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Everyone wants to be happy. I think we can all agree on this.
Knowing how to find happiness may not always be as obvious to us, but we all look for it. As Pastor of the Young Adult Ministry and College Ministry at The Bible Chapel, I've observed that many of us are looking for happiness in insufficient places.
We often pursue the attention of others, or success in a career, or a bigger bank account, or a romantic relationship, or any number of other things, thinking that they will satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts. But they can't. They never will. Only God can do that. But even if we believe that only God can satisfy us, there's still another trap that we can fall into as we search for happiness.
I know because I fell into it. It's the trap of pitting our desires against our duty as Christians. It's the trap of thinking that we have to choose one and give up on the other.
I was raised in a Christian tradition that emphasized the facts of the Gospel and the duty of a believer. From a young age, I was taught that I am a sinner and God is holy, and that because of those realities, my sin separates me from God. But there was good news. I learned that Jesus entered into time and space, lived the life I could not, died the death I deserve, and rose from the dead, defeating sin and death.
Those were the facts, and I was encouraged to respond them so that I could enter into a relationship with Jesus. So I did – I believed and responded by accepting Jesus as my Savior. Then the focus turned to duty.
The way I understood it was, there are things Christians do and things Christians don't do. Specifically in my denomination, Christians should read their Bibles and pray daily, attend church three times a week, and tithe. And Christians should never swear, drink alcohol, have premarital sex, or watch R rated movies that weren't about Jesus.
With all this emphasis on facts and duty, I didn't know what to do with my desires. It seemed to me that in order to be a Christian, I had to forsake them. And I figured that meant forsaking the hope of being truly happy.
I severely misunderstood faith in Jesus.
God doesn't find our desires too strong but too weak.
A few things really helped blow the door wide open for me in terms of understanding things rightly. The teaching of Ben Stuart, the former executive director of Breakaway Ministries at Texas A&M University, has had a profound influence on my life. The teaching of John Piper was deeply influential to Stuart, and the writings of C.S. Lewis were very formative for Piper. Through this grapevine I found myself one day reading a quote from C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory:
If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
Wait, what? Say that again. God doesn't find our desires too strong but too weak? Ben Stuart explained it this way: "Your problem is not that you want stuff, it's that you want stupid little stuff when there is big stuff in front of you that you are not even looking at."
When I thought about this, it changed everything for me.
God is not after my begrudging submission. He wants to give me the fullest life possible. One that makes my desires pale in comparison. One that is better than anything I can ever dream up myself. One that makes the world's definition of happiness look totally amateur.
Following God changes what you want.
Am I saying that it's stupid or wrong to want to get married? Or succeed in your career? Or provide for your family? No, of course not. But those things are not the key to your happiness. They are gifts that God may bestow, but ultimately they're not what your heart is longing for. God is. Let him be the deepest desire of your heart. Otherwise you’re just setting yourself up for a mud pie when you could have a vacation at the beach.
C.S. Lewis wasn't the only one to articulate this truth. The Bible said it first. Jesus says in John 10:10, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly." Psalm 16:11 says, "You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore."
So, can you follow God and still get what you want?
Well, the answer to that is not a simple yes or no. The answer to that is, following God changes what you want.
When you are truly following God – when the Holy Spirit is working in you – all of those things you thought you wanted become less and less significant. You begin to recognize them for what they are: never enough. You begin to long for Jesus instead. You recognize that He is always enough.
This truth has changed the way I approach my days, and my prayer is that it will change the way you approach yours. I no longer think about all the things I'm supposed to do and not do as a Christian. Now I know I have one job each day: to love Jesus. And if I love Jesus today then I will see the world rightly. I will pursue the things of eternal value, I will treat people well, and I will think about myself less. I will make much of Him instead. And I will find happiness and joy.
My hope for you is that you would take your desires to Jesus and watch Him satisfy your soul.