says her mother’s death “was the dividing line between seeing the world in black and white and in Technicolor. The lights came on, for the darkest possible reason.”5
The real question for us is, how can we open our eyes (and hearts) to genuine happiness? How can we step from a black-and-white world to one bursting with all the colors of the rainbow? If Robert Louis Stevenson was right when he declared, “There is no duty we so much underestimate as the duty of being happy,”6 then just how can we become truly happy?
The road to happiness, alas, teems with detours. Sometimes we miss out on true happiness because we get confused about what it really is and so choose the wrong route. At other times we refuse to accept happiness when it pulls up alongside us. Sad to say, I think many Christians have rumbled down both of these bumpy highways.
One day my British friend Nigel Gordon and I stopped by an English pub for lunch. Over the fireplace in front of the bar hung a sign that read: “Good ale, good food, good times.”
Man, I thought, that sounds almost like Christians were meant to be.
But never say any such thing to some Christians! Too often we give the impression that to follow Jesus Christ is a grim experience; that only the most somber, frowning, Secret Service–looking types qualify for Christianity. Some of us almost refuse to have a good time.
How terrible that God offers us a unique way of life—beautiful, victorious, triumphant over sin, a life filled with the Holy Spirit and with the assurance of eternal life—and yet many of us don’t really enjoy it.
Some time ago my wife was reading The God of All Comfort by Hannah Whitall Smith, author of The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life. In chapter 1 Smith says she wrote the book because an agnostic fiercely challenged her faith. In essence he said, “Do you know why I will never consider God? It’s because Christians, according to their religion, should have absolute joy and peace, happiness and victory. And yet they often look like the most miserable people in the whole world.”7
Sadly, he hit too close to home.
Years ago we held a rally in a Western European city and suffered through one of the most miserable meetings ever. The music was funereal and a spirit of gloom filled the auditorium, yet the rally was led by some of the most distinguished evangelical leaders of that nation. I could not get out of there fast enough. When we drove away, we didn’t even want to down a Coke in that town.
When thirst got the better of us, however, we started looking for a place to stop. The only open establishment in the countryside appeared to be a pub, so we parked our car behind the building and went in. As soon as we walked through the doors, the patrons recognized our nationality and bellowed, “Welcome, Americans!” Someone was playing an accordion, others were banging and scratching on other instruments, the people laughed and clapped and sang while smoke filled the place and everything reeked of alcohol, but they even offered us a free drink as honored foreigners. We accepted—a Coca-Cola.
What a contrast! I felt far happier in that bar than in the Christian meeting.
Who sold us a bill of goods that dark dress, somber faces, and worried expressions somehow qualify as more spiritual than being joyful and happy and free and delighting in abundance? I cannot for the life of me figure it out. But perhaps it explains why a lot of people turn down Christianity—it seems to go against human nature’s desire for happiness, and against what I believe God desires for us.
“Can you imagine what it would be like if the God who ruled the world were not happy?” asks author John Piper.
What if God were given to grumbling and pouting and depression like some Jack-and-the-beanstalk giant in the sky? What if God were frustrated and despondent and gloomy and dismal and discontented and dejected? Could we join David and say, “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Ps. 63:1)? I don’t think so. We would all relate to God like little children who have a frustrated, gloomy, dismal, discontented father. They can’t enjoy him. They can only try not to bother him, and maybe try to work for him to earn some little favor.8
But that is not the God of the Bible! The God who reveals himself in the Scriptures overflows with joy. God is a good God. God is a loving God. God is an eternally happy God, the fountain of all delight—and he wants the faces of his children to reflect his own boundless joy. It is no accident that Jesus Christ, who perfectly mirrors the very nature of God, loved to proclaim what he called “the Good News”—and the secret of the Good News is that life is meant to be good. Jesus Christ offers us a joy-filled life, not a somber one.
C. S. Lewis once remarked, “Joy is the serious business of heaven.” If I interpret him correctly, he meant that God passionately desires his people to enjoy life, to be happy and contented.
Lewis learned this from Jesus Christ, for in Matthew 7:11 the Savior says, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” We want our kids to be happy. We want them to rejoice and laugh and settle into a contented life. And according to Jesus, God wants this more than we do.
It is not God’s will that we trudge grimly through life, that we squeak by with gritted teeth, that we sweat profusely just to barely make it to the golden shores. It is God’s purpose that, within the limitations of an imperfect world, his people rejoice. Consider a few of the dozens of verses in the Bible that make this point:
But may the righteous be glad and rejoice before God; may they be happy and joyful.
I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That every man may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God.
So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him.
Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy.
Be joyful always.
