Warning, this post is about 1600 words long — you may want to relax and get a nice beverage when you have time to ponder this.
A friend loaned me Happiness by Randy Alcorn. I gave it a light read. It’s a very worthwhile book. I’m preparing this “review” and summary mainly for my own learning and remembrance, but maybe it might help someone else out there. I like to know what my friends think of books before I invest time or money in them, so I share this with you. I will be purchasing a personal copy of this book and I will be gifting it to a few people.
The Introduction asks the question, “What is happiness?” Alcorn invites the reader to “join a long line of God-worshipers in celebrating the Creator’s happiness, his design for his image bearers to enter into his happiness, and his willingness to take extreme measures to purchase our happiness.”
Part 1 is about “Our Compelling Quest for Happiness”. Why do humans long for happiness and what does that longing reveal about us, Alcorn asks. Alcorn concludes that God is happy and created humans for the purpose of happiness. God wants us to be happy. He explains why our happiness matters, especially for believers. A settled unhappy Christian is not a very good witness of God’s grace and goodness. Alcorn explains that happiness and joy are pretty much the same thing and that happiness is at the heart of the gospel (good news) of Christ. Apparently some believers think it is nonspiritual to seek to be happy (I have not encountered this personally). Seeking happiness in the right way and in the right person (God) is a good thing. Alcorn discusses idolatry (putting any good thing above God) and warns of the importance of not seeking happiness in anything or anyone but God. God alone (through Jesus Christ) is the only source of true, lasting happiness. Alcorn talks about “secondary gifts”, i.e. any good thing that God gives us, for example a family, a house, etc. If we remember to worship and thank God for our “secondary gifts”, and enjoy them, it helps bring happiness, and this is not wrong, but we must “seek the giver through the gifts.” This discussion of idolatry and seeking God, not just his gifts, was a welcome reminder.
Part 2 is about “The Happiness of God”. Apparently many believers believe or have believed in centuries past that God is not a happy God. (I have never been privy to such false teaching.) Alcorn explains in great detail how God is a happy God, in perfect fellowship with Himself (that mysterious Trinity–Father, Son, Spirit). Alcorn also explains that the original language word for “blessed” actually can be translated and also means “happy”. God is happy and many, many scriptures are cited to prove it. God is actually happy with Himself, Alcorn says, and though it may seem in our limited human thinking that this is smug or self-centered of God, this is false thinking. God calls us to praise Him for His goodness and perfection, and it is actually for our own good to learn to enjoy and praise God, which brings us happiness. Alcorn explains how the church has historically seen God as happy. My favorite two chapters of this book are “Was Jesus Happy?” and “Did Jesus Laugh, Play, and Have a Sense of Humor?” Yes and yes. These chapters helped fix my eyes on Christ as my perfect example of happiness. Though Christ did weep and sorrow, and knew He was facing His mission of death on the cross, looking forward to the joy afterward, overall Christ was happy, laughed, and had a great sense of humor.
Part 3 is about “The Bible’s Actual Words for Happiness”. This section of the book is extremely tedious analyzing the original language words for joy, happiness, etc. in order to prove that “blessed” and “happy” mean the same thing. Alcorn in his introduction explains this section may be skipped over by those not interested in this. Alcorn says the meaning of blessed as understood by most Christians is: “made holy; consecrated”. He says most people don’t associate the word “blessed” with the word “happy”. But the best translation of the original language word “asher” is happy, so it should be translated “happy”. I personally have a different take on the common meaning of “blessed” in the Bible. It is similar to “happy” but with more depth. To me, the word “blessed” means, all the goodness of God is trickling into my life, making me happy and making all God’s goodness available to me. I am blessed in Christ. So to me, it is a little bit richer of a meaning than “happy”. But I get what Alcorn is saying that we should realize the word includes meaning happy. I am also made happy in Christ. God is happy and it is not wrong for believers to seek happiness in God–in fact that is what Biblical Christianity is all about.
Part 4 is about “Understanding and Experiencing Happiness in God”. I cannot begin to tell you how much this section of the book blessed me and made me happy. Happiness is our choice to make. Many practical ways to cultivate happiness in our lives are given, including making wise choices (obeying God), devoting ourselves to the happiness of others, giving, and really embracing the gospel and never taking it for granted. Alcorn addresses having right celebrations and the importance of meditating on God’s Word. He addresses the false “health-and-wealth” gospel. “We’re never commanded to be healthy and wealthy, but we are commanded to rejoice and be happy.” Happiness comes through confession, repentance, and forgiveness. These are Bible/gospel basics that are so good to be reminded of. Alcorn explains we do not need to choose between holiness and happiness–as God wants both for us. He says “Holiness and happiness are like spiritual DNA.” Seeking happiness is not selfish, Alcorn states, and “the pursuit of true self-interest is, surprisingly, a virtue.” (This section of the book is very much along the lines of Piper’s book, Desiring God.) “Happiness comes through self-forgetfulness and Christ-centeredness.” Gratitude, hope, with right expectations, and focusing on God’s promises of eternal happiness are all key to true happiness, Alcorn explains.
There are appendices which contain more study and analysis of original language Bible words on joy and happiness, which is a nice reference.
I highly recommend this book. I don’t disagree with anything that Alcorn has taught in this outstanding work. However, I do believe that sometimes Bible teachers like Alcorn and others come across as sounding like there is something wrong with people who are not presently experiencing a happy mood or happy feelings. I’m not sure if they mean it to sound this way, but it sometimes comes across that way to me. It is hurtful to be falsely accused when I am very brain sick of being sinful for lack of a happy mood. I believe true Biblical joy is more, much more, than a constant ability to feel happy. For me, and I believe for many, sometimes depression and/or other brain/systemic diseases can block the ability to “feel” happy. In such times, Biblical joy becomes more of a holding on to God and an under-girding of peace/hope/trust. I can feel terribly sad, upset, grieving a death, etc. and not be able to feel happy–but my joy does not have to slip. The joy of the Lord is my strength, not always my happy mood. Yet the overall trajectory of my life is choosing to be and often “feeling” happy in Christ. I don’t believe that when Jesus was grieving at Lazarus’ tomb and he wept that he was also feeling happy, yet His joy and trust in God never slipped. I don’t believe that when Jesus was anguishing in the Garden of Gethsemane that he was feeling happy, yet his joy and trust of God never slipped. Clearly, we are commanded to rejoice always, in everything, and to be overall happy in Christ. We must make joy and happiness our expectation, goal, prayer, and choice, one day at a time, with Christ enabling us. Happiness by Alcorn is very instructive in this regard. I am puzzling and pondering on how to maintain joy even while sorrowing or when acutely ill with impaired brain. I think remembering to verbalize thanks and praise of God, no matter how lousy I feel and how terrible I may sound, is key.
This is now my highest goal in life–to be truly happy in Christ by grace, bringing glory and honor, and never dishonor, to His Name. And it is my prayer for everyone in my little sphere to come to know this Happy God personally. Forever is a long time to be miserable — I am so glad for my eternal hope of happiness and goodness and also for the promise that God will enable me to finish my life faithfully by grace, no matter how bad it may get. This great gift is available for whoever is willing to come to Christ. My hope makes me so happy and that will give me the strength to go through my next dark patch. Thanks Randy Alcorn and glory to God for your outstanding work on understanding Biblical happiness.
(No copyright infringement is intended. Quotes are from Happiness by Randy Alcorn, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Copyright 2015. My hope is this little review and summary might encourage more sale and distribution of this book and that it might help many seek personal application of what it means to rejoice in Christ always.)