There is a lie that many Christians believe. It goes something like this:
Wanting to be happy is a sin.
Of course no one comes out and says it, but pay attention– you can feel it in the room. The pastor that makes you feel guilty for enjoying a nice dinner when children are dying of starvation in Kenya. The mother who tells you you’re backsliding because you would rather be spending time with your boyfriend than going to church. The youth pastor that tells you that coming to youth group for the fun and games and girls is wrong, and how you should be on fire for God! (and maybe you want to be, but you just aren’t there). You’re tired of the rules. You just want to be happy. Yet, in religious Christianity, happiness seems to be forbidden.
I find my heart telling me I have to seek joy, satisfaction, pleasure. But, I find my religious self saying “To seek pleasure is selfish and sinful. Obey. Even if it makes you a slave, even if it makes you angry, even when you know your heart’s not in it. If you don’t feel happy, it’s because there’s something wrong with you. If you want pleasure more than “God”, you should be ashamed of yourself. Don’t seek to truly live, seek obedience, even if it feels like death.”
I find my theology reinforcing it with verses like “If you love me you will obey my commands” (John 14:15) and “if you claim to love him and do not obey him you are a liar” (1 John 2:4). These help me say things like “See self! I told you you don’t love Him. If you did you would obey and want to! You are a selfish, worthless human being. You’re a failure. Why do you even call yourself a Christian? Hypocrite!” I hear sermons about how I’m supposed to be obeying, and alter calls laden with fear and shame that keep me a prisoner to this “Christian walk”. Then of course I can combine this with a “God will never give you more than you can handle” (even though I feel nothing but depression) to create the perfect Catch 22:
Happiness is forbidden, but required. You should be happy, but you shouldn’t seek happiness.
Only seeking God is holy, and that is the only road you are allowed to travel to find happiness. But what if it doesn’t make you happy? What if seeking God is boring for you?
Or perhaps we’re missing something…
Maybe seeking pleasure is seeking God.
Jesus said he came that we would finally, truly, live. Abundant life. Full life. (John 10:10) He said he didn’t just come to give joy, but that our joy would be made complete. Total satisfaction. He taught about enjoying his rewards, entering his rest, ecstasy in his kingdom. Jesus is telling me He came to make me totally fulfilled. So why is it that I feel like a prisoner as I walk the road of “life” and “joy”?
Jesus said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14) See, as Christians we are saved. We’ve entered through the gate, so we assume that we must be on the narrow path. We also assume that narrow equals difficult and depressing, like trying to navigate a small trail between thorn bushes. Difficult, scary, unhappy. Although Jesus said we would have trials, he didn’t say we had to suffer on the inside. He actually said we could rejoice constantly. His yoke is easy, and his burden is light. (Mat 11:13)
Narrow, but easy. Hard to find, but joyful. Not a burden, but light.
We think we are on the narrow path, but often we’re actually zig-zagging over it on paths to destruction. Maybe “If you love me you will obey my commands” means “as you experience my love, and love me back, you will naturally obey me. You will hardly even have to try.” When Jesus says the way of life is narrow and few find it, he’s letting you in on a secret. You are supposed to seek after life, love, and happiness.
And few find it.
Few ever live.
Jesus is Life. In His presence is fullness of joy and at His right hand are pleasures forevermore (Ps 16). The problem is we’re not seeking pleasure and happiness, so we rarely find Jesus. The gospel demands that we seek life to the fullest, and wrestle and question with God until we find it.
There’s this great story in Luke 15 about two brothers who want to find life. They both live in their father’s house, they are both sons from beginning to end of the story, yet neither of them is happy or fulfilled. The younger has done this whole living-by-dad’s-rules thing long enough, so he basically tells his dad “I wish you were dead so I could take your money and find the true happiness I can’t find here.” The crazy part is the dad says “go for it.” He gives the son his share of the inheritance, lets him chase his “dreams”, and boy does that son live it up! He goes after satisfaction everywhere he wants… for awhile.
Then there’s the older son. He follows all the rules. He insists that following the rules will make him happy…except he’s not. He feels worthless, rejected, alone. He feels he never gets to have any fun–to really live— in his father’s house. Nonetheless, he keeps on toiling the narrow path, angry that he is empty inside…
The younger son runs out of luck. He realizes that what he thought would be life was really just destruction. Not only was he never truly satisfied, but now he is plain miserable, just like the older son is miserable at home. He decides that his misery is probably quite a bit worse than any misery in his father’s house, so he decides to go home, hoping maybe his dad will let him be a slave…
Now what about the Father? You can imagine the pain he felt when his son decided to leave. He loves and will miss his son, but he isn’t mad. He also isn’t afraid. He knows that his house is amazing, and that nothing the world can offer will satisfy like he can. So he watches and waits. He knows his son will be back, because he knows that his son is seeking happiness. Then, late one afternoon, he sees a tattered figure on the horizon.
He sprints to his son, filled with ecstasy that he gets to enjoy him once again! He showers the boy with kisses and hugs. The son says something about being unworthy, but the Father is too busy enjoying him to entertain such ridiculous comments. He prepares a feast, they have a party, and for the first time in his life, this son starts to feel genuinely happy.
The other son is angered that his brother found happiness by chasing things that he sees as “wrong.” He is outraged that the father would let him enjoy so much happiness after he had chased it in such terrible places. “Dad, I’ve done everything! I’ve obeyed everything you’ve ever asked, and yet you don’t enjoy me like that! You haven’t thrown a party for me, or even given me some cheap food to have a get-together with my friends! Your other son chased sin and now he’s happy, but I chased obedience and I’m still miserable! Dad, this is not fair!”
In that moment the father turns to him, eyes filled with compassion. “You are my son, not my slave. I have always enjoyed you, and I’ve always wanted you to enjoy me. Son, everything I have is yours. You can have me, and all my resources. I want you to be happy, and you are the one who chose not to seek your happiness.”
You were created to be satisfied, and only God is satisfying. Go ahead, try to find satisfaction elsewhere. God’s not insecure, He knows you’ll be back. But for God’s sake, stop denying that you want to be happy. Stop using God as a reason to justify not seeking satisfaction. Pleasure is what you were made for, and if you don’t find it, you will burn on the inside. Some of you need to just argue it out with the Father like the older son. Some of you may have to recklessly pursue “happiness” in destruction for a season like the younger son. But whatever you do, don’t be lukewarm. If you are going to sin, grow some balls and sin. You aren’t doing yourself or God any favors by obeying as a slave when you’re really a son. Once you know sin isn’t fulfilling, only then will you wholeheartedly run to God. In the book of revelation, Jesus doesn’t get angry with the “cold” Christians, those that are honest that they don’t want God, or the “on fire” Christians, he rejects the lukewarm Christians. The ones that still in their hearts believe sin will satisfy, but with their actions and words live the “Christian life” empty. The younger son’s pursuit of pleasure led to experiencing the Father’s unlimited joy. The older son’s honesty and anger about his emptiness led to encountering the love of the Father he secretly wanted. We owe the world true happiness. Chase joy. Chase fulfillment. Chase truth. It’s narrow, it’s hard to find, and few ever even take the time to wholeheartedly seek it… but it’s worth it.
Your happiness depends on it.