Bad theology will eventually hurt people and dishonor God in proportion to its badness.
— John Piper
The other day, I was browsing the greeting card section of a local retailer. My wife was shopping for some Thank You cards, and I was doing what any good husband does—hanging around trying not to look bored. I noticed a card with a little cross on the placard behind the stack that had a cross on it. You know the kind. Those little indicators that tell shoppers, “This is a Christian card.” Clearly, this is an attempt to assure the Christian shopper the card is biblically-approved for purchase. Now this particular chain of stores isn’t known for its Christian values, so naturally I was curious what this card said. I pulled it from the rack, and in a fancy script font, with a friendly background of a sliced orange, the card assured me, “God loves you and wants you to be happy.”
I got to thinking, is this an example of bad theology?
Clearly, God does love us. Scripture teaches a great many things about the attributes of God, with “love” being one that the culture at large usually latches on to. After all, isn’t love the greatest of these (1 Corinthians 13:13)? We’re supposed to love our neighbor as ourselves. And doesn’t the Bible say “God is love” in 1 John 4:19? The problem, I think, is the culture writ large views God as whimsical, loving, benevolent granddaddy in the sky. A kind-hearted old man with a flowing beard, who loves his children and wants to give them anything and everything their hearts’ desire. The problem is, this is hardly an accurate picture of God’s love.
How about happiness? Does God want us to be happy? I supposed that depends on your definition of happiness. According to dictionary.com, happiness is defined as “the quality or state of being happy” or “good fortune; pleasure; contentment; joy.”
Contrast this with my Logos Dictionary of Bible Themes (Manser), which says:
“A state of pleasure or joy experienced both by people and by God, but subject to change according to circumstances. True happiness derives from a secure and settled knowledge of God and a rejoicing in his works and covenant faithfulness. God rejoices over his faithful people.”
What is interesting is the Bible has very little to say about happiness per se. In fact, the word “happiness” doesn’t even appear in the New Testament in the English Standard Version (ESV) translation; and “happy” or “happiness” only appears in about 10 verses in the Old Testament. The New International Version (NIV) and New English Translation (NET) do use the word “happy” or “happiness” in a couple of dozen places, where the ESV typically uses the word “glad”, “joyful”, or “cheerful.” For example, Proverbs 15:13:
A happy heart makes the face cheerful, but heartache crushes the spirit. (NIV)
A joyful heart makes the face cheerful, but by a painful heart the spirit is broken. (NET)
A glad heart makes a cheerful face, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is crushed. (ESV)
Or James 5:13:
Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. (NIV)
Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone in good spirits? He should sing praises. (NET)
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. (ESV)
What was interesting to me as I did a word study on “happy” and “happiness” is I could find no Biblical references at all that indicated that it is one of God’s chief desires that his people are happy. I think this is because God is more interested in our holiness rather than our happiness.
The culture (along with our sinful nature) approaches happiness from the “if it feels good, do it” attitude. Happiness is seen as doing whatever you want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. This is not a Biblical understanding of happiness. From a Christian perspective, God (who is the creator of life) knows those actions and activities that will truly make humans happy. First among these is a relationship with him. In Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, he writes, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10). Our happiness should be directly related to the nature of our relationship with God, and not with temporal, material things, feelings, or activities. As Manser says, our happiness “derives from a secure and settled knowledge of God.” We should rejoice (i.e.: find happiness) in his works in our lives and our faithfulness to his word.
Does God love us? Clearly. Does God want us to be happy? Yes. But not in the way that the world typically thinks. True happiness is not found in doing what we want, but is instead found doing what God wants. Which goes to show, greeting cards probably aren’t the best source of information on accurate Christian theology.
Manser, M. H. (2009). Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies. London: Martin Manser.