“Always be joyful.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16 (NLT)
Have you ever felt you had more than your fair share of problems? That everyone else’s life seemed packed with blessings, while yours was buried in burdens? Ever struggled with feeling unhappy as a result? Me too.
For a couple years, my overall happiness and love for life waned. More times than I care to admit, I secretly wished I could go live someone else’s life — someone who seemingly had far fewer problems and adversities than I did.
This attitude caused me to feel weighed down by all the burdens I was carrying, constantly focusing on how many problems I had. I longed to feel happy again, but I wondered if true joyfulness as I once knew it was a thing of the past.
I prayed daily for God to restore my happiness and the joy of my salvation, even if my circumstances remained the same. Then, over a period of many months as I continued to lean into my faith, God did exactly that.
Gradually, I began to feel more empowered to take control of my thoughts and emotions rather than let them control me and my happiness. I became determined not to let the enemy steal or control my joy another day. I chose to intentionally love my life — despite my burdens — because it was the only life I had been given to live. I felt God leading me to make a commitment to begin counting my blessings instead of my burdens.
So, in obedience to that holy prompting, I began keeping a “blessings list.” Every time something good happened, from small, seemingly insignificant things to huge blessings and answers to prayer, I wrote it down.
After a few weeks of doing this, I realized this was a stepping stone to not only reclaiming my joy and happiness, but also learning to love the life God had given me. I was retraining my mind to focus on God’s generosity instead of life’s letdowns. One of the secrets to true joy and loving life is simply being mindful of all God gives.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:16, Paul said, “Always be joyful.” Why? Because he knew joyfulness is imperative in order to love the life God has given us. But how do we do that when life stinks? When people hurt us? When circumstances seem hopeless? When our hearts are broken? Paul answers those questions in the two verses that follow.
First Thessalonians 5:17 says, “Never stop praying” (NLT). To be joyful, we need to stay connected to God in prayer, asking Him daily to fill us with joy based on our walk with Him — not our satisfaction with everything in life.
Then, 1 Thessalonians 5:18 says, “Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus” (NLT). During our continued prayers, we are to be grateful for all He has done for us and the life He’s given us. It is His will for us to live with joy, not because life is perfect but because He is.
Being “joyful always” doesn’t mean we have to walk around with a fake smile on our face all the time, ignore reality or suppress every negative emotion. This verse simply implores us to intentionally focus on the good, instead of the bad. To count our blessings rather than our burdens. To let our faith, not our feelings, dictate our joy.
The secret to real happiness isn’t really a secret at all. It’s simply realizing the importance of counting blessings over burdens and understanding that gratitude has incredible power over grumbling.
Lord, I long to feel happy and joyful again. Prick my heart each time I focus on burdens instead of blessings. Help me develop an intentional attitude of gratitude. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
All Men Seek Happiness
God means for you to seek the highest happiness there is to experience. The Bible teaches this, and many of the great saints of church history have taught it explicitly. But many twenty-first-century English-speakers stumble over such an idea.
One of the reasons is simply a phenomena of language: it evolves. New words are continually introduced, and old words, once commonly used, drop out altogether. And some words, still in use after hundreds of years, now mean something different than they once did — like the English word “happiness.”
Actually, “happiness” can still cover a broad range of human experience. But for many contemporary English-speakers — particularly Christians, in my experience — the definition has narrowed. They consider “happiness” a transient, even trivial kind of pleasure, usually derived from circumstances. They reserve the term “joy” for deeper, more substantial and durable pleasures. They would affirm the Peanuts philosophers who stated,
Happiness is finding a pencil, pizza with sausage, telling the time.
Happiness is learning to whistle, tying your shoe for the very first time!
Happiness is two kinds of ice cream, knowing a secret, climbing a tree.
Happiness is five different crayons, catching a firefly, setting him free!
But they would say joy comes from more profound things, like God’s salvation (Psalm 51:12). This differentiation would have confused our English-speaking forebears from a couple centuries ago.
Happiness Is Not Trivial
I’ll give you an example all Americans will recognize. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson asserted that all people “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” For Jefferson, “happiness” was something more profound than the pursuit of the pleasures of pizza with sausage. He was dreaming of a nation where people would be free to devote their lives to pursuing what they believed would bring them the deepest, widest, most durable pleasures possible here on earth.
A few decades before this Declaration, a young Jonathan Edwards had far deeper and far more durable experiences of pleasure in mind than Jefferson when he wrote,
Resolved, to endeavor to obtain for myself as much happiness, in the other world, as I possibly can, with all the power; might, vigor, and vehemence, yea violence, I am capable of, or can bring myself to exert, in any way that can be thought of.
By “the other world,” Edwards was referring to heaven and then the new creation. This clearly was no trivial pursuit of transient, circumstantially-based experiences.
