Is Seeking Happiness Selfish?
- Roma Maitlall Contributing Writer
- 2022 7 Jan
As a person who belongs to Christianity, a faith that encourages self-denial, I often wonder: Is seeking happiness selfish? Would Jesus—who demonstrated the greatest act of self-sacrifice on the cross—approve of me if I sought to be happy?
Delving in the Bible tells me that He would. In fact, God tells us to be happy more times in Scripture than any other command. Commands such as “rejoice,” “be of good cheer,” “do not be afraid,” and “give thanks” are all different ways of God encouraging us to be happy.
But where can I find this happiness? How can I attain it? In the Bible, God teaches and shows us that true and abiding happiness lies only in Him. “Happy is that people,” declares the Psalmist in Psalm 144:15, “whose God is the Lord” (KJV).
Further commenting on the divine foundation of happiness, Puritan preacher and author Thomas Brooks said, “God is the author of all true happiness; He is the donor of all true happiness...He that hath Him for his God, for his portion, is the only happy man in the world.” English theologian and evangelist John Wesley similarly declared, “When we first know Christ…then…happiness begins; happiness real, solid, substantial.”
As Brooks, Wesley, and countless other reputable Christian figures have argued, happiness is a holy and righteous pursuit so long as it is grounded in God. Writer and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis even goes as far as declaring: “It is a Christian duty...for everyone to be as happy as he can.” Come along with me as I explore what the Bible says about happiness—and how you and I can seek and ultimately find it in Jesus.
Israel: A Story of Sadness—and Hope
From the beginning of their existence, the people of Israel were plagued by incredible sadness and suffering. They were enslaved in Egypt for 430 years, exiled in Babylon for another 70 years, and occupied by Rome for nearly 400 years. Theirs was an existence that was overshadowed by misery and heartache and categorized by oppression and persecution.
Psalm 137:1-4, written during the Babylonian Captivity, poignantly sums up the woes of Israel: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?”
As the Psalmist declares, it is incredibly difficult for the people Israel to happily sing their “songs of joy” because of their overwhelming sadness. In their eyes, God has forsaken them, leaving them to fend for themselves in a strange and foreign land and under a cruel and oppressive regime.
Despite their deep sorrow, however, the people of Israel never lose hope in a future when they will be happy and free. Though their faith falters at times, they never let go of their expectation for a strong and mighty Savior who will liberate them from the shackles of misery and place on their heads a crown of joy.
Unsurprisingly, when this Savior arrives some centuries later, the announcement of His birth is full of wonder and happiness: “‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord’” (Luke 2:10-11).
What Does the Bible Say about Happiness?
Scripture is adamant in its teaching that seeking happiness—or joy, gladness, delight, or pleasure—in sin is wrong and fruitless. According to Jesus, the “riches and pleasures of life” (e.g. drunkenness, gluttony, sexual immorality, etc.) are suffocating—and even deadly (Luke 8:14). “He who loves pleasure will become a poor man,” declares the writer of Proverbs. “He who loves wine and oil will not become rich” (Proverbs 21:17).
C.S. Lewis summed up our foolish inclination toward fleshly pleasures—and our ignorance of true, Godly happiness—like this: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
As Lewis suggests, true happiness, i.e. “infinite joy,” can be attained—not through fleshly desires or worldly pleasures—but through God. As the Psalmist says in Psalm 68:3: “May the righteous be glad and rejoice before God; may they be happy and joyful.”
The writer of Ecclesiastes further explains that it is only when God blesses us with the good and pure riches of life when we can be truly and sincerely happy. “Moreover,” declares the writer, “when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 5:19).
For example, the Bible teaches us that sex—one of the greatest of human pleasures—is a gift. God does not condemn or discourage it (why would He? He created it!); instead, He teaches us that it must be enjoyed within the sacred boundaries of marriage. Not surprisingly, people who are in committed, God-honoring marriages are often the happiest and most satisfied in their personal, professional, and spiritual lives.
