Does Jesus want us to be happy? Definitions are important, of course, but Christ did say that he came to make his followers’ joy complete (John 15:11). So the answer should be the affirmative. Help also comes from the Westminster Shorter Catechism which begins by affirming that man’s “chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever” (WSC 1). Even if Christians experienced a degree of suffering in this life, the catechism teaches in the world to come believers will experience a form of happiness that will last eternity.

The reason for asking what seems like such an obvious question is that Pope Francis recently gave an interview in which he enumerated ten ways to bring “greater joy” to life:

  1. Live and let live;
  2. Be giving of yourself to others;
  3. Be kind, humble, and calm;
  4. Have a healthy sense of leisure;
  5. Make Sundays a day for family time, not work;
  6. Find dignified work for young people;
  7. Care for creation;
  8. Let go of the negative;
  9. Inspire through witness and engage in dialogue;
  10. Promote peace.

Aside from a bit of redundancy—“live and let live” sounds a lot like “let go the negative” or even an informal way of saying “be kind, humble, and calm”—what is striking about the list and the larger interview is that the pope doesn’t mention Jesus or any specific devotional practice. Roman Catholics might have expected to hear something about praying to Mary who can assist with joy, or about the peace that the Mass produces which in turn yields joy. Christians more broadly might have expected the head of the largest Christian communion in the world to mention Jesus as the only true source of joy or happiness. But Francis did not.

The pope may have had a good reason for not mentioning Jesus in connection with a life of happiness because our Lord himself did not necessarily come across as joyful, and in many of his interactions with followers and opponents, his remarks could readily have produced discomfort or even pain. In Matthew 10:34, when Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,” he was certainly not proclaiming himself a freedom fighter in the modern political sense, but neither was he offering the sort of encouragement that many Christians seek. For Jesus goes on to utter those stupendous words, “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Matt. 10:35). As many modern Roman Catholics and Protestants construe the family and its importance to a joyful life, Christ’s words are a significant challenge. Just a few chapters later, Jesus expressed a kind of disregard for natural family ties that supported his prior claim about the demands of discipleship. Upon hearing that his mother and brothers were waiting to see him while he was speaking, Jesus replied in a manner that would trouble many Christians today: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” (Matt. 12:48). That Jesus followed up with an affirmation of “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” showed that he was not without care for those close to him (Matt. 12:50). But this seeming disregard for maintaining harmonious—even happy—family relations is not what most contemporary Christians expect.

Jesus’s prickliness toward the Pharisees, the people who were after him and whom his own ministry clearly threatened, is understandable but not its apparent extension to his disciples. For instance, in Matthew 15, Jesus calls the Pharisees “hypocrites” and claims that Isaiah was prophesying about them when he wrote: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:8–9). When the disciples responded that Jesus had offended the Pharisees, he referred to the Pharisees as “blind guides” (Matt. 15:14). Peter still did not understand and asked Jesus to explain. Jesus replied with apparent impatience, “Are you still without understanding?” (Matt. 15:16). Jesus’s frustration not only with the Jewish authorities but also his followers continued in Matthew’s account of Peter’s confession of Christ as the Son of God. Just prior to this, when his followers discovered they had no food for a meal, Jesus replied, “O you of little faith,” certainly an understandable reaction after he had just fed the four thousand (Matt. 16:8). But it was likely not the response that we would encourage of young pastors when discouraged by stubborn members of a session. The text goes on to record Jesus’s reaction to Peter’s effort to comfort his Lord by saying that Christ would not have to endure being executed. Jesus’s response, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance,” is again understandable but arguably not the model for people who want to experience joyful relations with fellow believers (Matt. 16:23).

As much as these interactions raise serious problems for anyone who might tritely recommend that Christians should do what Jesus did, they also underscore an emotional range to Christ’s incarnate existence that challenges the way many believers conceive of happiness. In his remarkable essay, “On the Emotional Life of our Lord,” Benjamin Warfield tried to account for the range of Jesus’s reactions. The Princeton theologian devoted a section of his essay to Jesus’s love for his companions and acquaintances, a love which originated from compassion, or Christ’s commiseration with the grief and anguish of the people to whom he ministered. Warfield also devoted careful attention to Christ’s anger and again attributed it to the savior’s indignation at the ravages of sin. But when Warfield commented on Christ’s joy, he made sure to distinguish the happiness that could only come through Christ’s sinless life and atoning death from modern substitutes for joyfulness. Warfield wrote:

The perversion is equally great, however, when there is attributed to our Lord, as it is now very much the fashion to do, “before the black shadow of the cross fell athwart his pathway,” the exuberant joy of a great hope never to be fulfilled: the hope of winning his people to his side and of inaugurating the Kingdom of God upon this sinful earth by the mere force of its proclamation. Jesus was never the victim of any such illusion: he came into the world on a mission of ministering mercy to the lost, giving his life as a ransom for many (Lk. xix. 10; Mk. x. 4; Mt. xx. 28); and from the beginning he set his feet steadfastly in the path of suffering (Mt. iv. 3 f.; Lk. iv. 3 f.) which he knew led straight onward to death (Jn. ii. 19, iii. 14; Mt. xii. 40; Lk. xii. 49-50; Mt. ix. 15; Mk. ii. 1-9; Lk. v. 34, etc.). Joy he had: but it was not the shallow joy of mere pagan delight in living, nor the delusive joy of a hope destined to failure; but the deep exultation of a conqueror setting captives free. This joy underlay all his sufferings and shed its light along the whole thorn-beset path which was trodden by his torn feet.... If our Lord was “the Man of Sorrows,” he was more profoundly still “the Man of Joy.”[1]

Calvinists have a reputation for being dour. That image may owe to the ongoing sinfulness of Reformed Protestants. But the problem could be an insufficient standard by which to judge happiness. If Christ’s example is any indication, the joy that Christians experience is different from having a nice day.


[1] Benjamin B. Warfield, “On the Emotional Life of Our Lord,” in Members of the Theological Faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary, Biblical and Theological Studies (New York: Scribner’s, 1912), 69–70.

Ordained Servant Online, October 2014.

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Ordained Servant: October 2014

Knox 500

Also in this issue

John Knox and the Reformation of Worship[1]

The Sursum Corda is Catholic, Part 1

How to Pray at Prayer Meetings: Some Practical Suggestions

The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church: Series Review (Part Four)

Delighting in the Law of the Lord

Holy Sonnet XV

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