Did Al Mohler Just Throw Happiness Overboard?

Victoria Osteen spoke and the world shook. Tremors have been felt across the nation in TV studios, talk radio programs, Bill Cosby’s living room and Al Mohler’s breakfast table. And it’s that upturned bowl of cornflakes that I’d like to pause and examine for a moment because Dr. Mohler has now written a response to Osteen’s comments that I do not entirely agree with.

What Victoria Osteen Got Right
Did I just write that? Yes, because although she got a lot wrong, she said some right and important things too. Here’s what she said:

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. . . .

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?

So what’s wrong and what’s right about this?

She was wrong in saying that when we obey or worship God “we are not doing it for God.” That’s so obviously unbiblical and ridiculously false. If she had inserted one extra word and said “we are not doing it only for God,” I doubt any of us would be thinking and writing about her. (And in her defense, she did go on to slightly qualify “we’re not doing it for God” by saying “I mean, that’s one way to look at it.”)

She was also wrong in her prioritizing of human happiness. She believes that you come to church worship for your own happiness first of all, which subsequently makes God happy. No, no, no. We come to church to glorify God, to make Him happy, as it were, which subsequently makes us happy.

But she was right in two important points. First, she was right in that obedience and worship do benefit and bless us. They do make us happy and they were meant to. Just this morning I was reading Psalm 135v5 which says:

Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good;
Sing praises to His name, for it is pleasant.

Charles Spurgeon comments on the second line of this verse:

Sing praises unto his name, for it is pleasant. The adjective may apply to the singing and to the name—they are both pleasant. The vocal expression of praise by sacred song is one of our greatest delights. We were created for this purpose, and hence it is a joy to us. It is a charming duty to praise the lovely name of our God. All pleasure is to be found in the joyful worship of Jehovah; all joys are in his sacred name as perfumes lie slumbering in a garden of flowers. The mind expands, the soul is lifted up, the heart warms, the whole being is filled with delight when we are engaged in singing the high praises of our Father, Redeemer, Comforter. When in any occupation goodness and pleasure unite, we do well to follow it up without stint: yet it is to be feared that few of us sing to the Lord at all in proportion as we talk to men.

Second, she was right to say that God wants us to be happy and that God is happy when we are happy, “that’s the thing that gives him greatest joy.”

I’m going to come back to this second point shortly, because a lot of the Reformers and Puritans actually agree with Victoria Osteen here and were not as reluctant as we often are to use the word “happy” or “happiness” to describe God or the Christian’s experience.

What Al Mohler Got Wrong
Did I just write that?

Yes, because although 90% of his article hit the target, he overshot the mark in a couple of important areas.

First, the title: “Mere happiness cannot bear the weight of the Gospel.” I get the point he’s trying to make but happiness per se is no trifling triviality. The adjective “mere” does not belong in the same company as “happiness.” It’s like saying “mere Everest” or the “mere Atlantic.” There’s nothing “mere” about either of these and there’s nothing “mere” about happiness.

Together with four research assistants I’ve spent the summer researching what the Reformed tradition has said about happiness – beginning with Calvin and Luther, through the Puritans, up to the Princeton era of Charles Hodge and Archibald Alexander.

It’s amazing how much they spoke and wrote about happiness (I’ve got over a thousand references), how they prioritized happiness for God and us, and how they gave many theological and practical helps to happiness. If they’d seen Dr. Mohler’s headline, they would have choked on their oatmeal and exploded, “Mere happiness? Mere happiness? Happiness is not “mere.” It’s massive and it’s massive to God.”

Many of them, like Victoria Osteen, also believed that God is happy, made us to be happy, and is most happy when we are happy. Sure, they wouldn’t have recognized the Osteen version of happiness, but neither would they have recognized the Mohler diminishing of happiness.

Second, they also would take issue with Dr. Mohler’s attempt to distinguish between happiness and joy. He wrote:

The divine-human relationship is just turned upside down, and God’s greatest desire is said to be our happiness. But what is happiness? It is a word that cannot bear much weight. As writers from C. S. Lewis to the Apostle Paul have made clear, happiness is no substitute for joy. Happiness, in the smiling version assured in the Age of Osteen doesn’t last, cannot satisfy, and often is not even real.