1 Thessalonians 5:16
There’s no way around it; the spiritual life was meant to exude joy. The famous “fruit of the Spirit” passage in the fifth chapter of Galatians makes this abundantly clear. Most interpreters suggest two main ways of looking at this text. (Theologians must have their fun, and I think the Lord left a few things hanging so there could be seminaries.) Some Bible scholars teach there are nine fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Others insist the Spirit produces only one fruit, love, which blossoms in eight aromatic ways—the first being joy. Either way you take it, joy takes a lead role.
Years ago on the radio I heard a woman read the Galatians passage, along with the final line: “Against such things there is no law.” She then said something that encourages me to this day: “There is no law against too much love. There is no law against too much joy.”
Such a simple thought, but it assures me that the serious business of heaven really is joy. Much of the Bible was written to convey this joyful element of the Good News. John says, for example, that he writes his first letter “to make our joy complete” (1 John 1:4). If we live by the principles God reveals in his Word, we will be filled with happiness and joy. And when a person overflows with joy—whether he or she is the bouncy type or a good deal more reserved—it shows everywhere, and not by the noise or the style.
I wonder, when was the last time you cracked open a Bible to look for all the goodness God offers you? What the Bible calls the “new covenant” (briefly described in Heb. 8:7–12) really is an excellent covenant. It’s new because it’s for today, not for some ancient time.
In the new covenant you’ll discover that God really does love you. He really does have a wonderful plan for your life. God presents himself as your almighty Father who has everything you need. And he promises to meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:19).
So if that’s all true, then why can’t you have a great time? The logic of it seems inescapable to me.
If all your sins are forgiven; if your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit; if you have unlimited access to all of heaven’s resources; if you have God’s Word to guide you; if God promises never to leave you nor forsake you; if you’re going to heaven when you die; if you’ll live forever with a God who loves you—then shouldn’t you be ecstatically happy?
The Holy Spirit calls upon believers to rejoice. When the Spirit of God comes to live within us, we gain the potential to enjoy life even in bad times. Make no mistake, troubles will come. “In this world you will have trouble,” Jesus told those who followed him (John 16:33). “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” the apostle Paul said (2 Tim. 3:12). But we can remain happy in the Lord even in the midst of adverse circumstances. After all, what is the worst thing that could happen? Death? For a Christian, death is not the end of life, but the beginning of life in heaven in God’s presence.
In every situation, therefore, we have the potential for joy. Joy is a choice. You can choose to rejoice today, or you can choose to depress yourself and every unfortunate soul near you. It’s a choice made possible because the blessed Holy Spirit, the source of all joy, lives within every believer.9
Of course, you can choose to remain behind iron bars of discouragement, cynicism, and joylessness. You don’t have to choose freedom. If you want, you can decide to remain inside a prison of your own making. Perhaps it won’t be so bad. Even in jail you do enjoy a certain amount of freedom. You can move around—but only within the 10x10 dimensions of your little cell. You’re not dead, only a prisoner.
When Jesus Christ comes, he opens the doors of the prison created by your own mind, your own fears, your own habits. Christ turns the key in the lock and swings the doors open wide. It’s up to you to walk out.
Prison cells and open doors are one thing; detours are another. Sometimes, even when we make it out of jail and onto the open road, we still take a wrong turn and miss the destination so beautifully portrayed in the travel brochure.
I have a friend who has zero sense of direction. A few years ago while on a business trip, he planned to drive from Danville, California, to Fresno, a trip that generally takes about three hours. Almost six hours into his drive, my friend still had not come close to his planned destination. Just then a carload of teens pulled up alongside his vehicle at a stoplight and asked, “Hey, man, do you know how to get to the J.C. Penney’s store?” My frustrated friend popped his head outside the driver’s side window and said flatly, “Gentlemen—I can’t even find Fresno.” To which one of the teens replied, “Oh, wow, man, you’re even more lost than we are!” and away they zoomed.
I believe pleasure can become one of the biggest detours to true happiness. While we all want to be happy—truly happy—too often we settle for mere pleasure. We enjoy moments of delight, but satisfying and lasting happiness (what the Bible calls joy) eludes us.
And just how can pleasure get in the way of joy? It’s not that pleasure is bad and joy is good. Don’t think for a moment that I’m belittling pleasure! But while pleasure titillates the senses, joy satisfies the soul. Pleasure comes from the outside; joy erupts from within. Pleasure vanishes in the presence of pain; joy can sustain a person even in the midst of great sorrow.
Simply put, pleasure feels good, but joy feels better. True happiness surpasses mere pleasure in at least five important ways:
• External • Internal
• Sensory • Wholistic
• Fleeting • Enduring
• Solitary • Shared
• Limited Capacity • Boundless Capacity
Let’s take a look at each of these five comparisons and see how it’s possible to make the jump from pleasure to lasting happiness, contentment, and peace.
