Are we meant to be happy — or does God have something else in mind?



Happiness is so overrated! Troubling texts reveal God’s joy

By Chip Hardwick | Presbyterians Today

Job 1:1, 2:1–10 is a lectionary text for World Communion Sunday, Oct. 7.
Woman holding cat and smilingWhen we wade into Job 1:1, 2:1–10, the theological waters get deep very quickly. So many challenging questions float up to the surface, and any one of them can threaten to upset our balance. This part of the Scriptures might as well come with the warning “here be dragons,” which was a phrase used by 18th century mapmakers to warn risk-averse sailors away from uncharted, dangerous waters. Yet the Revised Common Lectionary asks us to swim along in this passage’s currents — and on World Communion Sunday, no less.

The passage is troubling for any number of reasons. We don’t dare let ourselves imagine that we might ever find ourselves in Job’s shoes. Is Job’s wife encouraging him to be honest about his feelings or trying to berate him? What do we do with the figure of Satan? And probably most important, why would God give permission for all these tragedies to happen to our protagonist?

This last question sticks with us because it feels so counter to one of the central premises of American culture. That is, each of us is endowed by our Creator with the right to pursue happiness. The suffering of Job formidably undermines that pursuit.

Happiness, though, goes hand in hand with religion these days. A church-rattling study of teens by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, chronicled in their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, tracked how important various theological concepts were to the 3,000 students interviewed.

The No. 1 religious subject? Being happy. In fact, students mentioned becoming happy twice as often as they did sin, 20 times more often than salvation, 30 times more often than the Trinity, 40 times more often than grace and 50 times more often than justice or holiness. The pursuit of happiness, according to the research, is the most important religious goal for teens.

The only problem is that this passage from Job tells us that God is not primarily interested in Job’s happiness. If the pursuit of happiness were as important to God as it is to our country’s founders and today’s teens, God would have told Satan to stay away from Job. Furthermore, our story’s lead couldn’t possibly have had a smile on his face while scraping all those boils on his skin with a jagged piece of pottery.

Jesus’ life and death tell us the same thing about God’s interest in “happiness.” Jesus fully embraced the road to the cross, but it is hard to imagine that Calvary made him happy (at least in the way we think about happiness). The whipping, the stripping, the mocking, the nailing — Jesus could not have had a smile on his face while he endured these trials. And yet he endured them.

As commentator Paul E. Capetz puts it, “Virtue does not always entail happiness.” This is difficult to remember when “here be dragons” is not a note on a map but the headline over a season of life, but it is nonetheless true. We may long for happier times, but God is mysteriously somehow more interested in other goals.

A woman named Carolyn in the church where I serve recently had her left arm and shoulder amputated to prevent her cancer from spreading. I was stunned when she told me that somehow, mysteriously, she had never felt God’s “lavish and complete” love more completely than she had since her surgery. I suspect, however, that she would not say she has been happier. 

On World Communion Sunday, Presbyterians join Christians all over the world and celebrate Christ’s lavish and complete love for us. We give thanks that he let his body be broken and his blood be shed, rather than pursuing happiness. Somehow, mysteriously, we can experience that love wherever there be dragons.

Chip Hardwick is interim pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest, Illinois. He is the former director of Theology, Formation & Evangelism for the PC(USA).

Discussion questions

  • Has there been a time in your life when you felt like Job, with tragedies all around you?
  • How is your experience in that time colored by the understanding that God somehow permitted those tragedies to take place?
  • If “virtue does not always entail happiness,” what is happiness’ place in our life of faith?


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