In response, how about this quote from Archibald Alexander that says God is a happiness promoter:

God is good. His goodness is manifest in every work of his wisdom, for he has so continued and arranged all things in the best manner, to promote the happiness of his creatures, according to their nature and capacity.

Or this from Jeremiah Burroughs where he “channels” Victoria Osteen in the last line:

God is the only source of real happiness. He does not need anything or anyone to make him happy: even before he made the world, the three persons of the Trinity were completely happy with each other. What God does for Christians is to make them as happy as he is.

Or what about this brief selection from the ultra-dour John Calvin:

If it is the very summit of happiness to enjoy the presence of God, is it not miserable to lack it?

It is, indeed…our only true happiness, to be received into God’s favor, so that we may be really united to him in Christ.

But the Spirit of God promises a happy life to none except to the meek, and those who endure evils; and we cannot be happy except God prospers our ways; and it is the good and the benevolent, and not the cruel and inhuman, that he will favor.

The beginning of our happiness is when God receives us into favor; so the more he confirms his love in our hearts, the richer blessing he confers on us, so that we become happy and prosperous in all things.

God is said to bless us, when he crowns our undertakings with success, and, in the exercise of his goodness, bestows upon us happiness and prosperity; and the reason is, that our enjoyments depend entirely upon his pleasure.

I could go on and on (and one day I will), but for further proof of the Reformed Traditions’ positive focus on happiness let me direct you to the stunningly beautiful first chapter of Dane Ortlund’s new book Jonathan Edwards on the Christian Life.

Edwards speaks of divine beauty not only in terms of holiness but also in terms of happiness. I call this striking because our instinct even as believers is to set holiness and happiness over against one another. For Edwards, it is both or neither. The two rise and fall together.

There’s one sermon in which Edwards said: “It is a thing truly happifying to the soul of men to see God.” And later on he refers to the “beatific, happifying sight of God.”

Ortlund concludes:

So God communicates to his people of his own happiness. They are partakers of that infinite fountain of joy and blessedness by which he himself is happy. God is infinitely happy in himself, and he gives his people to be happy in Him.

Reactionary or Reformed Theology
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.

UPDATE: In response to a commenter looking for my definition of happiness, here are a few previous posts I’ve written on the subject.

40 Joys Through Jesus

The Happiest People in the World

What is Christian Happiness?

Why is happiness such hard work?

A Very Different and Unexpected Happiness


New Student Tip #6: Calendar

For most High Schoolers, Mom is their calendar. She keeps track of classes, school trips, holidays, doctor visits, swimming club, etc.

Then students go to college, and chaos ensues as Mom steps back. Students start forgetting classes, missing meetings, double-booking swimming and volleyball, running late for just about everything, and just being in a constant tizzy.

The answer is not the back of your hand or blizzards of post-it notes. The answer is a calendar, ideally a digital one.

OS_X_Calendar copy

There are multiple calendar apps and services out there, but the two standouts are Google calendar or Apple’s iCal for Mac users. Whatever you choose, make sure your calendar has the following features:

1. Cross-platform syncing. You need your calendar to sync across multiple devices so that you can enter events and access your calendar wherever you are and whatever device you’re working on - cellphone, Tablet, PC or laptop.

2. Notifications. When you enter an event you should usually set up a notification as well, so that the calendar will send you an email, a beep, or a buzz a specified number of minutes beforehand.

3. Year, Month, Week, and Day Views. Sometimes you need to drill down to a specific day to see what you are doing at 12 noon. Other times you need to see the week on one page to identify areas of over-scheduling or perhaps areas where you can schedule study time.

4. Color coding. You may want to assign color coding for different kinds of events – classes, sport, church, etc. You definitely want to color code study time so that you can see at a glance if you are allocating enough hours to assignments and exam prep.

5. Start and finish times. You need the facility to enter start and finish times so that it blocks off a visible portion of your calendar and you don’t schedule anything to begin before the previous event ends.

6. Location. Classes take place in different buildings. Games and competitions vary their venues. You want a calendar that lets you enter where as well as when.

7. Sharing. This is not a must-have, but eventually (we hope) you will have a significant other in your life and you’ll want (I hope) him or her to know where you are and when you are available. It’s therefore helpful to have the ability to share calendars. And if you’ve got nothing to hide (!) why not make it available to your parents too, so that they can schedule family events and trips with you.

