Do you want to be holy? I assume the answer is, “Yes.” Do you want to be happy? Unfortunately, many people think that a “yes” to the first question requires a “no” to the second. But listen to an opposing voice, John Wesley.
Wesley on Holiness and Happiness
Describing Wesley’s perspective on these two questions, Albert Outler wrote:
[John Wesley’s] emphases on duty and discipline are auxiliary to his main concern for human happiness…. ‘The best end which any creature can pursue is happiness in God.’ The human tragedy is that persons seek happiness in false values that leave them unhappy. Only the holy are truly happy, only the hallowed life is truly blessed, only the truly loving are actually joyful.
Outler points to fifty-four times when Wesley linked happiness and holiness. Consider a few examples from his sermons:
- Sermon 2 – An “almost Christian” is a person who is not “happy in God.”
- Sermon 6 – The righteousness of faith makes us “holy and happy.”
- Sermon 7 – “True religion, or a heart right toward God and man, implies happiness, as well as holiness.”
- Sermon 12 – One of the signs of true conversion is that we walk “in holy love and happy obedience.”
- Sermon 18 – A mark of the new birth is happiness. “Whether they are in ease or in pain, in sickness or health, in abundance or want, they are happy in God.”
- Sermon 28 – Our eye is evil “if we have any other design than to enjoy God, to be happy in him both now and forever.”
The Westminster Confession asks, “For what end did God create man?” Wesley answered, “You are made to be happy in God.” He advised parents to remind their children: “God made you to be happy in him; and nothing else can make you happy. Many indeed think of being happy with God in heaven; but being happy in God on earth never entered into their thoughts.”
On his deathbed, Wesley sang a hymn by Isaac Watts, “I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath….” All through his last hours on earth, Wesley repeated the opening words of the hymn, “I’ll praise; I’ll praise; I’ll praise.” John Wesley died rejoicing because he was holy.
However, this picture of Wesley rejoicing in holiness does not represent his early life. In his Oxford days, Wesley showed little joy; no-one confused the “Holy Club” with a “Happy Club.” In Wesley’s mind, holiness was gained only through painful duty. Wesley was certainly not happy on the ship traveling to Georgia, fearing shipwreck and facing eternity with no assurance of salvation. He was far from happy as he tried to minister in his own strength while in Georgia.
Everything changed at Aldersgate. From then on, Wesley began to preach a message of assurance: we can know we are right with God. He preached a message of holiness: we can be transformed into the image of God. He preached a message of happiness: we can be happy because we are holy. Happiness, Wesley insisted, is the natural result of perfect love for God and neighbor.
Happiness, Wesley insisted, is the natural result of perfect love for God and neighbor.
Happiness or Joy?
Wesley wrote, “You are made to be happy in God.” Someone might respond, “Christians should seek joy, not happiness. Happiness is a temporary emotion based on external circumstances; joy is a lasting inner spirit that does not depend on circumstances.” This is a common misconception. In Scripture, “joy” and “happy” carry the same idea, as Philip Brown explains in his recent article. The word translated “blessed” in the New Testament can also be translated as “happy.” Indeed, in his Notes on the New Testament, Wesley translated, “Happy are the pure in heart.”
In his famous dictionary, Samuel Johnson, a friend of John Wesley, defined happiness as a “state where desire is satisfied.” A holy person should desire God above all. When God satisfies a holy person with himself, that person is happy. Psalm 37:4 promises, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” If you delight in God, your desires will be satisfied. You will receive what you truly desire: more of God. You will be happy.
If you delight in God, your desires will be satisfied. You will receive what you truly desire: more of God. You will be happy.
Philip Brown defines biblical happiness as “the satisfaction that comes from attaining what is good from God’s perspective.” “Happy are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8). They have achieved what is good from God’s perspective. Holy people can be happy because they are attaining what is good from God’s perspective, a relationship with God, a pure heart, increasing likeness to Christ, love for others, and more. They have received what they most desire: relationship with God. Already, in this life, the pure in heart have begun to see God.
Holiness and Happiness in the Christian Life
The pursuit of holiness and happiness in God empowers a victorious Christian life. A key to consistent victory over temptation is to find joy and happiness in obedience. In the face of temptation, a joyful Christian has power that a sullen Christian will never have. Happiness in God makes sin look less attractive and makes holiness look beautiful and appealing. Holy people understand that since sin cannot bring lasting joy, we will never have a happy Christian life if we are in bondage to sin! The “life more abundant” that Jesus promised (Jn 10:10) is a victorious life.
The Puritan Thomas Watson wrote: “After the fall, the affections were misplaced on wrong objects; in sanctification, they are turned into a sweet order and harmony, the grief placed on sin, the love on God, the joy on heaven.” Holy people find happiness in pleasing God through obedience, not in sin. Their happiness follows from the fact that they are holy. Satisfaction in God manifests itself in obedience because it sees pleasing God as the pathway to attaining all that is really good.
True holiness and happiness go hand in hand. The holiest people should be the happiest people.
The pursuit of holiness and happiness in God also empowers evangelism. Paul wrote that the life of the Christian should make the gospel attractive (Titus 2:10). That sounds like a holy and happy Christian. When people in your town see you, do they think, “I wonder what makes him so happy”? Or do they say, “There goes Grumpy Gus from the holiness church. Holiness must make people miserable!” If holiness brings happiness, the lives of holy people should be the church’s greatest advertisement.
True holiness and happiness go hand in hand. The holiest people should be the happiest people. An intimate walk with God brings joy and happiness even in the face of difficulties. This is not because everything is going smoothly but because, “Happy are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
Holiness or happiness? I’ll take both!
Miles, Rebekah L. “Happiness, Holiness, and the Moral Life in John Wesley” in The Cambridge Companion to John Wesley, ed by Randy L. Maddox and Jason E. Vickers, 207-24. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.)