We feel pleasure when some outside source gratifies one or more of our five senses. We delight in the purr of a kitten, the fragrance of a rose, the fur of a puppy, the visual feast of a Rembrandt, the succulence of a cherry pie. God has designed our bodies to enjoy the pleasures of his creation.
“Dying people don’t cling to life for something transitory or illusory,” says Anna Quindlen. “And they sure don’t cling to life to make another million or get on Leno. They cling to life because, all of a sudden, on the water slide into the great unknown beyond, they understand with blinding clarity that it doesn’t get a whole lot better than a lilac bush with a butterfly on it.”10
While I like Quindlen’s basic take on happiness, I can’t agree that we don’t know what lies beyond this life. Nor can I nod my head at the idea that life “doesn’t get a whole lot better than a lilac bush with a butterfly on it.” Happiness needn’t depend on outside sources to thrive—as beautiful as a butterfly-crowned lilac bush can be. Even when the plant dries up and the insect flutters away, we can experience a deep kind of joy that bubbles up from the inside. Genuine happiness comes from within, not without.
How is this possible? Jesus explained that “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him” (John 7:38). Notice: not from without, but from within! The Gospel writer leaves us no doubt about what Jesus intended by his metaphor, for he adds, “By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive” (v. 39).
The Bible continually connects joy with the Spirit of God. Jesus was “full of joy through the Holy Spirit” (Luke 10:21). The disciples were “filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:52). The kingdom of God is a matter of “joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). And even despite “severe suffering,” it is possible to overflow “with the joy given by the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess. 1:6).
I saw this happy truth in action a few years ago on a trip to the former Soviet Union. Viktor Hamm, my excellent interpreter, described how Josef Stalin had sentenced Viktor’s father to a Siberian prison camp as punishment for expressing his faith. Viktor himself was born in Siberia but eventually escaped to Europe, married a German, and moved to Canada.
The elder Mr. Hamm and the other prisoners in the gulag worked every day in a mine. Each morning they’d stand in line to receive their picks and shovels, and every evening they’d return to hand in their equipment. Soon Mr. Hamm began to pray, “Lord, there has to be a Christian somewhere in this camp. Help me to find him, someone with whom I can pray.”
One day, as he was praying, he thought he recognized a certain look about the fellow who doled out the mining equipment. “I think he’s a Christian,” he said to himself. But he thought, How shall I approach him without giving myself away? If he’s KGB, I’m finished. But let’s see who he is.
With joy and fear rising simultaneously in his heart, he said to the man, “You know, they expect us to achieve our goals, but they don’t give us the bricks and the water and the straw to get the job done.”
Any old-time Bible reader would recognize the allusion to Moses and the days of Hebrew slavery in Egypt. The fellow looked at Mr. Hamm for a moment and then said slowly, “Wait a minute. Stand here.” When all the other men left he asked, “Why did you mention the straw and the water? Where did you get that?”
“Oh, I read about it in a pretty good Book,” replied Mr. Hamm, trying hard to keep from trembling.
“Yes, I think I read that Book too,” said the man. Then he paused. “I notice that you don’t swear like the other men. They are always fighting, but you don’t get into that sort of thing. Why is that?”
“My Father won’t let me.”
The conversation paused again. As the man carefully looked Mr. Hamm up and down, he finally asked, “Your Father wouldn’t be my Father, would he?”
“My Father has only one Son,” said Mr. Hamm, getting excited.
“My Father has only one Son, too,” replied the man.
And with great joy despite their miserable surroundings, they discovered each other. Immediately they began to pray in secret. But their prayer times didn’t stay secret for long; their joy just wouldn’t allow it. Joy insists on multiplying itself in others. By the time the pair gained their release, three hundred prisoners had come to follow Jesus Christ.
Josef Stalin might have been able to deprive millions of prisoners every pleasure in the Soviet empire, but he had no power to shut out joy. When a river of joy flows from deep within, nothing can dam the torrent. Joy continues to sprout and bloom even when evil men try to blot out the sun.
The Old Testament compares joy with an overflowing cup. The psalmist said to God, “You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” (Ps. 23:5). Which prompts an important question: Is your cup overflowing? Is it running over? Or do you say, “Ugh, don’t bug me. Wait till after I get a hamburger, then maybe it will start overflowing.”
Is my cup running over? It’s a great question to ask yourself. Not when you have a vacation next week, and not on Sunday morning when you have nothing to worry about. But is your cup running over now? Are you fueled with the Holy Spirit now? One of the great realities of the Christian life is the staggering inner treasure we have through the fullness of the Holy Spirit.11
The body, and particularly the five senses, provides the main channel to human pleasure. When our nerve endings sense certain kinds of stimuli, they send electrical pulses to the brain, which interprets them as pleasurable. Pleasure is chiefly a sensory experience.
