Holy People Are Happy People
by John Starke
So much could be said of the consequences of sin and impurity for the Christian. And we should speak of them — the Bible certainly does. David, in Psalm 32, described the misery of unrepentant sin as his bones wasting away (v. 3). His energy was dried up as he felt God’s displeasure. But the warnings of misery for the backsliding believer should also be coupled with the joys of holiness. There is real joy when we turn from evil and delight in the Lord and His ways.
The Bible describes this delight in experiential terms — an existential reality that is meant to be tasted, felt, and seen. Proverbs 3:7–8 describes the experience like this:
Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.
It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones (emphasis mine).
If you read this slowly, just slow enough to taste the truth as it goes by, don’t you crave this sense of refreshment? Not surprisingly, God’s designs for our sanctification are most satisfying. In contrast, a life in sin is tiring, placing joy just outside our reach.
There are particular realities to the Christian faith that we’d sometimes rather experience than expound, and so too it may be with the joy of holiness. But I believe the Bible gives us some indication of the nature of this joy and happiness that come from holiness. It isn’t simply a “you gotta experience it to believe it” reality. So, let’s ask the question: “Why does holiness bring happiness?” We could say, and I think we’d be right, that going along with God’s intentions for life brings us happy living. That’s not a difficult conclusion to come to, and the Bible is full of examples of the miseries of the foolish. But we should say more.
Holiness brings happiness because it creates a clearer vision of the fullness of Christ. Holiness clears our palette, so to speak, of the deceitfulness of sin. We cannot taste and see the goodness of the Lord if we are satisfying our sinful cravings. Sin is deceitful (Heb. 3:13), veiling our vision of Christ. It magnifies idols and self rather than Christ, who through the Holy Spirit, transforms us from one degree of glory to the next (2 Cor. 3:18; 1 John 3:2–3).
John Calvin illuminates the connection between holiness and happiness. “Indeed,” he writes, “we shall not say that God is known where there is no religion or piety.” Let me quickly rescue Calvin’s use of “piety.” I realize it comes fully loaded with confusion and abuse today, so we should give a definition. What Calvin means by “piety” has a lot to say about our discussion on happiness. Here’s how he defines it: “I call ‘piety’ that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces.” It’s interesting to note that Calvin’s view of piety is synonymous with holy living and depends upon our happiness in God. For “unless they establish their complete happiness in him,” says Calvin, “they will never give themselves truly and sincerely to him.” In other words, unless we are holy, we will never be happy. But unless we find our happiness fully in the Lord, we will never be holy.
We must be careful at this point. If we allow the world to define our terms as opposed to the Bible, we can lose sight of a few very important things. We aren’t pursuing holiness in order to be happy with ourselves. No, our holiness focuses our vision on Christ, a vision that satisfies us with every glance, and clears away all that would ensnare us from looking.
The longer I live as a Christian the more it becomes apparent that the holy life — a life lived with a conscience before God — is a happy life. Sadly, it takes some misery to see it. Sin not only offends God, it disrupts the Christian’s communion with God and forces him to sense his Maker’s displeasure. This, of course, results in all sorts of unfortunate consequences, not the least of which is joylessness. There is no casual way to say it other than the pleasure that springs from a peaceful conscience and communion with God cannot exist while the Christian lives in sin.
This unhappy communion with God, so to speak, thankfully, is not one between a judge and the guilty, but of Father and child. That is really good news. And the rod that corrects is from the Good Shepherd, not a tyrant.
Nevertheless, the existential realities of the effects of sin are real, and we are better Christians when we let the wounds of our sin do their work, revealing the misery of sin and the pleasures of holiness.
So then, the line of logic goes like this: Real and lasting joy — a happiness that refreshes our bones — only comes from tasting and seeing the goodness of the Lord. Therefore, let us make every effort to put aside everything that entangles our affections and obscures our sight of Him.