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Saturday, January 2, 2016

"Happiness" (Randy Alcorn)

TITLE: Happiness
AUTHOR: Randy Alcorn
PUBLISHER: Carol Streams, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2015, (496 pages).

What defines the way we live? Most likely, it is the search for happiness. Put it in whatever way or whatever terms, there is an innate desire in many people to want to be happy. Parents want their children to be happy. Husbands and wives want a happy marriage. Communities that thrive are those that celebrate happy moments. Who doesn't want to be happy? In dealing with this oft-pursued attribute of life, people try all kinds of ways to search for happiness. In many societies, especially in the West, the three primary ways are the philosophies of individualism (All-I-want); materialism (things-I-want); and the insatiable pursuit of success (All-I-Desire).

Happiness is what everybody want. If only the world could be a happier place, happier than the "happiest place on earth." Randy Alcorn has written a breathtaking overview and treatise on what happiness means to a Christian. He knows what it means to be happy or sad. While there are cases in both extremes, the majority of us live in the tensions in between. Alcorn observes that "numerous Christians live in daily sadness, anger, anxiety, or loneliness, thinking these feelings are inevitable given their circumstances. They lose joy over traffic jams, a stolen credit card, or increased gas prices. They read Scripture with blinders on, missing the reasons for happiness expressed on nearly every page."

He summarizes the pursuit of happiness as an elusive dream. For everybody have their own theology of happiness. Recognizing this pervasive misunderstanding of what happiness really mean, Alcorn invests lots of time and paper to write down a four part series of what exactly is happiness. His purpose in writing this book is to address the quest for happiness with biblical perspectives. He believes that "happiness remains elusive until we understand why we should be happy, change our perspective, and develop habits of happiness."

Part 1 - Our Compelling Quest for Happiness

Here, the author tries to connect the dots between God's desire for us and our search for God. He questions some famous statements that talk about God preferring us to be holy (rather than being happy) or joy being more important (than happiness) as plainly "misguided and unbiblical." The heart of his argument is against the general skepticism that many evangelicals had surrounding the pursuit of happiness. We desire happiness because there is an innate need within us as human beings. Just because we are sinners does not mean our quest for happiness need to be curtailed. Holiness should not be at the expense of happiness. For all we know, both lies on the same side of the coin. Our quest for happiness is a very revealing exercise about ourselves too. Our search for happiness is a guise for our need for God. God as our loving Heavenly Father would desire us to feel good in Him. After showing us the folly of trying to distinguish between "joy" and "happiness," Alcorn sits us down and tell us gently that it's ok to seek after happiness. He likens our relationship with God as us being invited to God's party!

Part 2 - The Happiness of God

In reflecting about his own encounters with happiness and the pervasive talk about true happiness, the author wonders why people hardly talk about God's joy. It is only in understanding the happiness of God can we discover what it means to pursue happiness for us. The reason why the world is largely an unhappy place is because the world is out of sync with God. He believes that Christians have every reason to be happy, truly happy. We must begin with God. The reason for many believers' sense of unhappiness is because they have not appreciated the joy and happiness of God. How can creation be happy if the Creator is not happy? In fact, creation comes about as a result of God's joy and goodness. At the heart of God's happiness is community. The early church fathers, the medieval believers, right from the 18th to the 20th Century, key leaders all spoke about God's happiness. Alcorn even asks: "Did Jesus laugh, play, and have a sense of humor?"

Part 3 - The Bible's Actual Words for Happiness

Here, readers learn about the many different descriptions of biblical happiness from both the Old and the New Testaments. The author maintains that words such as "joy, gladness, and delight" are also words that refer to happiness proper. He counts over 1900 times the word happiness and its synonyms are mentioned. The word "blessed" is "makarios" in Greek while the Hebrew word for "happy" is "asher" in Hebrew. He looks through several different English Bible translations to convey the original intent of the writers is toward happiness, even though the words may differ. God does desire us to be happy but only within the contexts of Christ-centered orientations.

Part 4 - Understanding and Experiencing Happiness in God

After setting up the contexts for biblical happiness, we are ready to discover the true meaning of happiness with applications and practical tips. More importantly, Alcorn shows us what it means to live a Christ-centered life. We distinguish between true and false joy. We see the folly of trying to make too much of a distinction between happiness and joy. The Puritans use the two terms interchangeably. By understanding the historical background why Christians differentiate them, we can use both terms more assuredly, to focus more on God rather than semantics. Some ways to cultivate happiness include making wise choices that are according to the Word of God; refusal to compare relentlessly with others; learning to bless others; enjoying supporting others and cheering them on; giving; and celebrations; etc.

Randy Alcorn has been a pastor for over 14 years and an author of more than 50 books. He resides in Gresham, Oregon with his wife, Nanci. He founded Eternal Perspectives Ministries (EPM) in 1990, a ministry that focuses on the more important things in life. It's amazing how Alcorn is able to write so much on just one single topic about happiness. If happiness is about joy overflowing, it seems like the writer has words overflowing with descriptions of happiness every which way he turns. He ends the book on a "God promises happily ever after" to give us a lighthearted reminder that fairy tales are not the only ones who can promise a good-feel experience. God promises much more than we can ever imagine.

Can one really be happy after reading this book? It depends. This book is not a magical pill of happiness, so in that sense it will not necessarily elevate one's sense of happiness any higher. The more important thing is, this points points us to the Creator, the One who is eternally happy and joy overflowing. There are several important points I find particularly helpful. First, Alcorn has shown us that happiness and joy need not be separated so distinctly. The more constructive way to view the happiness is not via literal words but the general thrust of God's joy and blessed happiness. The way many Christians differentiate joy and happiness, and demoting happiness a level or two lower is most unfortunate. They are all legitimate expressions of humanity. God freely brings us happiness and joy. We ought to freely pursue them, and more importantly, to seek true happiness in Christ alone. Second, the many different ways in which happiness can be expressed in the Bible tells us how creative God is. No single phrase or word or vocabulary can limit God. God is free to express Himself in any way He desires. If that is the case, we ought to freely enjoy God's creation and the different expressions of happiness. When one is truly happy, there is no limitation to the creativity one can be to express that. One can sing or dance; write poems or essays; shout or praise. The skies the limit. Third, anyone on the search for happiness must start somewhere. Alcorn easily dispels the pursuit of happiness via materialism, success, worldly fame, and all manner of humanism that are temporal. For those who do not know where to begin, let this book give one the needed starting inertia.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Tyndale House Publishers and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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