The path to real, pure, true, and perfect happiness, then, can only be shown to us by God. In the words of the theologian Blaise Pascal: “Happiness is neither without us nor within us. It is in God, both without us and within us.”
Finding Happiness in Jesus
The Gospels insist that serving the Lord and abiding by His commandments are the key to being happy. “Is anyone happy?” asks James in his eponymous book. “Let them sing songs of praise. To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness” (James 5:13).
In the Parable of the Bags of Gold, as told by Jesus, the master (who represents God) rewards His servant because he completed his task with faithfulness and dedication. He exclaims: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”
Likewise, when we obey God, do His will, relinquish our self-interests, and take up our cross alongside Jesus, God blesses us with a share in His divine happiness. Though this happiness is undoubtedly different than what we ever imagined, we will certainly find that is truer, deeper, and far more fulfilling.
“Does [Jesus] want your heart only for the same end as the devil does, to make you miserable?” asked George Whitefield, the Anglican cleric and evangelist. “No, he only wants you to believe on him, that you might be saved. This, this, is all the dear Savior desires, to make you happy, that you may leave your sins, to sit down eternally with him.”
So, is Happiness a Selfish Pursuit?
We often confuse God’s call for us to abandon the self with the belief that we ought to forsake being happy. However, when we surrender ourselves to Jesus, God gives us back our real selves—our true selves—and shows us the path to true and real happiness—the kind that can never be destroyed and lasts forever.
I love this quote from C.S. Lewis: “When God talks of [humans] losing their selves, He means only abandoning the clamor of self-will; once they have done that, He really gives them back all their personality, and boasts…that when they are wholly His they will be more themselves than ever.”
As Lewis suggests, God values individuals, having blessed each of us with distinct and unique personalities, and simply wants us to relinquish what Paul the Apostle calls the “old self” (Ephesians 4:22-24) so that we can embrace who we are in Christ.
“The world looks for happiness through self-assertion,” wrote Elisabeth Elliot, the Christian author, speaker, and missionary. “The Christian knows that joy is found in self-abandonment. ‘If a man will let himself be lost for My sake,’ Jesus said, ‘he will find his true self.’”
Overall, happiness, when it is founded on God, is not a selfish pursuit. God desires us to be happy. In fact, He created us to be happy. “He has no design upon us,” wrote Puritan preacher and author Thomas Watson, “but to make us happy...Who should be cheerful, if not the people of God?” Added firebrand English preacher Charles Spurgeon: “God made human beings as He made His other creatures, to be happy. ...They are in their right element when they are happy.”
After all, the first home that God gave and created for humanity was paradise. He placed humankind in Eden because He meant His people to be happy—and to center their lives around the source of all happiness: Him. In the words of the writer of Ecclesiastes: “I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live...this is the gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13).
So, contrary to what many people believe, God wants us to be happy—and even encourages it. American pastor John MacArthur put it best: “God is not a cosmic killjoy. I know some people who believe He is. They think God runs around saying, ‘There’s one having fun; get him!’ They believe God wants to rain on everybody’s parade. But that isn’t so...The happiness He gives doesn’t stop when the party’s over. It lasts because it comes from deep within.”
Don’t Worry, Be Happy
My hope for Christians everywhere is that we will no longer approach happiness with shame or guilt. As the Bible so richly shows us, God, from whom all happiness flows, created—and desires—us to be happy and to take pleasure in Him. “Let us leave sadness to the devil and his angels,” said Saint Francis of Assisi. “As for us, what can we be but rejoicing and glad?”
Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/monkeybusinessimages
Roma Maitlall fancies herself a bit of a logophile (from the Greek, meaning “lover of words”). Her lifelong passion for writing—combined with her love of Jesus—inspired her to study English and theology at St. John’s—a university located in Queens, New York, her hometown, where she always dreamed of becoming a writer. Now a full-time writer, Roma enjoys spending time with her wonderful sisters and family, learning everything there is to know about history, literature, art, and Christianity, and using her words to give glory to Jesus.