Concerning mere happiness

You will probably have seen the latest clip of Osteenian wisdom circulating on the interweb. A gleaming Victoria, cheered by the crowd and with husband Joel oozing agreement in the background, announces the following:
I just want to encourage every one of us to realize when we obey God, we're not doing it for God - I mean, that's one way to look at it. We're doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we are happy . . . that's the thing that gives Him the greatest joy this morning.

So, I want you to know this morning: just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship him, you're not doing it for God really. You're doing it for yourself, because that's what makes God happy. Amen? Let's open our hearts to him today . . .
Maybe we will pass on that amen, at least as Mrs Osteen fishes for it. Frankly, this is of a piece with the kind of tosh that we have come to expect from the Osteen stable. Responding, Al Mohler swung into action with a penetrating piece in which he concluded the following:
Mere happiness cannot bear the weight of the Gospel. The message of the real Gospel is found in John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." That is a message that can be preached with a straight face, a courageous spirit, and an urgent heart in Munich, in Miami, or in Mosul.
This troubled my friend David Murray, who replied with the following:
Whenever serious error arises, like the Osteens' Prosperity Gospel message, we're always at risk of framing our theology in opposition to the error rather than by taking it straight from the Bible. Reformed Theology re-forms the biblical message from the Bible; Reactionary Theology forms theology in opposition to an error. In doing so - whether it's in reaction to secular psychology, moralistic preaching, legalism, antinomianism, or the prosperity gospel - we run the real risk of going too far the other way and losing biblical vocabulary and concepts.

I don't want the Osteens' happiness. But neither do I want to lose true biblical happiness. I steadfastly refuse to let the Osteens' steal this beautiful biblical word from me or the Church. Instead, let's reclaim it and fill it with biblical ballast. By doing so we can surely out-happify the Osteens. And yes, that kind of happiness will pass the Mosul test.
David's first paragraph above is great. It is annoying, because he has said in a single paragraph what I had intended to develop into a blog post, but it is spot on. But what of this pursuit of a happiness that passes the Munich/Miami/Mosul test?

Perhaps the particular challenge lies in our definition of the word happiness, and it is a challenge which I think David begins trying to address in his post. As with so many of the problems with beset us, a large part of the difficulty has to do with the fact that we often use the same language, but we may be using it to communicate different things.

The word 'happiness' presents this problem in spades. I imagine that, when Dr Mohler employed it in his article critical of the Osteens, he was using it primarily to refer to crass, carnal happiness of the kind celebrated by La Osteen in her little outtake. It is clear that when Dr Murray employs it, he is wrestling to define the word biblically and so reclaim it for proper use. To do so, he freights it with an entirely different sense, what the Puritans and those in their stream might have called gospel happiness or blessedness, with its primary sphere of reference in a gracious God and his good gifts to the undeserving and ill-deserving creatures upon whom he has sovereignly smiled.

It is a problem that every preacher struggles with. When I speak, for example, of the blessed man of Psalm 1, I speak of one who is "truly and lastingly happy." Even then, I still need to define what is true and lasting happiness, and to do so with biblical notions and often with explicitly biblical language.

If you will forgive what is probably considered by many to be an arch-heresy, it is one of the enduring problems with the classic formula for Christian hedonism, the notion that God is most glorified by us when we are most satisfied in him. Despite all warnings and definitions, this formulation carries the constant danger of locating the glory of God in human satisfaction. One of the reasons why it does so is because - again, in the face of all attempts to prevent it - most us of wrestle with a selfish and shallow and deceptive heart that constantly defines satisfaction in terms of our own human appetites and desires. As has been noted before, in the wrong hands this formula, with the recasting of the first question and answer of the Shorter Catechism, becomes an excuse to focus on self-satisfaction rather than God-glorification. At a popular level, it is sometimes understood to suggest that it is not possible that God should be glorified unless I am also being immediately satisfied, that if I am not being satisfied then God cannot be glorified. This has become, for some, a test of action, and it is not one that makes the glory of God the chief end of man, but swings the focus to where it does not belong--on the desires and appetites of the creature. While I do not wish again to enter the debate as to whether or not this formulation is inherently slanted toward the creature rather than the Creator, it does underline the need for definition, and to take such language in the sense in which it is intended. In fact, I was amused to read the tweet of one well-known chap who wanted a certain lady to know the following: "Victoria Osteen: God's glory and your joy are at odds." Well, they may be, but that is certainly a strange declaration to come from the Desiring God stable! The whole issue lies in the name that is attached to the front of the tweet, and the presumed sense which she attaches to the concepts of divine glory and human joy.

So, as the whole Osteen circus makes plain, the first problem to address lies in that presumed intended sense. It seems very clear from the context that we are here in the realm of that "mere" crass, carnal happiness which cannot, as Dr Mohler points out, bear the weight of the gospel. In exposing such nonsense for what it is, we must not only critique the sense (or lack of it), but - if we are to reclaim the word - we must do so by constant and careful definition. To deal with this matter properly, we must bring it into the realm of true and lasting happiness, the sphere of divine blessedness, that stable and abounding joy that is yoked to God's inherent excellences. Only this happiness passes the proposed tests. This is where Dr Murray has his work cut out for him. In defining happiness, joy and blessing biblically, we are again fighting an age-old battle. We must put and keep something - something that we constantly and instinctively wish to identify in our own terms - in the words and sense of the Lord Almighty, the great Creator and glorious Redeemer. We are reaching for notions that God has defined, notions which we are tempted to wreathe in the thoughts of the fallen creature but which we must recover as the battling redeemed.