Joy, on the other hand, involves far more than the body. This kind of rich happiness reaches down into the soul and extends up to the spirit. Happiness and joy can thrive even when there exist few or no physical stimuli to nourish them. “Studies show that people with strong religious faith and affiliations are happier than those without such faith, and they also regain happiness more quickly after experiencing a crisis,” reports Dr. Joyce Brothers.12
Anna Quindlen agrees that those seeking happiness need something deeper than mere sensory excitation. She calls this deeper something a sense of “mission” and warns that a “sense of floating aimlessly through your own days is terrifying and debilitating. . . . One of the questions I ask people sometimes is, if you were told tomorrow that you had only a year to live, would you live it differently than you’re living today? If so, doesn’t that mean you need to reassess how you’re living today?”13
It was exactly this sense of missing a greater mission that led one woman to discover the source of all joy. She owned all the pleasures of wealth and power, but still felt as if she were floating aimlessly through her days.
But all that changed through a single, memorable encounter.
I met this remarkable woman when she was about forty-five years old. As soon as she entered the room, I felt as though the Queen of England had appeared—only more so. She spoke with authority, exuded class, and carried herself with regal bearing. She spoke French, English, and Arabic, and had memorized most of the Koran. Her father held the second highest position of power in her country.
Despite her privileged station in life, however, she had been searching, desperately looking for spiritual reality. She felt no joy, no peace. Despite all the pleasures lavished on royalty, she felt empty. Then one evening Jesus appeared to her in a dream, just as he did to Abraham, to Moses, to David and Daniel and all the prophets, and to the apostle Paul.
I’ve since learned this happens frequently in the Islamic world. Jesus often breaks through in the Muslim community today through dreams and visions. Muslims who have come to Jesus Christ through these unusual visitations tell me, “The Lord said to me, ‘I am Jesus, of whom you read in the Koran. You don’t know much about me yet, but I’m real. And I’m alive. I’m your Savior. Trust me! Obey me. And I will be speaking more to you soon.’”
While many Muslims believe in curses and evil spirits, they also trust in the supernatural power of God. So when God reveals himself in a dream, they don’t search for a naturalistic explanation (Too much pizza last night?). No, when they have a dream or a vision, they say, “God spoke to me.”
Jesus spoke to this woman, and she listened.
The dream revolutionized her. She knew it had to be the Lord, even though she knew almost nothing about him. She had never seen a Bible. And in her country not a single church facility had ever been built. She told her father about the vision, and perhaps because he dabbled heavily in occultism—he had even cast out demons—he listened.
Five years went by. In that time her mother came to Jesus Christ, then her father (who gave up all his occult practices). Her children accepted the Lord, then several friends—all without knowing much more about Jesus than what the Koran says of him.
One day a foreigner entered her country with the Jesus video—the Gospel of Luke put to film—and a pile of Bibles hidden in his suitcase. Somehow the two bumped into each other. He gave her a Bible and the video, the first time she’d touched God’s Word since she trusted Jesus Christ through the dream. Just moments after she began reading, this intelligent, powerful, articulate, highly educated woman was filled with deep joy.
She cried without shame while watching the video, sobs of joy mixed with deep sadness. Again, that seems to be a common reaction in the Islamic world. I’ve been told that among the Kurds in Yemen, the audience begins to weep as scenes of the crucifixion draw near. The rumbling begins quietly at first, but as the Roman soldiers push the crown of thorns into Jesus’s scalp and lift him up on the cross, grown men begin to sob and moan, sometimes so loudly that you can’t hear the film.
These new believers make the same discovery made years ago by this elegant lady: Jesus offers true and lasting joy, with spiritual pleasures far beyond any physical delights.
Pleasure lasts just so long as the brain continues to receive neural signals that the mind interprets as pleasurable. Shortly after the signals terminate, so does the sensation of pleasure. That’s why you can eat a double scoop of triple chocolate ice cream one moment, and crave another double scoop thirty seconds later. Pleasure delights only so long as it lasts. It’s great, but fleeting.
Authentic joy, on the other hand, endures. While it varies in intensity and changes shape and color depending on many factors, true happiness radiates from the core of one’s being. Joy can sustain a person even in the midst of great sorrow, which helps to explain why one biblical writer listed only one motivation for how Jesus “endured the cross, scorning its shame”: It was “for the joy set before him” (Heb. 12:2).
