Is Christianity About Denying Yourself or About Being Happy?

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Jesus said that his desire was that we would have his joy in us, and that our joy would be complete (John 15:11). He also told his disciples that if anyone wants to come after him, that person must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him (Matthew 16:24).

So, which is it? Is Christianity about being happy, or is Christianity about denying yourself and dying to yourself?

In my previous post, I talked about happiness and whether there is a difference between “joy” and “happiness”. Check that post out here: Does God Want You to Be Happy?

One question I received in response to that post was how self-denial and taking up your cross to follow Jesus fits into this idea of happiness.

A Means to an End

Is self-denial the goal of Christianity, or is it a means to another end?

This is a very important question, as it shapes the way we think about the purpose of following Jesus.

I believe the answer is quite obvious: self-denial is not the end goal of Christianity, it is a means to another end, which is: joy.

In order to experience greater and increasing joy, we must deny ourselves in some areas. After all, it was for the joy that was set before him that Jesus endured the cross. (Hebrews 12:2)

For Jesus, dying on the cross was a means to an end, not the end in itself. The end goal, the purpose of that act of literally dying to himself and taking up his cross, was the joy of redeeming his creation, and everything that would bring in the future.

Likewise, the purpose of denying ourselves – even to the point of taking up our “crosses” and following Jesus is: joy.

Liberating Constraints

This is true in all areas of life; if you indulge every desire you have, you will end up less-happy, not more-happy. Anyone who wants anything practices self-denial, because there are some things they want more than other things.

Real freedom comes from a strategically forfeiting some freedoms in order to gain others. Greater happiness always comes as a result of giving up some pleasures in order to greater pleasures.

Happiness is not the result of the absence of constraints but is found in choosing the right constraints and giving up the right pleasures and freedoms.

For example, if you want to have the freedom and pleasure which comes with having a good income, you will need to sacrifice many other freedoms and pleasures in order to get a good education, improve your skills, or build your business. If you don’t deny many of your impulses to go hang out with friends, spend money, travel, party, etc., you will not succeed in getting your degree, or building your business.

If you want to experience the elation that comes with being a top performer in sports or the arts, you will need to accept many constraints on your life. You may give up the freedom of where you live; you may have a coach who dictates what you will do with your time, what you will eat, etc.

Having children certainly restricts freedom. I have had to do some pretty gross things for my kids which I did not enjoy. More times than I can count, I have had to not do what I wanted to do in order to do things for them. But what has been the result of all this self-denial for my kids? Greater joy than I would have known without having them in my life.

Imagine a person who loves eating anything he wants, but also loves playing with his grandchildren. He goes in to the doctor, and the doctor tells him: “Unless you stop eating those foods you enjoy, you are going to die.” Obviously death would mean not being able to spend any more time with his grandchildren. So he is faced with a choice: which of the things that give him pleasure will he need to forfeit in order to enjoy the other? To deny himself the foods he enjoys will be driven by his desire for the greater joy of spending time with his grandchildren.

This principle can be found in almost every area of our lives: greater joy and happiness is always the result of denying ourselves something in order to gain something better.

Greater Joy

Why would Jesus tell us to deny ourselves? Because he wants us to experience greater joy. Because there is a difference between momentary pleasures and long-lasting elation.

God loves you, and he wants you to experience the true and lasting joy that your heart longs for, and because he loves you he guides and instructs you on how to experience that greater joy.

Trust him, and follow his lead into that greater joy!

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“If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and to earnestly hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I suggest that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

I love this quote from CS Lewis’ The Weight of Glory. Unfortunately, usually only the second half of it  is quoted. I think the first part is perhaps even more important than the second, where Lewis states that the assumption that true spirituality consists of depriving oneself or pleasure, or that to seek pleasure is unspiritual, is not a Christian teaching, but comes from Kant and the Stoics.

I would add to Lewis’ comment that this is also rooted in Plato-an thinking, which holds the physical to be inherently bad and the ethereal to be good. Plato-an philosophy was also at the root of one of the first great heresies in the church – Gnosticism, and the lingering effects of this are still present in much thinking amongst Christians as to what makes one truly spiritual.

True spirituality is not found in depriving oneself of pleasure, but in walking in step with the Spirit of God to the point where your pleasures are re-aligned – properly aligned with the heart of God.