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You can’t be holy and happy

Unsplash/Hybrid
Unsplash/Hybrid

In the countless conversations I’ve had with non-Christians, I’ve heard just about every reason you can imagine as to why they rejected Christianity. That said, I’ve found that if you can get past the superficial responses such as there being no evidence for God, etc., there are two primary justifications that rise to the top.

The first is something I’ve written about in the past and labeled the number one argument against Christianity: bad experiences with religion and in particular, professing Christians who look nothing like Christ in their behavior. The feeling is summed up by Gandhi who said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

The next reason has to do with the Christian life and its expectations, primarily its moral demands. The feeling is that the day-in-and-day-out life of a Christian is not a fun one but rather a drudgery filled with denial of nearly every pleasure available.

No fulfilling sex, no meaningful possessions, no nothing. And who wants that?

The devil’s lie of “you can’t be holy and happy” has likely run through the heads of everyone presented with the claims of Christianity including yours and mine if we’re to be honest. The tempter says that to be fulfilled, you have to cast off God’s moral framework, live how you want, and then you’ll be happy. Initially, it sounds good, but there’s a problem.

We’re not happy.

At least that’s the conclusion of a Gallup poll taken a couple of years ago: “Unhappiness is now at a record high. People feel more anger, sadness, pain, worry and stress than ever before.” The study resulted in a book by Gallup called Blindspot, with the author saying: “Global misery was rising well before the pandemic. In fact, unhappiness has been steadily climbing for a decade – and its rise has been in the blind spot of almost every world leader.”

Heck, even Elmo found out the hard way that people are unhappy. The replies to his recent tweet “Elmo is just checking in! How is everybody doing?” boiled down to, as someone wrote, “Everyone seems to be at their breaking point.” Another person’s reply/observation was, “Our friends are out here venting their sadness to an emotionally attentive muppet”.

OK, that’s pretty bad.  

So, people reject Christianity because they think it won’t let them live in a way that will make them happy, but when they live how they want they still aren’t happy. Sounds like quite the mess; what are we to do?

I’ll reply with a game of, What If.  

What if, by our very nature, we have the wrong desires that cause us to love bad things that lead to rotten outcomes and result in us being ultimately unhappy? But what if God can change our nature so that we have the right desires that cause us to love good things in the right way that leads to positive outcomes and results in us being truly happy?

If correct, that sounds like a winner to me. Well, guess what: that’s the promise of Christianity.  

The man in the mirror

It’s tough to admit we’re flawed, make mistakes, and no one’s to blame but ourselves.

C. S. Lewis wrote, “Believing in a real Right and Wrong means finding out that you are not very good.” Instead of pointing fingers in every direction as most do today, except towards the person in the mirror, Lewis describes past generations of non-Christians as “in many ways merrier than a modern, [but] with a deep sadness. When he asked himself what was wrong with the world he did not immediately reply, ‘the social system,’ or ‘our allies,’ or ‘education.’ It occurred to him that he himself might be one of the things that was wrong with the world.”

When it comes to our human operating system, the Bible has an interesting way of describing our innate moral being: “When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. Therefore, what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed?” (Rom. 6:20–21).

Did you catch that? We’re originally “free in regard to righteousness,” which means we can’t be good in and of ourselves, at least not how God defines it. We started out with another master (sin) about which Paul asks somewhat sarcastically what benefit came from obeying that master — certainly not lasting happiness.

The cure for this is a swap — righteousness for sin and only accomplished by a supernatural rebirth from within (John 3). To David’s request, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10), God responds “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ez. 36:26).

Once accomplished, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come … all these things are from God” (2 Cor. 5:17–18). And now we’re told, “in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Eph. 4:22–24).

The result? Real happiness, which is why Jesus said: “Blessed (happy) are they that do hunger and thirst after righteousness; for they shall be filled” (Matt. 5:6).

Does this kind of “happiness” mean you won’t have real enjoyment in your life? Far from it.

Do you want to have great sex? Go ahead and enjoy — just do so within the marital covenant that’s been designed for maximum intimacy and pleasure. Do you want to have a nice home (or homes) and other such material things? No problem — just earn them from hard work, give back, and be free from the love of money.

Lastly, let’s not pretend the righteousness-for-sin swap that God does within us means we won’t still struggle with pursuing the wrong things. In his book on holiness, J. C. Ryle writes: “But I have yet to learn that there is a single passage in Scripture which teaches that a literal perfection, a complete and entire freedom from sin, in thought, or word, or deed, is attainable, or ever has been attained, by any child of Adam in this world.”

That said, at least now we have a fighting chance over choosing bad outcomes and a promised ultimate victory over sin in eternity.

When he was challenged as to how the professions of faith being made during the Great Awakening could be verified, Jonathan Edwards responded with his work A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections where he argued that true saving faith is evident in the changed affections of the professor. “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections,” wrote Edwards. “If the great things of religion are rightly understood, they will affect the heart.”

Indeed. They will bring about new desires that will cause us to love the right things, which result in real pleasure.

Or, put another way, only when you’re holy are you truly happy. Who’d a thunk it? 

Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.

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