This November, my wife and I will be married for 27 years. I would say a large portion of our marriage has been very positive, but some struggles required us to maneuver and navigate to get through them. Many couples have more than simple struggles. They have unfulfilled longings, emotional upheavals, and disappointments piled upon hurts and regrets. And many rightfully conclude that marriage should not be like this. They may ask excellent questions, such as "How did things get so bad between us? What does God want me to do? What does He want for me?"
These are very good questions. While pondering the answer, Christian friends are often sought for their counsel to determine God's will. Perhaps your counsel has been sought. Surely God doesn't want us to be in a miserable marriage, right? Since God is good and God is love, many argue that He does not want people to be miserable. Well, God delivered the Israelites from the misery of slavery and oppression many times. Therefore, we conclude God doesn't want us to be miserable, but He wants us to be happy. After all, what God would want His people to be miserable?
There are several issues with this type of reasoning. I'll outline several of them, and they all start with the letter "S." Why? Because I'm also a pastor, and that's what we do.
These conclusions (God doesn't want me to be miserable & God wants me to be happy) are, at best, superficial. While there may be some truths in them, they fail to take into account many other biblical narratives. These conclusions are like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without the peanut butter. It may taste OK, but it's missing the other half. For example, while God rescued people from misery, He has actually had his hand in people going through struggles. At minimum, He took His hand of protection off of people for His purposes, resulting in miserable circumstances. When Israel sinned and turned their backs on God, He took His hand of protection off of them, and they became defeated and enslaved. He rescued the Israelites from slavery, but He did not lead them to the promised land (happiness) immediately but through other trials and struggles. While it's true that God is not a cosmic killjoy wanting people to be miserable in life, He does want people to find their joy not in circumstances but in Him. Happiness is a state of being that is based on circumstances. Joy is a state of mind that is rooted in God regardless of the circumstances. When people state that God wants them to be happy, they often refer to circumstances that need changing. When people seek intimacy with God and consider His will and desire amidst miserable circumstances, they often find joy. God sometimes brings us into bleak circumstances and seasons, but He promises He will not leave us or forsake us within them. (Note: If you are in an abusive relationship, additional guidance should be sought to best respond to an abuser. While you may find yourself there, God does not call people into abusive relationships, but He likely wants to lead you to respond wisely toward the oppressor).
We all dislike suffering. We would rather be living in peace without conflict, being comfortable and confident. While there may be periods in life where this may occur, most people would agree that life isn't like this. There will be suffering as long as there is sin in us, others, and the world. How many of us would avoid suffering if we had the chance? Probably most of us. I was having a Facebook conversation with someone about abortion the other week, and in peeling down her argument saw one thing, compassion for the victim of rape. She could not see a God who would "force" a woman to carry a child she did not want. In other words, the woman has suffered enough being a victim of rape; she should not have to suffer more. While God does not "force" this, we live in a world where we suffer because of others' sins, and we ought to have compassion and minister to them. The suffering may be long-term and intense or short-term and minor. Yet we will all suffer and struggle, so we will experience miserable situations and circumstances. But God is with us and works all bad situations into good in the process of helping us become like Christ (Rom 8:28-29). The phrases "God doesn't want us to be miserable" and "God wants me to be happy" skirt the issue of suffering and God's will. While God does not punish us so that we suffer, He does work in us amidst the suffering to produce perseverance and character (Rom 5:3-4). The theology of "God wants me to be happy" is a cry to avoid the suffering we are enduring where God desires to produce something more in us, Christ-likeness.
If God wants me to be happy, then what do I need to be happy? In my experience, this reasoning often leads people to change their circumstances and relationships. Often, a single person will look to change their situation or activities. A married person will separate from or divorce their spouse. If being with the spouse doesn't make them happy or feel good, then separating or finding someone else who makes them feel good and loved is the goal. There is a dangerous slippery slope in this type of reasoning. If God wants me to be happy, then that gives me a license to do what I want to make myself happy. One person I spoke to years ago claimed to be a Christian, but she clung to this theology and left her husband to find another man whom she could pray with and go to church together. She disobeyed God so she could worship Him with someone else? This doesn't make a lot of sense. Yet many do similar things in relationships. A husband leaves his wife and says he becomes closer to God through another relationship while he is sinning against God. What? How easily we deceive ourselves! The theology that states, "God wants me to be happy," is a slippery slope into self-centeredness. It is a self-centered deception by putting God's stamp of approval on our own actions.
According to Ecclesiastes 3:10, we have eternity written on our hearts. We long for eternity with God without tears, pain, suffering, or anything evil, but we will experience joy and love like we've never experienced before. All of this comes by salvation through Jesus Christ. The "God wants me to be happy" theology may actually be our heart's cry for eternity with Him, and it is made possible through Him. But not yet.
On the surface, the theology of "God wants me to be happy" seems attractive, but it falls short because it is superficial, refuses to take into account the role suffering plays in our lives, and it is a slippery slope into self-centeredness. We will not be able to avoid struggles and miserable situations in our lives, but when we seek Him first in the midst of them and seek Godly counsel, we can determine what His will may be. When we respond to the struggles with our eyes fixed on Him and His will, we can get through them. When we set our hearts on glorifying God in the midst of them, we will undoubtedly come out on top. Our hearts may long for heaven, but seek His face while we are here on earth. Seek His heart. Seek His will. Seek His wisdom and seek His counsel.
- Fred Jacoby, MA