Dr. Brothers comes close to the biblical idea here when she writes, “Happiness comes down to being quietly content most of the time.”14 We might well describe joy as an inner, lasting contentment. As one scholar notes, the Bible portrays joy not merely as an emotion, but as “a characteristic of the Christian.”15
It is God’s delight that his children live out their days in joy and contentment. If our consciences remain clear, the Lord wills that we feel happy, even if by temperament we’re not the giddy type. By spiritual nature, believers ought to rejoice in the Lord over the good things he brings their way. “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy,” said the psalmist (Ps. 126:3).
Unfortunately, some of us have a tendency to lose our joy. Sometimes we lose it by focusing on unpleasant events. Sometimes we lose it by forgetting the riches we have in Jesus Christ. And sometimes we lose it because we confuse pleasure with joy.
Those who make this mistake believe happiness comes only rarely, and passes with the speed of light. To look at their faces, you’d swear God never sent his Son into the world. They remind me a whole lot more of Jana than of Jesus.
I met Jana, a Russian news reporter, just before the dismantling of the Soviet Union. She scheduled an interview with me as we prepared for a crusade in Leningrad. Over lunch she looked at me and muttered, “You seem so peaceful and happy.”
“Oh?” I replied, “Does it show? Well, I am peaceful and I am happy.”
We dropped the subject almost immediately and continued the interview, but by the end of our time together she looked so unhappy that I said, “You know, Jana, you look so unpeaceful and unhappy.”
“Of course I’m unhappy,” she snapped. “We atheists, we’re never happy.”
I’ve never been able to forget her words. A few days later, at a crusade in Riga, I quoted Jana and said to the crowd, “You atheists, you’re so unhappy.”
To my surprise the Russians enthusiastically responded in chorus, “Da, da!” “Yes, yes!”
Their response amazed me. When I gave the invitation a few minutes later, it seemed as though half the crowd surged forward, hoping to find joy in Jesus Christ. I could hardly believe it.
Still, I have a harder time believing that many of those who have already found Jesus Christ still search for joy. Somehow they never learned to tap the infinite resources to which they’re entitled in Christ. They feel miserable, not because Jesus Christ has proven deficient, but because they mistake conversion for a vital, dynamic relationship with Jesus. The two are not the same. You can’t have the latter without the former, but you certainly can have the former and still not have the latter. Conversion to Christ does not guarantee a life of joy, but it does open the door to it. As I said, you must choose to enter.
I wonder if some believers fail to enter into joy because they’ve fallen for one of Satan’s clever lies. In his classic book The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis exposes this diabolical deception through the correspondence of two fictional demons. Screwtape, an Undersecretary of Temptation, slanders the happy Christian life by calling it “the Same Old Thing.” He advises his nephew, Wormwood, to encourage his human “patient” to reject it simply because of its antiquity. God, says Wormwood, “wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions: Is it righteous? Is it prudent? Is it possible? Now, if we can keep men asking: ‘Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way that History is going?’ they will neglect the relevant questions.”16
This tactic has proven to be exceptionally effective. In America, especially, we despise the Same Old Thing. We want everything new. But in the spiritual life, the Same Old Thing is what Satan fears most. It’s the gospel, the Same Old Thing, that wields the only power able to transform lives and defeat the power of hell. The gospel message doesn’t change; it remains settled forever. Jesus Christ lives in me! Jesus is a risen Savior! I am saved by grace through faith! Joy is mine through the indwelling Spirit!
Satan never trembles at fresh novelties. But he desperately fears the Same Old Thing. He frets that we will return to the basics . . . and discover lasting joy.
If you’ve lost the thrill and freshness of the gospel, you need to do a personal checkup. If you’re bored, you’re bored with Jesus Christ. The solution? Share Jesus Christ with others. “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith,” the apostle Paul wrote, “so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ” (Philem. 6). Give the Good News and you’ll appreciate it anew yourself.
Pleasure is intensely personal. No one can taste that Swiss chocolate sliding down my throat but me. Nobody but me can feel the masseuse’s strong fingers working out the tension in my neck.
We could, of course, organize a party where dozens of us get physically stimulated at the same time—the Romans called them orgies—but even then, it would take multiple expressions of individual acts to create a faux sort of communal pleasure. (And ironically, loneliness, they tell us, can strike hardest in the middle of orgiastic excess.)
But because joy cannot be restricted to the physical plane, it can be shared in ways that transcend sensual pleasure. True happiness finds its fullest expression not in isolation, but in community. If we liken pleasure to a case of measles, then happiness is a worldwide epidemic.
I believe this is a major reason Jesus Christ founded and blessed the institution of the church. He knew that “in this world” we would “have trouble” (John 16:33). So he commanded his followers to love one another, going so far as to say, “All men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another” (John 13:35). He created the church as a harbor from the storm, an oasis in the wilderness, a refuge for the wayfarer, a hospital for the injured. He intended it to be a place of healing, rest, strength, and joy. In the church he wants us to “consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds,” and he advises us to “not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another” (Heb. 10:24–25).
