Holiness and the Pursuit of Happiness in God

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The pursuit of happiness is tantamount to life and liberty in the American mind. Yet, far too often, we seek it in all the wrong places. Perhaps this is why our notion of happiness as believers is so thoroughly muddled. If happiness is what the world wants, we reason, it must not be what God wants for us. In turn, we pit happiness against holiness. Oswald Chambers, for example, claimed that “we are not destined to happiness … but to holiness.”

The issue is further complicated by the redefinition of happiness as a fleeting emotion that is qualitatively different from Christian joy. After all, good people don’t always feel happy. E. M. Bartlett exhausts a commonplace theology of happiness: “There’s a happy land of promise over in the great beyond, … Ev’rybody will be happy over there.” It’s assumed that happiness requires carefree living, and this is not possible in a world where “all creation has been groaning until now” (Rom. 8:22). This is nothing new. John Wesley commented in his own day, “Many indeed think of being happy with God in heaven; but being happy in God on earth never entered into their thoughts.”

While these ideas have the glimmer of gold, they contradict nearly two thousand years of Christian teaching on holiness and happiness. Still, one does not need to look far—especially in the Methodist tradition—to find a richer understanding. The church has always taught that the happy God is invested in the happiness of his creatures. “It ought not to be disputed,” Anselm insisted, “that rational nature was made holy by God, in order to be happy in enjoying Him.” Retrieving this vital connection is essential to the future of Christian piety.

Holiness and Happiness Inseparable

If the Great Tradition has a say, holiness and happiness are married without a prenup. Augustine understood that “no one is happy unless he is holy,” and Aquinas prioritized the saints’ happiness in the Summa. In tradition, as in Scripture (Ps. 146:5; Job 5:17), “happiness” is freely used as a synonym for “joy.” They are of the same essence: delight and satisfaction in God, and in all that he calls good (Ps. 90:14). In general, “blessed” and “happy” are likewise synonymous.

To divorce happiness from holiness is to misunderstand both.

John Wesley, in tune with the democracy of the dead, placed this theme at the center of his theology. Albert Outler identifies 54 times when he explicitly linked holiness and happiness. More importantly, these themes saturate his thought (see especially his sermon “The Unity of the Divine Being”). When holiness is at the fore, happiness is close by. In A Plain Account, it is happiness that characterizes the ones who love God with all their heart: “He is their one desire, their one delight, and they are continually happy in him.” God’s will is for us to be “all happy, and holy, and perfect in love” (Charles Wesley), three themes in indissoluble union. This is why Wesley can say without flinching that happiness is only another name for the Christian religion, and “he who is not happy is not a Christian.”

For much of its history, the Methodist tradition preserved Wesley’s vision. Adam Clarke encourages us to “be happy, for it is the will of God that ye should be so; therefore he wills that ye should be holy: holiness and happiness are inseparable; sin and misery are equally so.” The theme proliferates in the holiness movement. A Wesleyana collector recently showed me a handwritten note from Phoebe Palmer: “Holiness, happiness, and usefulness are inseparable.”

This catholic truth finds equally deep roots in the Reformed tradition. Wesley’s thought was shaped by the Puritans, with Thomas Brooks being the writer par excellence on holiness and happiness. In The Crown and Glory of Christianity: Or, Holiness, The Only Way To Happiness, Brooks argues that “holiness is happiness in the bud, and happiness is holiness at the full. Happiness is nothing but the quintessence of holiness.” To divorce happiness from holiness is to misunderstand both.

The Eternal Happiness of the Holy Trinity

Holiness and happiness are as indivisible as the being of God. God’s happiness cannot be separated from his holiness. While holiness includes the idea of sinlessness, it is more than one attribute among many. It is the summary of all God’s excellencies. As the greatest possible being, God is holy, separate from all that is not God, perfect in every way, and thus infinitely blessed.

After we have spilled all our ink trying to describe the divine nature, we must conclude with the last drop that God is happy being God. Thomas Oden’s treatment of God’s character climaxes with a section on divine beatitude: “Having dealt with the [attributes of God] … there yet remains one more attribute of God that brings these all together in a blessed focus: the extraordinary notion of divine happiness. Only God can be happy in the way that God is happy.”

This blessedness is experienced in the eternal communion of the Holy Trinity. Because God is holy, holy, holy, he is happy, happy, happy. The Father, Son, and Spirit find eternal delight in one another and in their shared holiness. Fred Sanders says it best: “The boundless life that God lives in himself, at home, within the happy land of the Trinity above all worlds, is perfect. It is complete, inexhaustibly full, and infinitely blessed.”

Created in the Image of the Holy, Happy God

Out of the fullness of his being, and not from any need in himself, God created all things. We might dare to say that the divine happiness bubbled over, and the world was born with a splash. The crown of creation is man, who alone shares the image of the holy, happy God. 

The image of God, deeply relational, also entails rationality and righteousness (Eph. 4:24). Anselm insisted on understanding these qualities in the light of God’s desire for man’s happiness: “the intelligent creature was made holy, and for this purpose, viz., to be happy in the enjoyment of God.” Only a rational and righteous creature can perceive and rejoice in the revealed beauty of God.

To glorify God is to be happy in him.

