by Mark A. Taylor
As a teenager in the late ’60s and a young adult in the ’70s, I was a fan of The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. Like most of the rest of America, I tuned in to see him whenever I could. In his day Carson was the king of late-night TV. His humor was self-deprecating, and he displayed a vulnerability that’s missing in many of today’s comedians competing for the bedtime audience. We liked him.
Not only did Carson’s style keep us watching, but we also wanted to see the big-name celebrities who occupied the seat beside him. Everybody who was anybody was there, and they all had one thing in common: They seemed so happy.
Part of it was for show, I suppose. Their purpose was to entertain, not to prompt reflection or seek sympathy. But I distinctly remember thinking one night as I watched them laughing and joking, Yeah, they say they’re happy. And . . . well, they sure look happy. But they can’t really be happy, because they probably don’t love God, and only God can make us happy.
There were two flaws in my thinking. First, I had no idea whether they loved God. Fifty years later, I still have no ability to see into the hearts of the people on TV—or anybody else! But my judgment of them was not the biggest problem. Even more simplistic was my conclusion about happiness in God’s scheme of things.
Is it possible for a doubter or pagan or prodigal or even an agnostic truly to be happy? Yes. Happy has the same root as happen. And if you like what’s happening, you’ll probably be at least a little happy. A perfect steak, a passionate kiss, a hot auto, or a scoop of your favorite ice cream will likely leave you happy—at least for a little while. You need not be righteous or holy to be happy.
But this misses the Bible’s take on happiness, which probably wouldn’t make much sense to the A-listers Carson interviewed. “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart,” the psalmist promises (Psalm 37:4, NIV). Likewise, in the Proverbs: “In everything you do, put God first, and he will direct you and crown your efforts with success” (Proverbs 3:6, TLB). At the end of his life, wise King Solomon observed, “To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness” (Ecclesiastes 2:26, NIV).
There is a consistent thread running through these verses: The happiness the Bible promises assumes a faithfulness to God. “Take delight in the Lord. . . . Put God first. . . . Please him.”
God seems to be saying that lasting happiness comes not to those chasing after it but to seekers trying first to figure out what God wants from them.
And actually, the Bible doesn’t speak much about happiness at all. More often we find the word joy, and joy isn’t the same thing as happiness.
This is difficult to understand, much less to experience. Perhaps God’s Words themselves can help us:
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13, ESV).
“In your presence there is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11, ESV).
“Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (Psalm 51:12, NIV).
“The fruit of the Spirit is . . . joy” (Galatians 5:22, NIV).
The Bible seems to say joy is a gift from God, not a goal I can achieve. First comes submitting to God by opening myself to his work in my life. If I’ll go after that, joy will come. I “choose joy” by first choosing God.
This means joy is possible even in the most difficult of life’s situations. A caregiver friend, whose wife has suffered with Alzheimer’s almost two decades, told me the advice he received from a grief expert: “Joy is possible in the midst of great pain.” He’s not happy—and I’m not either—to see someone we love wither before us into someone we can only tend to. But we can still discover joy.
In fact, psychologist Larry Crabb claims the deepest joy may come only at the end of the most profound loss. “I have come to believe that suffering is necessary to awaken our desire for God and to develop confidence in His desire for us,” he wrote in Shattered Dreams: God’s Unexpected Path to Joy (p. 131.) “We cannot count on God to arrange what happens in our lives in ways that will make us feel good. We can count on God to patiently remove all the obstacles to our enjoyment of Him” (p. 137).
Could it be we’re not on this world just to enjoy it but instead to discover God in it—and in spite of it? Could it be that God is not waiting to pile on pleasantness, but to give us something better than what our work can achieve or our money can buy? Could it be that happiness itself is almost beside the point?
I’m still trying to wrap my mind around all this. But right now, it seems the most likely path to peace I can find.
It’s not that I’m never happy. Good meals, good friends, good music, good garden—it’s all good. But it’s not enough to make up for the happiness I’m missing because disease has invaded our family. I’m working to acknowledge my losses while seeking God who can give me something better. In spite of often being distracted, I try every day to stay close to him.
And I’m beginning, just beginning, to grasp what the Scripture has promised. Only in his presence is the fullness of joy.
Sadly, entertainers on late-night TV are not the only ones who sometimes miss that.
Mark Taylor, with his wife Evelyn, have been members of Christ’s Church for 40 years. He writes weekly at Unchosen Journey: A Caregiver’s Walk with Alzheimer’s (unchosenjourney.com).