Bumper-sticker theology—pithy phrases sound wise, insightful, and biblical, but are they really? In this series we look at some common sayings, compare them to Scripture, and see if they hold up.
Here’s a scenario: Christian co-workers, a man and a woman, are having struggles in their respective marriages. They commiserate with each other, finding emotional support and connection. It eventually leads to physical intimacy, pursuing divorce from their spouses, and being together. They feel justified in this because, after all, “God wants me happy!”
What should we think about the saying “God wants me happy”?
At face value it’s true, God wants us to be happy! There’s no debate about this—God wants us to enjoy life here on earth, and be happy. He wants us to live joyfully, to see good days, and enjoy the rewards of our labour (Ecclesiastes 2:24; 3:12–13, 22; 5:18–19; 9:9; 1 Peter 3:10; 3 John 2).
Some Christians are uncomfortable with saying this phrase. They have no problem saying “God wants me joyful,” but they say there is a difference between happiness and joy—happiness is circumstantial and superficial while joy is inward and deep. I thought that too but as I dug deeper I found the Bible doesn’t support that distinction. The words are used interchangeably (Psalm 40:16; Proverbs 23:25).
So, if happy and joyful are parallel ideas is anything wrong with saying “God wants me happy”? No, there is nothing wrong with the saying per se, but the context in which it is said can change that. There are two factors determining context.
1. The first contextual factor has to do with values
Some who say “God wants me happy” value happiness above all and exclude or minimize other important pursuits like being loving, self-controlled, and holy. When we value and pursue happiness supremely and live only by the yardstick of whether something makes us happy or not, it is a small step from there to justify sinful choices.
On the other hand, some Christians minimize the value of happiness by putting it in juxtaposition to holiness. They erroneously make it an either/or situation by saying “God wants you holy, not happy.” The truth is God wants us holy and happy. Holiness and happiness are not mutually exclusive. Holiness is the condition of heart in which God is our greatest happiness. The holy heart sees God as its supreme treasure and it’s supremely satisfied in Him.
Where does this idea of valuing happiness above all come from? Here are several sources.
- It comes from sinful thinking
Because of our sin nature our ideas of what we think will make us happy are different than God’s. We tend to think in terms of physical and material satisfaction. God thinks in terms of spiritual satisfaction.
- It comes from immaturity
It’s how a child thinks. In the personal theological paradigm of some people, Romans 8:28 means God exists for us not us for Him. “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” It’s a common belief that God exists to be our “personal genie” waiting to dole out only happy situations.
- It comes from mishandling Scripture
People misinterpret verses like Romans 8:28. Their idea of good is pleasant life-situations, self-satisfaction, and self-fulfilment. God’s idea of good is conformity to the character of Christ. Others select Scriptures out of context to support presuppositions. Passages from the Old Testament that promised material blessing to Israel for obedience are taken and applied to believers today. The prosperity gospel and the word of faith movement teach the error that God only wants you rich and happy and is waiting to bestow that if you have enough faith.
2. The second contextual factor has to do with the source of that happiness
In our pursuit of happiness, it is crucial to recognize there are different types of happiness from different sources. There is a joy that comes from the world, such as “the fleeting pleasures of sin” spoken of in Hebrews 11:25. There is a joy that is part of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22) and a happiness centred in Christ (Philippians 4:4). There is a temporary happiness and an eternal happiness. We can call all of them happiness or joy.
It is correct to say God wants me happy. But He doesn’t want us to value it above other things or base our happiness in superficial temporary circumstances. God built us to desire happiness but He wants us to find it in relation to Him.