Who can doubt that the church Jesus envisioned is a cheerful place? It ought to make people feel at home. It should proclaim that the Creator meant life to be enjoyed.
At a recent international conference in Amsterdam I met with Rick Warren, senior pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. My wife and I and a few members of my team ate dinner with him at a little café and discussed the festival concept we’re developing in communities across the nation. I marveled at this busy pastor’s friendly spirit, his genuine enthusiasm, and his joy in Jesus Christ. He lit up as we explained what we were trying to accomplish and said it sounded like something that could excite both him and his church.
Man, I thought, this pastor is enjoying the Christian life to the full. Why can’t all Christians follow his lead? His daughter and her fiancé accompanied him, along with a few other members of his staff. All of them exuded the same kind of positive spirit. I couldn’t help but think, This is the way it was meant to be. You’re contented and at peace and happy to meet somebody. You chat together and you eat and you laugh. And God is at the center of everything.
How can a person who is not happy in the Lord be a blessing to other people? Sure, God can use anyone who communicates his truth, but if you want your life to bring happiness to others, you had better be a person who is filled with the Holy Spirit, whose fruit is joy. Christianity is a contented religion. It’s a happy faith, the most wonderful life there is.
I believe I have only fifteen years of very active life left, should God allow me to keep my full health. I want to use those years to help this generation see Christianity as the best ride in town. It is, for goodness’ sake, so let’s say it. And let’s use every possible vehicle to share the Good News.
Some years ago our team felt the Lord calling us to Denmark. Like many Protestant countries, Denmark seems hardened to the gospel message. We held a press conference at a hotel in Copenhagen. Now, the press from Protestant countries employs some of the most cynical individuals on the planet. In my experience, Western reporters treat religious types far worse than communists do.
I had barely settled into my chair when members of the press sneered, “You are from South America; what are you doing here in Denmark? We’re a Christian nation. Everybody is baptized here.”
First of all, they are not all baptized, even if they all talk as if they were. I ignored the insult and said, “Well, I’ll tell you. My objective in coming—at the invitation of many of your ministers—is that all of Denmark will hear the voice of God.”
“And how many days are you going to be here?” they asked.
“Six,” I replied.
“And in six days, all of Denmark is going to hear the voice of God?”
“How are you going to do it?”
“That’s why I called this press conference,” I admitted. “I need your help. Without your help, I cannot get all of Denmark to hear the voice of God in six days. So I want you television people to please help me. I want you newspaper men and women, please help me. You fellows and women who are in radio, please help me. I need your help so that all of Denmark can hear the voice of God.”
Suddenly these most secular of news people started looking at each other, unsure how to respond. It appeared as if they couldn’t believe their ears.
But you know what? We got on television, in prime time. The national newspaper, what some call the New York Times of Denmark, dedicated all of Page 1, Section 2, to coverage of my opening message. The editors printed a big, red heart spanning the page, and in a banner headline over the graphic wrote the title of my talk: “Jesus wants you happy.” Imagine! My secular friends had dedicated an entire page of their newspaper to the gospel of Jesus Christ—and then delivered it to every home in Denmark, absolutely free of charge.
The unadulterated message of Jesus Christ deserves to be declared to everyone with ears to hear. The happiness it brings cannot be contained, locked up in solitary confinement, but insists on breaking out to bless ever-growing multitudes. The church, at its best, brings believers together for encouragement, instruction, worship, and service. And the result, by God’s grace, is overflowing joy.17
Limits exist to most physical pleasure. Pass beyond certain boundaries, and you’ll perceive further stimulation as pain. With pleasure, there really is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Eat too much pastry, you get sick. Stay in the sun too long, you get burned. Listen too long to loud music, you go deaf. Overindulge in any normally pleasurable activity, from sex to sailing, and at some point you’ll cross the line into pain.
If there exists a similar “threshold of pain” for joy, however, I have yet to find it. So far as I can tell, nothing limits the amount of joy one person can experience. When you’re younger, you think you could not be happier than the day you talk for hours to that cute boy or girl you’ve had your eye on . . . and then you get engaged. As you plan the ceremony you find yourself thinking, Nothing can compare to how I feel at this moment! . . . and then comes the wedding. During those few seconds it takes to say “I do,” you doubt whether you could possibly find more love in your heart . . . and then your first child is born. And so it goes.
“Limits” and “joy” simply do not go together. They live in entirely different neighborhoods, speak entirely different languages.
