Does Jesus want his followers to be happy? The answer may surprise you. Ultimately, your happiness is not his primary concern. What does Jesus say about being his disciple? Where on God’s scale of importance is your personal happiness? Here I address a lie people often believe about the Christian life.
An American Heresy
There is a persistent and uniquely American (although it is being exported to other parts of the world with tragic results) misunderstanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Here are just a few representative statements:
“God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny he has laid out for us.” (Rev. Joel Osteen)
“Where in the Bible does it say I have to drive a Honda?” (Rev. Benny Hinn)
“Well, you need to hear about money, because you ain’t gonna have no love and joy and peace until you get some money!” (Rev. Creflo Dollar)
“You don’t have a god in you, you are one.” (Kenneth Copeland)
Are these men right? Is your life in Christ designed to make you happy, wealthy, and healthy? What does Jesus say about your personal happiness?
The Clearest Picture of a Follower of Jesus
There is a scene in each of the gospels that repeats itself regularly. It goes something like this:
1. Jesus predicts his death;
2. The disciples say or do something that goes against what Jesus just told them;
3. Jesus pulls them together to explain more clearly what it means to be his disciple.
Three times in the Gospel of Mark (chapters 8,9,10) – Jesus predicts his death. The disciples show that they don’t get it. Jesus clarifies. And when he clarifies he gives us the clearest instruction on what it looks like to be one of his followers.
The first time Jesus predicts his death Peter pulls him aside and tells him to stop saying that. Jesus rejects Peter’s opinion and tells him “you don’t have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” Peter wanted Jesus to have success in this world – an earthly kingdom with an earthly throne and earthly power. In fact, Peter wanted to share in that power.
Jesus corrects him. And remember – in this moment Jesus is defining what it means to be his disciple and he wants to make that definition crystal clear. Here’s what he says:
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).
This is the clearest picture of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Three Parts to Discipleship
There are three parts to the statement:
1. Deny self
This is a call to refuse to be guided by your own interests and to surrender control of your own destiny to Jesus. This is on a completely different level from denying yourself some earthly pleasure, like giving up chocolate for Lent. It is NOT the denial of something to the self, but the denial of the self itself. This is hard work.
2. Take up your cross
This was an obvious allusion to Jesus’ own death. It was an invitation for his disciples to join him. And join him they would … eventually. It is certainly a prediction of what it meant for each of these disciples to follow Jesus – they would all die following him (according to the earliest church traditions, Peter was crucified in Rome under the Neronian persecution period).
Jesus says, “Whoever saves his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life, will save it” (Mt. 16:25).
3. Follow Jesus
Where? Wherever he goes. And where does Jesus go? He goes to the hardest places. Wherever people are sick and dying; Wherever children are suffering; Wherever poverty prevails; wherever there’s not enough clean water to drink; Wherever disease is spreading; Wherever evil dictators kill people – Go to the hardest, darkest, sickest places on earth and you will find that Jesus beat you there – he’s already there. And he calls you to join him.
This is not exactly a recipe for earthly happiness. It is a sick perversion of the gospel that tells you that Jesus exists to make you happy – That the “Good News” is that you will be healthy, wealthy, and happy.
At the heart of the “Good News” is a crucified Jesus who calls you to crucify yourself to all your selfish wants and desires and follow him to the hardest places on earth.
What is Jesus Interested In?
Jesus is NOT primarily interested in your happiness. He is interested in your obedience.
If you love me, Jesus said, you will obey my commands (Jn. 14:24). And he commands to you go into the world and make disciples of Jesus Christ (Mt. 28:28). He commands you to deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow him.
Jesus is NOT primarily interested in your happiness. He is interested in your mission.
Jesus makes it clear – he says, “whoever saves his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it.” It’s for the sake of the gospel – the message – the mission.
Do you love me, Jesus asked. Yes, Peter answered. Then feed my sheep (Jn. 21:7), Jesus said. He pointed Peter to his new mission in life.
Do you want to follow me, Jesus asked. You might not have a pillow to lay your head on (Mt. 8:20).
We are becoming enamoured with a Christianity that removes Jesus from the heart of the gospel and replaces him with ourselves, creating a gospel whose mission goes from saving lives to making people healthy, wealthy, and happy.
It is a pale, puny, and pathetic version of what Jesus really came to do – he came to die – and to call you to a life of self-sacrifice, self-denial, and sold-out, radical commitment to HIM.
Does God Want Me to Be Happy?
Does this mean God wants you to be miserable? No. It just means your misery is not his primary concern. Sometimes you will feel happy beyond measure. Other times you will feel miserable. Always you will feel joy. And ultimately you will be fulfilled. This is what it looks like to belong to Jesus.
Does Jesus want me to be happy? That depends on what makes you happy. But, your happiness is not his primary concern. His primary concern is that you be filled with a joy that transcends happiness. That joy is always found in becoming a slave to Jesus (Rom. 7:25).