God is happy and desires the happiness of his people. To many, that statement sounds almost heretical—what about holiness? Randy Alcorn, bestselling author and founder of Eternal Perspective Ministries, wants to set the record straight. His latest book, Happiness, is an encyclopedic exploration of the biblical reasons for holding happiness in high esteem. Jen Pollock Michel, author of Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition, and the Life of Faith, spoke with Alcorn about experiencing happiness the way God intends.
How did you decide to write a book on happiness? Did your book Heaven inspire an interest in the topic?
After writing Heaven, I heard many stories about the losses of loved ones. People were asking, “How can I be happy”—they probably wouldn’t use that word because it sounds so unspiritual—“when my seven-year-old has just died of leukemia?”
I began to think more and more of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, when he describes himself as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10). He doesn’t say “rejoicing, yet always sorrowful.” It’s rejoicing that’s the constant, even as this leaves plenty of room for sorrow and struggle.
Something would be terribly wrong if we weren’t grieving for this world and those who suffer. But is it okay to be happy when we live in a world of hurt? And beyond that, is it actually God’s calling? Because if God commands us to rejoice, he must empower us to rejoice. He must want us to be happy. That’s what got me interested in God’s happiness. Is God happy? Can he be happy when he sees so much sin in the world, when he knows what his Son endured on his behalf, when he sees the persecution of his people? Can we?
Clearly, the answer is yes.
Those questions motivated me to go deeper into Scripture and to see what people through the ages have said about happiness, especially the Puritans. The average life span of their children was so short. It wasn’t uncommon for a woman to bear 12 children and see only four of them survive into adulthood. They lived in hardship we can’t imagine. And yet they sincerely affirmed the loving, sovereign hand of God and the ultimate happiness of his people.
You argue that happiness is just as central to the Christian life as holiness. What’s at stake if, as you say, we mistakenly believe that holiness comes at the expense of happiness or vice versa?
Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, the Reformers, and Pascal have said that all people seek happiness all the time. Nobody has ever said that all people seek holiness. If we set happiness and holiness against each other, then we assure that our children, our grandchildren, and the people in our churches and communities choose a version of happiness that is in contrast to holiness. This will put them on the other side of the plan of God and guarantee, ultimately, that they will not only be unholy but also unhappy. To pit these two against each other is like saying, “If you want holiness, you want the church; if you want happiness, you want the world.” The stakes are huge.
Jesus really did say, “Happy are the peacemakers.” He really did say, “Happy are those who are reviled and persecuted for my name’s sake, for great is their reward in heaven.” In other words, we can enjoy a happiness that is based on the eternal pleasures and joys that God has in store for us. The gospel is that good news of happiness and holiness.