Jonathan Edwards developed this at length in his theology, arguing that “the essence of glorifying [God] … [consists] in the creature’s rejoicing in God’s manifestations of his beauty, which is the joy and happiness we speak of.” Man glorifies God when, having perceived God’s perfections, he rejoices and finds in God the delight and satisfaction for which his soul was created. Simply put, to glorify God is to be happy in him.

Wesley preached that there is only one God and “there is only one happiness for created spirits, either in heaven or earth. This one God made our heart for himself, and it cannot rest till it resteth in him.” He agreed with the Westminster Shorter Catechism that the chief end of man is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever,” but quipped that “the common man does not understand what it means to glorify God any more than he understands Greek”; therefore, he thought, we ought to say, “Be happy in God!”

The Gospel of the Happy God: Holiness and Happiness Restored

The state of our world makes it clear that the first family failed to fill the earth with the glory of God as the water covers the sea. By abandoning the fountain of holiness and happiness, they plunged the world into sin and misery. C. S. Lewis described the original sin as yielding to Satan’s temptation to “invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God.” Human history has been “the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”

For miserable sinners like us, there is good news: the Father has sent the Son and the Spirit to bring us back to God. As a public school teenager, I read the Bible and my sad, sorry life was swept up in “the gospel of the glory of the blessed God” (1 Tim. 1:11); or, as William Knibb paraphrased, “the gospel of the happy God.” Spurgeon thought that Knibb got at “the very gist of the matter,” and added that “it is, I suppose, because God is infinitely happy, that he delights in the happiness of his creatures.” Fred Sanders could have foretold my conversion, but it would have been too good for an inconsolable teenager to believe at the time: “Because God is happy, the omnipotent happiness of God is coming to get you.”

The gospel promises justification, regeneration, sanctification, and wisdom. But above all else, it promises God. We need more than something from God; we need God. The happy God makes us happy in Christ with every happiness in heavenly places (Eph. 1:3):

Happy the souls to Jesus joined,
And saved by grace alone;
Walking in all Thy ways, we find
Our heaven on earth begun. (Charles Wesley)

Since God is holy and happy, it is impossible to partake of the divine nature without sharing in the divine beatitude. An unhappy holy one is a contradiction in terms. The one who is happy has all that he desires; he is delivered from the power of carnal desires so that he can say, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you” (Ps. 73:25). His deepest desires are satisfied in God. Blessed, happy, are the pure in heart (Mt. 5:8).

Of course, Wesley is sensitive to those who have “deep nervous disorders” or are facing “violent temptation.” He does not ignore instances in which “clouds and darkness…overwhelm the soul and suspend its happiness.” But even distressing emotions do not mean that someone is fundamentally unhappy. At all times, a Christian can be satisfied in God despite his or her circumstances. As to Paul and Silas, God gives songs in the night.

Holiness and Happiness in Fellowship with the Father, Son, and Spirit

Christian happiness is happiness in God, and God has primarily revealed himself as Father, Son, and Spirit. Wesley understood that “[happiness] begins when we begin to know God, by the teaching of his own Spirit. As soon as the Father of spirits reveals his Son in our hearts, and the Son reveals his Father, the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts; then, and not till then, we are happy.” The gospel makes us holy and happy by bringing us home to the Trinity.

The gospel makes us holy and happy by bringing us home to the Trinity.

Christian happiness lives and breathes “in the constant communion with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ; then, in all the heavenly tempers which he hath wrought in us by his Spirit.” Wesley does not see his favorite epistle, 1 John, as dealing directly with faith or with “inward and outward holiness,” but with “the foundation of all—the happy and holy communion which the faithful have with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” (see 1 Jn. 1:3, 4; 2:1). John Fletcher likewise recognized that “the holiness and happiness of the first Christians depended on the experiential knowledge of the mystery of the holy trinity; or of God manifested in their souls as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; or as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.”

We experience happiness when our desires are satisfied; therefore, to be satisfied in God, our desires must be reoriented towards him. This is possible (Ps. 73:25), and it happens as the Father conforms us to the image of his Son through the blessed Holy Spirit. All of our idols are torn down and replaced with the delightful fellowship of the triune God.

Enjoying God in the Loving Community of a Holy, Happy Church

The brilliance of Wesley and the crown of Methodism is a deep understanding of the need for holiness and happiness to be worked out in a loving community of faith. Fellowship “with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” entails fellowship “with us” (1 Jn. 1:3). Happiness is incomplete apart from embodied communion in the local church (2 Jn. 1:12). There is no happiness but social happiness. The primary work of the Holy Trinity is a holy, happy church.

The primary work of the Holy Trinity is a holy, happy church.

This will need to be unpacked another time. For now, find a friend and ask him, “Are you happy in God? God has made you to be happy in him.” In the pursuit of holiness, we find the happiness for which our soul was made. David prays in one breath, “Create in me a clean heart” (Ps. 51:10), and in the next, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (Ps. 51:12). He seeks holiness in view of his happiness in God: “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice” (Ps. 51:8). We should do the same. Delight in God and in all that he calls good. Resolve to “choose the holy joys that always last” (Haldor Lillenas). Seek what is good from God’s perspective.

The Christian dream, “the pursuit of happiness in God,” is founded on certain promises: “Seek and you shall find.” In light of all this,

Then let us go on, Till Jesus appear,
And give us the crown Of righteousness here;
Till justified fully His promise we prove,
All happy, and holy, And perfect in love.

This article was originally published in Firebrand Magazine.

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.