I’ve noticed, though, that while most people recognize the limits to pleasure, they assign boundlessness not to joy, but to unhappiness. Writer Carolyn Kizer spoke for this pessimistic crowd when she said, “Happiness is a Chinese meal; sorrow is a nourishment forever.”18
Because so many smash into the limits to pleasure but doubt the potential for unlimited happiness, they give up on life, sentence themselves to prison, then slam and lock the cell door. Perhaps that is why, not so many years ago, a book with the title Good Morning, Unhappiness rocketed to the top of best-seller lists in France.
Thousands of men and women get up every morning and wish they could fall asleep again. Millions take Valium or Prozac just to keep from having to deal with a disappointing life. They’re convinced they must keep floating one foot off the ground just to survive.
A friend of mine, an elder in our church, went to visit a woman whom he knew as a teenager. He made the trip at the urging of the woman’s sister, who warned him, “She’s in really bad shape.”
The woman recognized her old friend immediately when he knocked at her door.
“Barry, what are you doing here?” she gasped.
“Your sister said you might like a visit, so I decided to stop by,” he replied.
“Well, come on in.”
Barry said that his old friend looked unbelievably miserable, sad, and discouraged. “Where’s the young girl I used to know twenty years ago?” he asked. “You were so happy, so free. What’s happened to you?”
“Forget it,” she said. “I’m like a zombie now. I sit here smoking my cigarettes, watching my television.”
Soon they began talking about the woman’s sister, who at that moment lay dying of cancer. “You could be happy,” Barry said. “Look at your sister. She’s going to be gone in a few months, yet she cheers up those who come to visit her. Why are you so sad?”
“I wish I were my sister,” she replied, “because I’d love to die.”
Humanly speaking, the woman had ample reason for her despair. Her alcoholic husband kept a steady job, but never showed her the tiniest ounce of love. All she knew of marriage was that it hurt, and kept on hurting. She felt lonely and empty and worthless. With her youth gone and no spiritual resources to draw on, any happiness she ever knew had dwindled to a memory. The limits to pleasure, she knew. But an inexhaustible capacity for joy? That she could not even imagine.
Maybe you find yourself in the same boat. As a teenager, you felt happy. But now you feel no joy, no happiness, no delight in God. Where has all the happiness gone? Something happened. Maybe you married badly. Maybe you lost your health. Maybe you got hooked on drugs or alcohol. Or maybe it was something else. But something has gone wrong, and today the Lord has brought you to this book to speak directly to your heart.
The Lord Jesus says to you, “I want your joy to be complete. I want to give you the full measure of my joy. I want you to experience the kind of contentment that can flood your soul regardless of your circumstances. I want you to enjoy the deep happiness that comes from knowing you’re divinely loved.”
If you feel alone, empty, and confused, if happiness has fled your soul—then open your heart to the Lord Jesus. Say, “Lord Jesus, if you really love me, come into my heart. Despite my problems, be real to me. Lord, be my Savior, my Friend, my God.” Discover for yourself the limitlessness of his joy.
But perhaps you have a question. “Do you mean to say that men and women can never experience true happiness apart from Jesus Christ?” you ask. “Because if that’s your message, I don’t buy it. I know plenty of non-Christians who seem pretty happy to me.”
Actually, so do I. The Bible declares that even those with no relationship to Jesus can still enjoy a certain type of happiness. On one of his missionary journeys, the apostle Paul, accompanied by his friend Barna-bas, told the citizens in the ancient city of Lystra that God had shown them kindness by filling their “hearts with joy” (Acts 14:17). That wasn’t a sham joy, or a counterfeit joy. But they didn’t know the joy available only to those indwelt by the Spirit of the Living God.
I tried to make this clear to two English callers who were listening to a radio interview I did in 1998 on the BBC’s “Five Live” program, but I’m not sure I succeeded. The show’s host, Nicki, asked me if people could be “truly happy if Jesus is not in their lives.” I suggested they could not. I said someone might have “money in your pocket, and your body’s in shape this week, but the inner core—the spirit, the inner person—is never fulfilled without Jesus Christ. . . . If you don’t know God, a third of your personality remains empty, dead.”
Nicki then invited non-Christian listeners to phone in if they considered themselves truly happy. Andy, a self-avowed atheist from Leeds, soon took to the airwaves, blasting Christians and claiming to be extremely happy. “I have set my own moral laws and live by them,” Andy insisted. “If something goes wrong in my life, it’s me to blame or somebody else to blame. I do not blame this blasted God thing.”
The next caller, Norman, took even greater exception to my comments. “I was slightly appalled by his statement that nobody can be truly happy if you do not believe or have Jesus in your life,” he said. “I think that’s the biggest lot of nonsense I’ve heard in my life.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
“Well, I believe that Jesus existed in history, although I’m not a Christian. I’m not a particularly religious person, but in my life I am truly happy. I’m married, I have two children, I’m healthy, my wife’s healthy, my children are healthy, we have no financial problems. We are truly happy in every sense.”
