Oswald Chambers and the Happiness Myth

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Oswald Chambers was a great evangelist, teacher, and author. He is best known for My Utmost for His Highest, which may be “the most beloved devotional of all time” with over 13 million copies in print. Unfortunately, however, Chambers departed from the Christian tradition in his teaching on happiness, spreading a myth that continues to persist today.

Happiness: An Insult to Jesus?

Randy Alcorn identifies Chambers as one of the first Christian teachers to speak against happiness. From Augustine to Anselm to Aquinas, the church has always had a robust theology of happiness. Christians have taught that God created us for happiness, and the goal of the gospel is to make us happy in God (see “Holiness and the Pursuit of Happiness in God”). Wesley insisted that happiness is only another name for the Christian religion.

Chambers, however, accepted the world’s wrong definition of happiness, then contrasted it to Christian joy in forceful terms: “Joy should not be confused with happiness. In fact, it is an insult to Jesus Christ to use the word happiness in connection with Him.” The great Christian tradition, however, has been united in teaching that happiness and joy are synonymous (see “Happiness and Joy—What’s the Difference?”).

The world always misunderstands and misdefines important concepts. Love, for example, is often defined by the world as a mere feeling—something that you can fall in and out of. But we do not say, “God doesn’t care about love.” Instead, we explain love from God’s perspective. We offer a Christian theology of love in place of the world’s misunderstanding.

Instead of saying that God doesn’t care about happiness, we should offer a Christian theology of happiness in place of the world’s misunderstanding.

This is what we should do for happiness, especially since it is such a fundamental human longing. Instead of saying that God doesn’t care about happiness, we should offer a Christian theology of happiness in place of the world’s misunderstanding. We should not respond to “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence by saying, “Well, actually, God doesn’t care about that.” Instead, we should rejoice that God himself is the end of that universal human pursuit. God created us to be happy in him, and nothing else can satisfy our longing for happiness.

Holiness, Not Happiness?

Especially important for holiness-minded Christians is how Chambers pitted happiness against holiness. In his September 1 entry “Destined To Be Holy,” Chambers claims, “We must continually remind ourselves of the purpose of life. We are not destined to happiness, nor to health, but to holiness.” He goes on: “The only thing that truly matters is whether a person will accept the God who will make him holy. At all costs, a person must have the right relationship with God.” Again, “God has only one intended destiny for mankind— holiness. His only goal is to produce saints. God is not some eternal blessing-machine for people to use, and He did not come to save us out of pity— He came to save us because He created us to be holy.”

In our fear that scriptural holiness will be diluted by cheap grace or easy believism, it’s tempting to downplay the importance of happiness. But when we pit holiness against happiness, our tune clashes with the Christian tradition like a monkey playing cymbals at a symphony, disrupting the beauty and harmony of biblical holiness, turning it into something harsh and dissonant. Anselm insisted, “It ought not be disputed”—it is not a matter for debate, but a consensual Christian teaching—“that rational nature was made holy by God, in order to be happy in enjoying Him.” For Wesley, holiness and happiness was never an either/or, it was always a both/and (see “Holiness or Happiness?”).

We need to beware of any reductionism that distorts Christian teaching. For holiness-minded Christians, it is easy to latch onto the strong statements of Holiness writers. But whether it’s in books or on social media, “x but not y” statements are often reductionistic and unhelpful. These forceful statements attract attention, but they preserve one truth by downplaying another and thus end up perverting both. As I have argued elsewhere, to divorce happiness from holiness is to misunderstand both. Holiness and happiness are God’s will for his church. They cannot be separated.

The good news of the gospel is that the happy God pours out his happiness upon us so that we can be happy in him. This is not prosperity preaching—it is classic Christianity. God makes us holy so that we can be happy. Because God is happy, we are destined for happiness. The only question is whether or not we will receive his offer of happiness in Christ instead of trying to seek it in that which is fleeting and bound to leave us empty.

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.