Thursday, October 1, 2015

Happiness - By Randy Alcorn

God commands His people to be happy and therefore being 'happy' is a matter of obedience for Christians. Such is the argument of Randy Alcorn's newest book "Happiness".  It seems that he has encountered a lot of Christians who seem to think, or imply, that happiness is sin and that God's purpose is for us to be holy, not happy.  He declares that the oft cited difference between happiness and joy is in reality a nonexistent difference, that the terms are so alike in meaning they are synonymous.  "The distinction between joy and happiness is not biblical".   

He critiques the view that 'joy' is more 'contentment' without reference to the emotions, while 'happiness' is primarily circumstantial and emotional.  He makes a case that the word "joy" is also emotional in meaning.  He also believes that "happy" is the better term to use in the case of many of the Greek and Hebrew words translated in many Bibles as "blessed".  Perhaps the term "blessed" isn't the best term to express the actual meaning behind the original words, but is "happy" truly the best?    I don't deny that the words do, perhaps even often, denote 'joy' or 'happiness', but do those terms always express their primary meaning?  Alcorn quotes from dictionaries and lexicons to show that the definition of "happy" corresponds with aspects of the lexical definitions of the Greek and Hebrew terms. One of the elders at my church (also a biology teacher at a Christian school)  pointed out that the lexical meaning of a word is not necessarily the common usage/evolution of the word.  He used the word 'gay' for example: the dictionary still includes 'happy' as one of the definitions, but nowadays, to use the term in reference to happiness would be unwise as its primary usage in our society refers to homosexuals.

 So, when Mr. Alcorn makes statements like, "God threatens terrible things if we will not be happy" and "A Gospel that promotes holiness over happiness isn't good news. " and, "our happiness is a measure of our obedience"  what picture does that convey? When I think of "happy" I picture an emotion ,a beaming face, a person in a state where they are prone to laugh merrily.  I suspect that others may have the same idea of 'happiness'.  Am I sinning if I am not in a jolly state?  Am I disobeying God when I am simply content with His will and am in a serious, not a merry, condition of mind? What if I changed the quotes above using a synonym for happy, "Our merriness is a measure of our obedience",  "A Gospel that promotes holiness over jolliness isn't good news."  This is along the lines of what Mr. Alcorn's statements imply to me.   

Again, maybe he is right and "blessed" isn't the best English word to use to translate words like 'makarios', but are the words 'happy' and 'joyful' the best ones to use?  For instance in the beatitudes, is the best translation truly, "happy are the poor in spirit…" or would expressions like  "content", 'favored by God' or 'fortunate', fit better?   

Alcorn says that, "Maybe by defining joy as unemotional, positional, or transcendental, we can justify our unhappiness in spite of God's command to rejoice always in him" But is having the 'happiness' emotion to be our primary goal?  Or can we admire and be in awe of God without having a feeling of merriment or jocularity? Can't one serve God without being jolly and yet not be sad? "…feelings are not the entirety of joy, but since God's joy involves his emotions, shouldn't our joy involve ours?"  Alcorn asks. Maybe this is the case, but does the emotion have to be "happiness" or can it be emotions of "awe", "contentment", "peace", or can it be an action of the mind/thought processes like focusing on God's will and submitting to it, loving others, praying to God, or even weeping with those who weep? But  does delighting and rejoicing in the Lord always take the form of great emotional happiness?  I'm sincerely asking these questions, not just using them as counters to Alcorn's arguments.

Alcorn seems to think that a major problem among Christians today is that they are against happiness.  Maybe the ones he knows of are, but the ones that I know of aren't.  Actually, I've thought that a major problem amongst Churches has been the focus upon drumming up emotions and feelings, like happiness, over and above seriously trying to be intent upon learning and doing what God says.   The statement is made in the book that the word happiness has been, "a bridge between the church and the world - one we can't afford to burn".  Alcorn makes a great case that Christians should be happy in the Lord, and that true happiness can only be found in Him and doing His will. But Happiness, even happiness in the Lord, isn't the beginning of wisdom, rather, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom".  Our witnessing to bring others to Christ will not, and should not (I think) always be presented as an offer of happiness, but rather out of our reverence for the Lord, we may witness by warning of His judgement:  "having known, therefore, the fear(not the happiness) of the Lord, we persuade men…"(2Co 5:11 ASV). " And our motivation in serving the Lord will not always be our emotional happiness in Him: Having therefore these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. "(2Co 7:1 ASV) Not, "perfecting holiness in the happiness you have in God". 

 I am NOT against Christians being happy, I just don't see the biblical proof that we're necessarily sinning if we are not in that particular state.  If he had presented it from the standpoint of the many reasons Christians have to be happy in the Lord and used material that he has presented in sections of this book like, "Ways to Cultivate Happiness", "Happiness Comes From Meditating on God's Word," and "Happiness Through Confession, Repentance and Forgiveness." I would have liked it much better.   A lot, and I truly mean a LOT, of good points were made in this book, I just didn't like how Alcorn presented the concept of happiness as an obligatory state for Christians to be in, and I wasn't convinced of the exegetical necessity for all of the Greek and Hebrew words dealt with in the book as needing to be translated as 'happy'. 
 

Many thanks to Tyndale House Publishers for sending me a complimentary review copy of this book (My review did not have to be favorable)

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