Does God want us to be happy? Does God want us to feel happy?
To answer the question, first let’s take a look at Scripture.
Father Lawrence Boadt, in his book Reading the Old Testament, shows how the biblical texts, even from a historical critical perspective, reveal the deep insights of the human authors of Scripture. Surrounding the ancient Israelites and the Jewish people were in fact a number of pagan cultures who had their own creation myths written down long before Genesis 1. The predominant themes of these pagan creation myths include a divine struggle out of which, in some fashion, man is created to serve or amuse the gods. These gods, rather than standing above human conflict, seem to instigate it and participate in it, themselves unable to escape their own changing emotional states.
The authors of Scripture, particularly Genesis 1 and 2, borrowed heavily from these pagan creation myths but made a few profound contributions to distance themselves from these false religions. According to Boadt, these key distinguishing elements include the following: there is only one unchanging God, that God’s creation is inherently good, that he created humans to be happy, and that humans themselves wrecked it. In other words, the authors of Scripture understood God to be unchangingly good and merciful and humans to have the capacity for sin that puts us at a distance from God’s generosity.
The story of Exodus, the giving of the law, and the journey through the desert is a visceral reminder that goodness and happiness is the result of living according to the plan of God. God continually promised good things to those who would follow his law, but as Scripture relates, human beings, even the Israelites who were God’s chosen people and who actually saw and experienced God’s saving love, continually turn from him sometimes even moments after promising to God that they would never do so. If you’re reading Scripture as a narrative story, you have to wonder how anything will ever go right for the Israelites. They are simply unable to keep from sinning.
Fortunately, God sends his own Son to save them. He saves them from their sins and the burdens of the law, giving them a freedom in his love which they never had before. This is a moment of great joy! Indeed, we ourselves experience this joy at the moment of our Baptism.
That said, it is amazing that some Christians still get this wrong. In perusing articles as background for this piece, I happened across an article by a fellow Christian who wrote plainly that it is a lie that God wants us to be happy. “We are here to praise God,” she says. This seems to be more of a mentality of those ancient pagan religions, in which man is created at the pleasure of the gods, in order that we might serve them and make them feel better about themselves.
However, we know that our God is a generous God who gives and creates, not because he is lacking or needs anything from us, but because he wants us to share in the fullness of his life. He wants us to be happy so much that he became one of us to redeem us and show us the way! The generosity of God’s love is limitless, far exceeding our human understanding.
But how are we to experience God’s generosity?
Both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have helpful insights that differ slightly in emphasis. Both recognize that joy is the natural response to our encounter with God’s merciful love and both recognize that the shape of this joy changes over the course of person’s journey to God. We might ask, does joy lead to holiness or does holiness lead to joy? The answer, according to these two popes, is a resounding “yes!”
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis emphasizes the need to reconnect with the kerygma of the faith, or that most basic encounter of God’s saving love. This is the love that first gave us joy, which gives birth to our entire Christian journey. Francis writes, “The joy of evangelizing always arises from grateful remembrance.” Francis would clearly say that we become holy by our joy.
In Deus Caritas Est, Benedict’s emphasis is slightly different. While not denying the role of that initial encounter with Christ’s love, Benedict describes the journey to God, which is a process in which “our will and God’s will increasingly coincide.” He proceeds to write, “Then self- abandonment to God increases and God becomes our joy.” In his statement on World Youth Day 2012, Pope Benedict said, “To have lasting joy we need to live in love and truth. We need to live in God. […] If we observe [the commandments], we will find the path to life and happiness.” In other words, Benedict makes clear that the fullness of joy is the result of holiness.
Both of these facets of joy are closely interrelated because both our initial justification in faith and our sanctification flow from the same merciful love of God. We cannot consider one aspect without the other. Justification behooves our sanctification and sanctification requires our initial justification in Christ Jesus. What Evangelii Gaudium emphasizes is that joy of conversion; what Deus Caritas Est emphasizes is the joy of holiness. Both are lasting, enduring, and form the basis of all Christian activity, as we go out and serve the world in joy.
Do we need to constantly feel this joy?
Benedict describes how it is important not to associate the love of God with “sentiment.” He says, “Contact with the visible manifestations of God’s love can awaken within us a feeling of joy born of the experience of being loved.” In other words, sentiment can be a “marvellous first spark,” but Benedict continues to describe how the joy we have in response to God’s love engages the “whole person” including both the will and the intellect. Joy is something much more profound and enduring than the mere “feeling” of joy.
Francis too seems careful to avoid using the word “feeling” in in the context of joy. In his writing, one “has joy” or one “rejoices” or one “enters into the great stream of joy” but one does not “feel joy” as it relates to Christian faith. This is important because, as both Benedict and Francis himself suggest, there may be many times when we are suffering or are experiencing great difficulties, but even then we can still have joy. This joy is born of an experience of closeness with God, even in our trials. Francis writes in Gaudete et Exsultate, quoting himself in Evangelii Gaudium, “Hard times may come, when the cross casts its shadow, yet nothing can destroy the supernatural joy that ‘adapts and changes, but always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved.’”
The experience and feelings of joy and happiness can be alluring. We know that, in the history of Christians, many have truly experienced God’s presence in their lives through feelings of true joy and consolation. As Benedict says, this feeling of joy can be a spark for change and growth. Yet, for the younger in faith, the risk is that this feeling becomes paramount. There is an equal danger among Christians to think that the lack of feelings of joy indicates that something is wrong. In pursuit of these feelings, Christians might desire to rethink the path of Christian life, perhaps including the liturgy, in order to artificially create the feeling of joy in themselves and in others.
In contrast to the high production value of some Sunday experiences, which might explicitly seek to rouse certain feelings in the worshipping community, we should remember that one of the greatest expressions of joy in the history of the world centered around the lowly manger, as kings, shepherds, and the angels themselves rejoiced at the birth of the Incarnate Lord. We know that the highest experience of joy on earth is our union with that same Christ in the Eucharist, which often occurs without great fanfare and, more often than not, in silence. Supernatural joy can very frequently arise from simple, silent encounters, or “renewed encounters” as Francis puts it, with God’s love that engages our passions, sure, but also our will and intellect.
Finally, those who rejoice in God long to share that joy with others. Those who have experienced the love of Christ Jesus cannot help but live selflessly. Francis writes, “We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being. Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?”