The Bible says you’ve got no right to be happy! But I’ve heard it my entire life: “Everyone deserves to be happy.” And “God wants you to be happy.” Even the Declaration of Independence of the United States claims that God has granted every person the unalienable right to pursue happiness.
Yet if you’re in rebellion to God, you don’t have a right to be happy. Explore some Scriptures with me.
Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.James 4:7–10
Aren’t we supposed to rejoice in the Lord always? But now it seems God is commanding me to be upset. I am to lament, mourn, and weep. The NASB even says “Be miserable”! So, should I rejoice, or should I be depressed?
Side note/pro tip: when reading the Bible do what you probably already do subconsciously every day. Ask, “Who is speaking?” and, “To whom is that person speaking?” If you’re walking alone in a busy park and you hear one stranger say to another stranger, “Do you wanna go get ice cream? My treat!” As much as you’d like to, please refrain from jumping into that conversation and saying, “Absolutely! I hope they have Moose Tracks!” Although you heard, “Do you…” you know “you” isn’t… “you.” The person wasn’t directly speaking to you.
Similarly, we should know not every commandment or principle given in the Bible directly applies to me—or you. An easy example is Genesis 6:14. In that verse, God said, “Make yourself an ark of gopherwood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and outside with pitch.”
Trick question: How many of God’s commandments should we obey? You may be tempted to say “every commandment!” Yet this is a commandment from the Lord. Where’s your ark? You know it doesn’t apply to you. This was to Noah and no one else.
So, jumping back to the book of James, let’s ask the question: Who is James speaking to? In this general epistle, James speaks to his brethren, his fellow Christians. About fifteen times, James calls his audience his brothers and sisters. If you are in Christ, redeemed by His blood, and you’re striving to resist the devil and draw near to God, this letter from James applies to you.
Sometimes, however, James hones in on certain groups within the brotherhood, or body of Christ. For instance, in chapter 5, he has some warnings specifically for wealthy and fraudulent Christians. In verse 13 of that same chapter, he addresses those who are suffering, and then those who are cheerful. In verse 14, he addresses the sick Christian. Now, take a look at the passage where James (by the Holy Spirit) commands his audience to lament, mourn, and weep.
In it, he says, “’Cleanse your hands, you sinners…” So, although this letter is generally to Christians, this specific paragraph applies to the Christian living in sin. This is the one who, although he has come to Christ, he “has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins” (2 Peter 1:9). This is the one who tries to live a double life—one in Christ and one in sin. Of course, this is not possible, which is why the sinner is told to change his ways, to cleanse his or her hands.
In this paragraph, James also speaks to the double-minded. He previously wrote:
But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.James 1:6–8
How would God describe your spiritual life? As one in faith, or one like the wave of the sea? If you’re the type of person who is on fire for the Lord one month and then dabbling in the world the next month, this passage applies to you. This isn’t some sort of game! You’re double-minded. You’re a hypocrite.
When He was on earth, the one thing the Lord condemned the very most was hypocrisy. Eighteen times the word hypocrite appears in the New Testament, and every time, it comes out of the mouth of Jesus. Are you giving him reason to say it one more time? The word hypocrite was originally used to describe a stage actor—someone who pretends to be someone they’re not. Stop pretending to be a disciple of Jesus. Get serious, deny yourself, and take up your cross. If you’ve been cleansed of your sins at one point, but you’re playing some kind of game with your sanctification—no matter what the world says; no matter what some government document says—you’ve got no right to be happy. Instead, you ought to:
Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.
When the Christians in Corinth allowed a brother to live both in sin and in full fellowship with the church, God rebuked them for not mourning (see 1 Corinthians 5). Why? Because sin and God have no fellowship. Sin is what sent Jesus to the cross. There is no sin we could participate in that would benefit our lives in the kingdom of God. Sin costs our reputation, our relationships, and most importantly, sin cost Jesus His life. For whatever reason, many people insist on living their lives as if God winks at sin. They say, “God would want me to be happy,” and they proceed to do that which is explicitly condemned in Scripture, or they loaf about not laboring in the kingdom of God. Why would God tolerate that which put His own Son on the cross? The wages of sin is death, and to the Christian, the wages of sin is the death of the Savior. This is why those who are truly confronted with their sins allow godly sorrow to melt their hearts to repentance.
For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation.2 Corinthians 7:10.
Salvation is impossible without repentance, and repentance is impossible without a broken heart over sin.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.Matthew 5:4
He will receive you again, just as the loving father receives the prodigal.
This word “blessed” can be translated as “happy.” The only ones who have true blessedness, true happiness, and every eternal reason to rejoice are those who are in Christ, not in sin. Since no one can steal your sanctification away, then no one can take your joy away. If you’re in Christ, no matter what situation you’re in, you can be biblically happy; you can rejoice. While in prison, Paul wrote a letter of joy to the Christians in Philippi. Although there’s not much happiness in prison, because he was in Christ, in this four-chapter letter, he mentions joy or rejoicing 16 times. He exemplifies and commands: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4).
This raises a couple of questions worth addressing:
- Does the Christian have to be sinless in order to have happiness?
- What if you don’t feel happy?
So, if you’re in sin, you don’t have the right to be happy. But does that mean you have to be sinless? No. The Bible makes a distinction between those who are in sin and those who are in the Lord. Both people do commit sins, but only one has the continual cleansing by Jesus’ blood. To be clear: this doesn’t give us a license to sin. The point is even if you’re in the Lord, you will still face temptation and still sin on occasion. 1 John 1:5–10 explains it as walking in the light and allowing Jesus’ blood to continuously cleanse you from all sin.
But what if I’m in the Lord, and I don’t feel happy? Circumstantial feelings are not what the Lord is talking about when His gospel provides joy. Some of the most joyful people in Scripture were also the most persecuted and impoverished and possibly even clinically depressed. When you look at people in the world living in sin, although they may apparently be having fun, that does not reflect the state of their hearts or their souls. The Scriptures don’t hide the fact that sin can bring pleasure or happiness; however, its description is worth cementing into our minds: it is the “passing pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:25). No matter how much “happiness” that drink, drug, relationship, or stolen wealth brings you, it’s only passing. And it can be taken away in a moment, and one day it will be. But if you have the joy of the Lord, even if your circumstances are dire, you know you are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:28).
God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.James 4:6–8
Sinner, you’ve got no right to happiness. Christian, remember that you’ve found the source of eternal joy.