I realized that I’ve been running from myself in attempts to find a “world” which will satisfy my dissatisfied heart, only to find that this dissatisfaction won’t be filled by this world. It’s pointing to a reality that is other-worldly altogether. I think that is why I (and so many of us) struggle with busyness simultaneously with discontent. Many of us are desperately trying to fill our lives with as much meaning and happiness as possible, only to find that we should have taken the writer of Ecclesiastes at his word – that all our attempts will prove meaningless (Ecclesiastes 2:11).
I can travel to the ends of the world, climb the highest mountain peaks, and marvel at Creation. I can make foreign friends and be inspired by foods and cultures. I can rise to the top of the class and gain merits and awards in academics. I can go on adventures and take risks and feel the rush of adrenaline and the thrill of new experiences. I can earn status and money and buy comforts and be looked at as successful in whichever environment I am found. I can pursue beauty, and popularity, and relationships, and fitness, and love, and fame.
I can do all these things, and achieve them, and find at the end that I am essentially no happier than if I had not done any of them at all. All those things which promised an exciting “fizz” turn out to be empty cans of cold drink. Happiness subsides as quickly as the bubbles in my drink, and I am left feeling flat and disillusioned.
If my life is centered around the pursuit of personal pleasure, I will never find contentment. My heart will never truly be satisfied.
The Heart Wants What It Wants
We are born recoiling from pain, discomfort, and displeasure. Likewise, we don’t have to train ourselves to pursue happiness, it comes just like breathing.
Now happiness in and of itself is not wrong. In fact, the Bible tells us that God “gives everyone life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:25 NIV). The writer of Ecclesiastes says, “I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live… this is the gift of God (3:12-13 NIV).”
The problem is when we are only happy when we get what we want, or when things go our way. Everything must happen according to my plans or else I am going to be upset. I become the master of my own fate and assume I know what is ultimately good for me. We idolise the very thing we actually have no control over. When my happiness is my supreme pursuit in life, then I have made it my god, and if I should forfeit happiness, my world crashes.
Sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking that as long as we don’t pursue ungodly things in our pursuit of happiness, we’re okay. But it can still be an idol if we seek happiness as a means to the end of our own pleasure, instead of seeking Christ alone as our reward, and in His presence finding fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11).
The Difference Between Happiness and Joy
God wants us to experience something deeper than momentary happiness. Some would say that joy is merely lasting happiness, or that joy is happiness which isn’t circumstantial. I think there is truth in that, but I also feel like it is shallow, because this understanding can leave us feeling guilty when we don’t face our trials with a smile. James 1:2 says we are to “consider it pure joy when you face trials of various kinds”, and I don’t believe it means laughing our way through. There’s a far deeper meaning to joy. There is a substance to it.
Christ considered it joy to go to the cross for me (Hebrews 12:2), and we know that He is working all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:32). That gives me joy – to know that He is for me, that He paid the ultimate cost to redeem my heart, and that nothing can separate me from His love. Even the idols I cling to will be overcome by His love (Romans 2:4).
We know that God wants us to experience joy in abundance. Yet so often, like the prophet Jeremiah says, we have committed two sins: 1) We have forsaken God, the spring of living waters, and 2) we have dug our own cisterns – cisterns that cannot even hold water (Jeremiah 2:13). You see, the two go hand in hand. Our idols pull us away from God (yet they cannot even give what they promise), and secondly, when we are distant from God we dig deeper and deeper into idolatry. We move so far that we can no longer see His glory and beauty clearly anymore, and we lose our joy in Him.
Sometimes God must mercifully remove the things that bring us temporary happiness, so that He can give us lasting joy in nearness to Him. He wants to give us good gifts, but only when those good gifts do not draw us away from His heart. He gives us “breath and life and everything else”, to serve the purpose of pointing us back to Him in awe-filled gratitude. He is a generous and faithful Father and desires that we marvel at Him in delight.
God will not give us happiness at the expense of our nearness to Him, but He will always offer us joy in the midst of even the most heart-breaking trial. God-given joy does not diminish the severity of the trial, but it says that there is hope and that the story doesn’t end in ashes.
A favorite verse of mine, which has brought me so much comfort and joy, is Psalm 73:
“Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you…Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. But as for me, it is good to be near God.” (73:23-27 ESV)