Sometimes I wonder what the world of childhood imagination was like when Disney’s Aladdin first came out. How many kids went rushing around the house rubbing everything remotely lamp-shaped, hoping to find the blue genie inside? For a child watching Aladdin get everything he wanted—money, wealth, sixty elephants, llamas galore, bears and lions, a brass band and more!—the concept of a “genie friend” must’ve been pretty appealing. And the only stipulations were that he couldn’t wish back the dead, kill somebody, or make someone fall in love with him! Everything else was at his disposal with three simple wishes!
Not a bad break for an orphaned street rat.
There are many people—many adults, probably more than are willing to admit it—who come to Christianity because of the preconceived notion that God acts as a sort of “personal genie,” granting wishes left and right. People read “ask and it will be given” and they build a sort of reward doctrine where they merely drop in a prayer and God vends an answer, giving them everything they desire.
It’s definitely true that God answers prayers and wants the best for His people. There’s no denying that; Scripture abounds with evidence of it. Like any good Father, God is invested in our well-being; but that doesn’t mean He’s going to let His kids hop in a roller coaster minus seatbelts right after an ice-cream binge just because they plead and cry that “It’ll be fun!” His concept of “best” might be very different from ours.
Most people, and kids especially, seem to think they’ve got a pretty good grasp of what happiness is. Just ask Peter Pan. Think happy thoughts, and you’ll fly; ladybugs and bubble gum, birthday parties and ponies, the list goes on and on. And a lot of those things are valid sources of happiness. Even as adults, we certainly have an idea of what will make us happy: romance, wealth, family, success, stability. But most of these notions are forms of pseudo-happiness, and they’re fleeting; in fact, the Book of Ecclesiastes refers to them as “chasing the wind.”
Think about the last time you had an argument with a close friend or significant other; or when you got so frustrated with your favorite hobby, you wanted to give up on it; or the time you just got tired of watching your favorite movie, playing your favorite game, or reading your favorite book. These things that once caused happiness became sources instead of grief or upset.
If we’re being honest with ourselves, the things that we think bring us happiness come and go in waves. That, in and of itself, is evidence that we can’t rely on these things to function as a true source of happiness; and that happiness of that nature is missing something. But we don’t often examine that too closely. Human beings are good at looking the other way. We tend to just accept the ebb and flow of happiness and continue to pursue things that we think will fill us with contentment; or we continue to do things that are “supposed” to make us happy, even when they’re just not “doing the trick.” And then we wonder why we feel so down.
There are plenty of Christians and non-Christians alike who justify living in sin with the notion that God just wants them to be happy. But the kind of happiness they’re referring to, of course, is a temporal, fleeting, worldly happiness; God wants us to experience a deeper, spiritual, enduring happiness. Better yet, He wants us to experience joy—real, deep joy, the kind that surpasses our natural understanding. The kind that endures through trials and tribulations. The kind unquenched by loss and fear.
The problem is that a lot of us waste our time chasing happiness, believing that’s what God has in store for us, when He’s really telling us, “If you’ll just turn away from that fleeting happiness, I can offer you true joy!”
Let’s look at something that brings most people happiness: sex. Sexual intercourse was designed by God to be an enjoyable, binding, downright fun experience between two people. But in order for sex to be properly and wholly enjoyed, God put certain parameters in place: that it was to be between a man and woman who were married to each other.
A person who likes having sex with multiple partners could easily excuse that behavior through the lens of, “God just wants me to be happy, and doing this makes me happy, so what’s wrong with it?” But God’s path is to utmost joy, and walking down the road to that sometimes requires sacrificing what we consider to be “pleasure”—in this example, the gratification of multiple partners. In order to experience the fullness of what God intended sexual intimacy to be, we have to walk in His ways, not our own.
The truth is, God sees so much more than we ever will. He’s knit this world together with threads so fine, our mortal eyes can’t see them. But He knows; He’s aware of every tiny intricacy, every way that every action will affect mankind. His rules are in place, not to inhibit our happiness, but to promote it; not to stymie our fun, but to make certain that it’s explored in a way that doesn’t heap up future consequences on our heads—that results instead in fulfillment that we could never achieve in doing things our way.
So when it really comes down to it, the honest truth is that God doesn’t want us to just be happy. No, He wants us to experience the depths of true, unbridled, fathomless joy. He wants our exultant hearts to rise above the whims and tides of mercurial “happiness,” which can change in a second based on circumstances, emotions, and a hundred other factors. God’s rules and instructions for His children are in place to ensure that what we’re enjoying, and how we’re enjoying it, isn’t leading us down paths that will eventually end in disappointment and suffering.
Our role in all of this is to die to self daily and live in trust and obedience to God’s ordinances. We have to trust that His ways are higher and better than ours, even when they go against the grain of what we think will make us happy; we need to turn our eyes off of the fleeting pleasures of the world and onto the boundless pleasures in Jesus. The more we align our thoughts with Jesus’, and with God’s purposes and the boundaries He set to protect us, the more we’ll be able to truly and deeply enjoy this life.
When we stop chasing the happiness we think we need, the way the world offers it—which is usually grounded in material things and other people who are just as sinful as we are—and braid up our definition of happiness with God’s, then we’re truly living. And we can truly experience joy.