My first pastor often cited Oswald Chambers’s My Utmost for His Highest, and I eagerly read that great book as a young Christian. But at the time I didn’t know enough to disagree with his statement: “Joy should not be confused with happiness. In fact, it is an insult to Jesus Christ to use the word happiness in connection with Him.” I certainly didn’t want to insult Jesus, so after reading this and many similar statements, I became wary of happiness.
These proclamations were common enough that it seemed they must be right. But they made me uneasy, because before reading such things and hearing them from the pulpit, I had celebrated my newfound happiness in Christ. Now I was being told that happiness was at least suspect and apparently even unspiritual, and shouldn’t be part of a serious Christian life.
To me, this was counterintuitive. Of course, we shouldn’t turn to sin for happiness —but happiness was something I gained when I came to Christ, not something I gave up! If it was God who made me happy to be forgiven and gave me the joy of a right relationship with him and the privilege of walking with him and serving him, was God really against my happiness?
Chambers said, “Joy is not happiness; there is no mention in the Bible of happiness for a Christian, but there is plenty said about joy.” The problem with that statement is that it simply isn’t true. Along with the twenty-one passages cited previously, there are hundreds of other verses that disprove it.
In the King James Version, which Chambers used, Jesus tells his disciples, “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them” (John 13:17). The apostle Paul wrote these words to Christians: “Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth” (Romans 14:22). Speaking of faithful Christians, James said, “We count them happy which endure” (James 5:11). Peter said to fellow believers, “If ye suffer for righteousness’ sake, happy are ye,” and “If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye” (1 Peter 3:14; 4:14).
How then could Oswald Chambers, a truly great Bible teacher and Christ-follower, claim that “there is no mention in the Bible of happiness for a Christian”?
It’s important to understand that Chambers isn’t alone —it’s common to hear people make claims like this: “Joy is in 155 verses in the KJV Bible, happiness isn’t in the Bible.” That may be technically true, but as we’ve just seen, happy is found in the King James Version —a total of twenty-nine times. Just as holy speaks of holiness and joyful speaks of joy and glad speaks of gladness, obviously happy speaks of happiness!
So why did Chambers say, “Holiness of character, chastity of life, living in communion with God —that is the end of a man’s life, whether he is happy or not is a matter of moonshine”?
Regardless of the arguments made from the pulpit and Christian books and in personal conversations, people have always wanted to be happy —and they always will. So when we hear that we shouldn’t want to be happy, it doesn’t change a thing, except to make us feel guilty and hopeless as we continue to desire and pursue happiness.
Forcing a choice between happiness and holiness is utterly foreign to the biblical worldview. If it were true that God only commands us to be holy, wouldn’t we expect Philippians 4:4 to say, “Be holy in the Lord always” instead of “Rejoice in the Lord always”?
A. W. Tozer said, “The people of God ought to be the happiest people in all the wide world!” He offered this explanation:
Goodness is that in God which desires the happiness of His creatures and that irresistible urge in God to bestow blessedness [happiness]. The goodness of God takes pleasure in the pleasure of His people. . . . For a long time it has been drummed into us that if we are happy, God is worried about us. We believe He’s never quite pleased if we are happy. But the strict, true teaching of the Word is that God takes pleasure in the pleasure of His people, provided His people take pleasure in God.
Alcorn, Randy. 2015. Happiness. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.
Check out our Bible Study on the book of Philippians, using David’s Jeremiah’s book, Count It All Joy as a guide. It is on Amazon as well as part of the Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription service. Like Netflix for Bible Lessons, one low subscription gives you access to all our lessons–thousands of them. For a medium-sized church, lessons are as little as $10 per teacher per year.