Like every generation before, we face the same ancient choice, and it’s not a choice between happiness and holiness, but between two different quests for happiness (one evil, one holy).
Such a question actually reveals a common mistake of pitting holiness and happiness against each other. “God is more interested in you being holy than happy,” so the line goes.
Some of my favorite theologians fall prey to this subtle dichotomy. And this includes one of the best thinkers I love (David Wells). In charity, and in much gratitude for everything I have learned from his writings, I’ll post a few paragraphs from his 2014 book where this tension arises, and I’ll make a friendly amendment later.
In attempting to criticize the therapeutic definition of the faith in so many pulpits, he writes:
In this psychological world, the God of love is a God of love precisely and only because he offers us inward balm. Empty, distracted, meandering, and dissatisfied, we come to him for help. Fill us, we ask, with a sense of completeness! Fill our emptiness! Give us a sense of direction amid the mass of competing ways and voices in the modern world! Fill the aching emptiness within!
This is how many in the church today, especially in the evangelical church, are thinking. It is how they are praying. They are yearning for something more real within themselves than what they currently have. This is true of adults and of teenagers as well. Yes, we say earnestly, hopefully, maybe even a little wistfully, be to us the God of love!
Those who live in this psychological world think differently from those who inhabit a moral world. In a psychological world, we want therapy; in a moral world, a world of right and wrong and good and evil, we want redemption. In a psychological world, we want to be happy. In a moral world, we want to be holy. In the one, we want to feel good but in the other we want to be good…
God stands before us not as our Therapist or our Concierge. He stands before us as the God of utter purity to whom we are morally accountable. He is objective to us and not lost within the misty senses of our internal world. His Word comes to us from outside of our self because it is the Word of his truth. It summons us to stand before the God of the universe, to hear his command that we must love him and love our neighbors as ourselves. He is not before us to be used by us. He is not there begging to enter our internal world and satisfy our therapeutic needs. We are before him to hear his commandment. And his commandment is that we should be holy, which is a much greater thing than being happy. . . .
It is true that there are psychological benefits to following Christ, and happiness may be its by-product. These, though, are not fundamentally what Christian faith is about. It is about the God who is other than ourselves, who is the infinite and gracious God.
Now it’s certainly appropriate to push back on culturally defined happiness (like consumer-centered materialism, sexual liberation, and self-centeredness in all its many forms). And it’s certainly right to push back on the idea that holiness is non-essential in the Christian life. And it’s certainly right to attack the idea of God as nothing more than a Santa Claus for our felt needs. God self-exists outside of us. He is the wholly pure Creator to whom all creatures will give an account.
But by distancing holiness from happiness we create a false dichotomy.