Happiness versus Holiness?

In order to sound profound, preachers and devotional writers will often make statements like this:

Feel-good religion is concerned with making people happy; but God is concerned with making people holy.

I suppose this is motivating for some people, but it makes me bristle inside. I understand the idea behind such statements, and I even agree up to a point: the goals of the Christian life and what Jesus preached go beyond “self-actualization” or “your best life now.” Sure.

But contrasting happiness and holiness creates at least two new problems. The first is philosophical (or theological), and the second is practical.

The philosophical problem is that it ignores about three thousand years of conversation about what “happiness” or “the good life” actually is. Epicurus, Aristotle, the author of Proverbs, all talked about the moral aspect of happiness. According to Aristotle, a life well-lived meant pursuing moral virtue. The author of Proverbs agrees:

Better to be poor and walk in integrity
than to be crooked in one’s ways even though rich. (Proverbs 28:6)

Aristotle observed that people can have lots of money and still be miserable. Happiness was not the same as comfort, pleasure, or easy living. Yet in order to pursue moral virtue, one must also have “a moderate amount of wealth.” Again, the author of Proverbs agrees:

…give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that I need,
or I shall be full, and deny you,
and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
or I shall be poor, and steal,
and profane the name of my God. (Proverbs 30:8-9)

You do not find any distinction between happiness and holiness in the Hebrew Bible. A happy life was a holy life, and vice versa. God’s holiness was to be reflected in the equality, social stability, and right living of God’s people. The Kingdom of God was supposed to be a happy place:

Thus says the Lord of hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets. (Zechariah 8:4-5)

One rabbi explained his Judaism to me this way: we want to make God happy, and God is happiest when we are fully alive. If you spend a lot of time in Proverbs, you come to see how odd the contemporary Christian distinction between happiness and holiness is. In fact, the more I hear the statement, the more sanctimonious it sounds.

Which brings me to the second, practical problem: it sounds bad. God doesn’t care about your happiness? Well, does God care about the happiness of people who can’t get enough food? Does God care about the happiness of people trapped in abusive relationships? This is not the kind of person, or God, with whom I would want to be in a relationship.

The idea that God wants us to be holy, not happy, is not only a bad sales pitch: it is lousy politics and lousy theology. It is lousy theology because it misrepresents the holiness that we see in Jesus Christ. Jesus did care about human happiness, especially those that religious people dismissed. If a human being were not concerned about other people’s happiness, we would never call that person “holy.” We would use other words.

It is bad politics because it reflects a position of privilege: people with all they want can afford to be dismissive of happiness. Justice is concerned with happiness and the freedom of all creatures to be fully alive.

I think there is still a lot of potential in talking about happiness and holiness, but it goes in a different direction: what happens to Aristotle’s notion of “a life well-lived” (which included a good death) in the shadow of the cross? In the light of Easter morning? How is God’s holiness bound up in the happiness of all of God’s creation? Should hearing the “Good News” make us happy?

5 thoughts on “Happiness versus Holiness?

  1. comment on my thought: Happiness comes from people, places and things. Joy comes from knowing the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior. Thanks, Dave.

    • Thanks for your comment, Barbara. I know plenty of Christian devotional writers describe it that way, and I don’t have a problem with Christians making those kinds of distinctions. I just wish folks would study etymology and philosophy before they made assertions about what a word means!

  2. Perhaps it could be said that happiness is the goal and holiness is the means of getting there?

    John Piper has taken some (probably well-deserved) heat about his positions on women’s roles in the church and home, but I suspect he is right on the money about the intersection of joy and holiness, i.e. his philosophy of “Christian hedonism”. Of course we all are, and should be, seeking happiness; and happiness is most abundant in its very source, God…. whom we approach (as I understand) by trying to be holy, as He is holy.

    Unfortunately, as you’ve pointed out (tangentially here, and at eloquent length elsewhere), too many of us have the idea that holiness is found in who we don’t sleep with and, worse, what “lazy” people we don’t lavish excess upon.

    • Yeah, I find myself resonating with a lot of Piper’s writing on the subject. He definitely has a C.S. Lewis-y kind of understanding of pleasure, happiness, and “the Good.” (I just can’t get over his authoritarian ideas of sovereignty or social order.) I think you are right, holiness is a means and not an end. Maybe that’s why I get antsy when people start out with God’s holiness and sovereignty rather than God’s love and creative desire as their theological first principle.

  3. Wesley identified true holiness with happiness as well. My theory is that almost every sin is an attempt to find happiness in destructive ways. We have to trust that our highest joy will be had in our highest surrender…thanks.

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