What if God is uninterested in my happiness but eternally committed to my Christlikeness? The place of personal happiness is a current topic of hot debate in the aftermath of some comments by a high profile personality (should I say “celebrity”?) in Houston recently. Yesterday’s headline from the Houston Chronicle: “Christians berate Victoria Osteen’s ‘cheap Christianity.'” The article goes on to say that Lakewood church’s Victoria Osteen is at the center of a social media storm after daring to suggest that people should “obey” God because it will make them happy. Standing beside her husband Joel, Mrs. Osteen says, “Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy.” If that doesn’t get your attention, her next comment should. “When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy.” In response to the controversy swirling around her comments, Mrs. Osteen issued a statement Friday saying she stood by what she said and accused critics of being “ridiculous.”
I’ll never forget sitting with wide- eyed naïveté in missionary orientation more than twenty years ago, subconsciously convinced of my own invincibility and God’s commitment to my indestructibility. I’ll also always remember the jarring opening statement by one of the orientation speakers. Maurice Graham, Southern Baptist missionary to Kuwait, was one of several Americans held hostage during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August of 1990. His release came on December 9, the day Southern Baptists had been asked to pray specifically for Graham’s release. He stood before all of us wet-behind-the-ears would-be missionaries and said, “God is not concerned about your personal comfort. He is committed to His glory.” He went on to describe his terrible ordeal in detail, and for the first time that I can remember, the world shifted slightly away from me as its axis. I have wrestled with Graham’s statement many times since then, and each time my center moves a little more in a God’s direction.
Scripture is full of reassurances that God knows us, loves us, and desires for each of us an abundant life (John 10:10), but is this abundance tied to our own happiness, or is it much more connected to joy? Happiness is a momentary emotion based on an ever-shifting set of circumstances. Joy is an enduring character trait forged on the unchanging standard of the Incarnate Word, Jesus the Christ. Joy consists of the grand abundance of facing every circumstance with the character of Christ. “Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men! Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for power equal to your tasks” (Phillips Brooks). I believe Maurice Graham got it right, and only hope that I have the strength of character necessary to embrace abundance over against the tempting self-serving lure of transient happiness.
“Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:8-9, NIV)