Our recent narrowing of the meaning of “happiness” both devalues the word and causes unnecessary confusion. We should stop it, Christians especially, because the Bible doesn’t define happiness so narrowly, as Isaiah illustrates:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” (Isaiah 52:7)
The Bible, in fact, “is indiscriminate in its pleasure language” using words like happiness, joy, contentment, delight, and satisfaction essentially as synonyms describing the same kinds of experiences.
Happiness is not trivial. Human beings take it very seriously. And we can’t help it.
It’s Serious Business
A Frenchman, Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), actually captured this in one of the most poignant paragraphs in history:
All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves. (Pensées, Loc. 2049)
As soon as we read this, we all recognize this is true of us. When given a choice, all of us pursue a course we believe will result in the most desirable sense of well-being — what the word “happiness” really means. We orient our lives — even end them — according to this pursuit. Our longing for happiness is hardwired into us. By God.
“Happiness is not trivial. Human beings take it very seriously. And we can’t help it.”
God created human beings for happiness. That’s what God provided and promised Adam and Eve. The only thing he originally forbade them was a choice that would destroy their happiness (Genesis 2:16). Even the deception that enticed them to choose what God forbade was a false promise of greater happiness (Genesis 3:4–6).
Seeking happiness is not sinful. Sin is seeking happiness apart from or in defiance of God.
Seek God, Not Happiness?
But doesn’t this make an idol out of happiness? By elevating and encouraging the pursuit of happiness, are we making it a competitor with God?
While a particular pursuit of happiness might indeed be idolatrous, to contrast the experience of happiness itself with God is a confusion of categories. John Piper brings helpful clarity:
When I say I desire happiness, I mean, “I want to be happy.” But when I say, I desire a biscuit, I do not mean, “I want to be a biscuit.” Happiness is not an object to be desired. It is the experience of the object.
So it may not be idolatry to say, I want happiness more than I want any other experience. God is not in the category of “experience,” and so you are not ranking him. You are (know it or not) preparing to find him.
Idolatry is not wanting happiness supremely. Idolatry is finding supreme happiness in anything other than God.
This is why C.S. Lewis said, “It is a Christian duty, as you know, for everyone to be as happy as he can” (A Severe Mercy, 189). He, like all the great saints of Scripture and history, knew the “unblushing promises of reward” — of the happiness God holds out to us throughout the Bible. And that these are not invitations to idolatry, but to true worship. For our greatest pleasure is always the measure of our greatest treasure.
I have told you this so that My joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. — John 15:11
Remember Eeyore and Tigger in the Winnie-the Pooh-books? For Eeyore, no matter what amazing circumstance came his way, doom and gloom remained the focus. For Tigger, bouncing through life without a care in the world, he never perceived anything to go wrong. In our daily lives, it is easy to have the attitude of Eeyore while wishing we could have the outlook of Tigger — two quite extreme viewpoints of life.
The biblical brand of joy is not simply overcoming our inner Eeyore, nor is it strolling through life in ignorant bliss; rather, it is to be found in facing each day’s ups and downs through the contentment Christ offers.
KEY QUESTION: What gives us true happiness and contentment in life?
The first order of business is to identify the difference between joy and happiness. For many folks today, being happy is fully dependent on whether life is “all good.” If someone asks, “Rate your life right now on a scale of 1 to 10,” often the number given is based on the number of problems present. Happiness slides up and down the scale, based on the perception of negative issues going on at the time. Problems rise; happiness goes south. Troubles begin to go away; the happy scale starts to climb. Joy, however, is not dependent on circumstances, and, in fact, ironically, can become strongest when trouble comes. The psalmist reminds us of the reality of joy that comes when we rest in God’s presence:
You make known to me the path of life; You will fill me with joy in Your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand. — Psalm 16:11
KEY IDEA: Despite my circumstances, I feel inner contentment and understand my purpose in life.
Joy has more to do with remaining in the presence of Jesus than with avoiding problems and struggles in our lives. Harkening back to John 15, we know that joy is always available to us when we remain in Christ, through whatever life brings. Let these statements guide you to see how true joy differs from mere happiness.
- Happiness is a state of mind, while joy is a mind-set.
- Happiness comes and goes, while joy can be constant.
- Happiness is dependent, while joy is independent.
- Happiness is conditional, while joy is unconditional.
The apostle Paul had learned the secret to the joy found in Jesus:
I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through Him who gives me strength. — Philippians 4:11-13
James drives home the definition of joy in the kingdom of God as having nothing to do with eliminating negative outward circumstances, but rather with embracing them as opportunities to strengthen faith and gain resolve:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. — James 1:2-4
Note the end result of choosing eternal joy — being mature and complete in Christ. Joy becomes the fuel for the believer on this road to maturity. Only Jesus can make our lives flourish in the midst of trouble. In him, joy is strengthened when life is challenging.
And finally, there is a source of deep joy available from an intimate place of serving Jesus.
Take a look at his teaching in Luke 15:3-7:
Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”
Joy comes when the lost are found! When we join Jesus in His work by sharing and seeing people come to Him, we can be a part of the heavenly celebration right here and right now.