“That’s great,” I said.
“We do not have Jesus in our lives, so your statement, in my opinion, is incorrect,” Norman reiterated.
“Norman, look,” I replied, “you are missing out on one-third of your life. You are happy on the physical dimension. You are happy on the soul dimension—intellect, emotions, and will. But what about your spirit, Norman? You’re missing out there. I’m glad you’re happy and I never claim that non-Christians can’t experience some measure of true happiness—but you cannot be fully happy till your spirit lives.”
We exchanged a few more comments, then I said, “Norman, one question. A serious question. I was in Bristol last year and an attorney, a solicitor just your age, had two little kids. His little girl died. He did not go to church, didn’t believe in Jesus. He was absolutely devastated because he had no idea: Where did she go? Where am I going? Will I ever see her again? That’s the spiritual, eternal dimension. Norman, you’ve got to give it time. Right now, you’re happy, your body’s in shape, your kids are great. But what about eternity, buddy?”
My radio friend had an answer for that, but not an entirely satisfactory one. “I believe that when we die, we do not die,” Norman said. “I believe we go somewhere else. I have relatives and close family members who have died, and I take solace in the fact that I don’t believe that this is the only place where we exist. But that doesn’t mean I believe in Jesus. I believe that this isn’t the only planet we go to. We will all go somewhere, eventually.”
On what Norman based his hope, he didn’t say. Of what his hope consisted, he didn’t clarify. In blind faith he simply declared that somewhere in this vast universe there exists a planet (apparently) to which the dead somehow transport themselves. What sort of conditions there prevail, what occupies the inhabitants, what they know of their past life, where they are headed—and a thousand other questions—he left hanging.
I admire Norman for his ability to find hope and “solace” in such an apparently rootless belief, but I confess I find no hope in it. And certainly no joy. His comments convinced me more than ever that while God makes limitless joy available to us, we will never experience it apart from what the Bible calls the “new birth.” We may feel happy on the dimensions of the physical and the soul, but until we ask God to breathe life into our spirits, we can never know happiness in the largest of the three dimensions. And therefore we will never enjoy the promise of Jesus: “that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:10).
What does it mean to experience “complete joy,” joy that knows no limits? To be overwhelmed with God’s presence—“filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19)—so that the limitless joy of heaven becomes our experience on earth? I don’t know, but I’m eager to find out.
Jeremy Taylor, a seventeenth-century Anglican bishop, once said, “God threatens terrible things if we will not be happy.” Sounds like quite a contradiction, doesn’t it? But the more I think about his statement, the more I think the old preacher may have been on the right track.
Perhaps Taylor had in mind a text like Deuteronomy 28:47–48:
Because you did not serve the Lord your God joyfully and gladly in the time of prosperity, therefore in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and dire poverty, you will serve the enemies the Lord sends against you. He will put an iron yoke on your neck until he has destroyed you.
Joy is the serious business of heaven, and God takes it so seriously that he “threatens terrible things if we will not be happy.” Why such threats? Because, I think, the stakes are so high. The Lord created us to be happy, to enjoy a festival in our hearts, and through Jesus Christ he has offered to give us an inexhaustible capacity for joy. He speaks promise after promise of blessing, assuring us of joy in his presence and eternal pleasures at his right hand.
If any divine threat exists, it exists purely for our own good. The truth is that God does not want anyone to miss out on the party he plans to throw for us in heaven.
So why miss it?
1. Believe in God.
“The jailer . . . was filled with joy, because [he] had come to believe in God” (Acts 16:34).
2. Trust in God.
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him” (Rom. 15:13).
3. Embrace the salvation God offers.
“Even though you do not see him [Jesus] now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8–9).
4. Don’t be passive about your happiness, but work toward it.
“We work with you for your joy, because it is by faith you stand firm” (2 Cor. 1:24).
5. Ask Jesus to meet your needs.
“Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete” (John 16:24).
6. Become familiar with Jesus’s promises.
“I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they [Christians] may have the full measure of my joy within them” (John 17:13).
7. Express your love for Jesus Christ by obeying him.
“If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:10–11).
8. Don’t be a loner, but spend time with other believers.
“I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me” (Phil. 1:25–26).
9. When life gets hard, remember the rewards God has in store for you.
“You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions” (Heb. 10:34).
“Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor. 4:16–17).
10. Remember that happiness is a choice made possible by God.
“But may the righteous be glad and rejoice before God; may they be happy and joyful” (Ps. 68:3).