Let me finish up with a few extra tips.

1. Enter the event as soon as you can. Don’t wait until later and hope you’ll remember to enter it and get all the details right. Just get into the habit of entering the data immediately.

2. Schedule everything. It’s tempting to just schedule classes and other events that you must attend. However, unless you schedule some of the more optional events – they probably won’t happen. For example, you should schedule blocks in your calendar for studying, for exercise, for friends.

3. Schedule margin. Don’t schedule events so close that you are always rushing from one thing to another. Estimate how long it will take you and then add some margin to allow for traffic, unplanned conversations, etc.

4. Use small blocks. The best studying gets done in large uninterrupted blocks of time. So, where you see these possibilities in your calendar, mark them down. Then you’ll see other bits and pieces – 30 minutes here, 40 minutes there – what should you do with them? These are valuable but easily wasted time slots. Without undermining what I said about allowing for margin, you may want to use some of these 20-30 minute blocks for the multiple small to-dos of each day like email, phone calls, errands, etc. Don’t shorten, interrupt, and waste substantial study time blocks with these little things.

5. Check your calendar. No point in going to all the bother of entering all that data and then not checking it. Don’t just rely on the beep or the buzz a few minutes beforehand. Every Saturday evening or Monday morning you should look at the week ahead and make sure you have a good sense of what’s planned. Then every evening, check for the next day’s events and plan accordingly.

6. Accountability. It’s a good idea to ask someone to look at your calendar from time to time to see if you are using time well. Ask someone who is well-organized and self-disciplined to take a look and offer advice.

Other Resources

New Student Tip #1: Dropbox

New Student Tip #2: Wunderlist

New Student Tip #3: Evernote

New Student Tip #4: Diigo

New Student Tip #5: Lastpass

Thriving at College by Alex Chediak (for students)

Preparing Your Teens For College by Alex Chediak (for parents of students)

Top 10 Books for Students


The Mouth of God


From The Mouth of God: Trusting, Reading, and Applying the Bible by Sinclair B. Ferguson

I like to read a book about the Bible every year. Although I’m often reading what I already know, I still find it deeply beneficial to regularly remind myself what the Bible really is, how it came to be, and how I should read and interpret it. That’s especially true in a day when the Bible and the doctrine of Scripture is under such sustained attack from outside and inside the church. I don’t want to shift one inch from the rock solid foundation of an infallible, inerrant, authoritative Bible.

My latest load of ballast comes in Sinclair Ferguson’s new book, From The Mouth of God: Trusting, Reading, and Applying the BibleFor the multitudes who already know and love Sinclair, that’s probably all you need to know. Sinclair Ferguson has a new book out…right, where can I buy it? It’s like an instinct now isn’t it! So much so, that we can almost hear his much-loved voice as we read his written pages.

But there are others, especially younger readers, who are maybe not so familiar with Sinclair Ferguson. He doesn’t blog, he doesn’t Tweet, and he doesn’t do Facebook. I mean, does he really exist?

Well, I can vouch for his existence. Yes, believe it or not, there is real life outside virtual life. In fact, maybe this book might demonstrate to you what deep thought and beautiful writing can be produced by an unfrazzled mind and a prayerful spirit.

There are four parts to the book:

Part One – Trusting the Bible
This section covers the usual subjects considered in any doctrine of Scripture – inspiration, inerrancy, authority, canon, perspicuity, sufficiency, etc. But don’t let any of these words put you off, because Sinclair explains them all in such a simple conversational manner that most teens could understand them. It might be tempting to skip this section and go straight to the more “practical” chapters. However, if you succumb, please come back to these important chapters. Unless we know, understand, teach, and defend the doctrine of Scripture, we’re not going to have any Scripture left to practice.

Part Two – Reading the Bible
This section on Bible interpretation starts with some warnings about common traps to avoid, and then puts five valuable keys of interpretation into our hands together with examples of how to turn these keys to open up the Bible’s treasures. This fifth chapter and especially the third key could transform the way you read and understand the Bible.

Chapters six and seven show how to apply these keys to different kinds of Scripture – history, poetry, prophecy, the epistles, the Gospels, etc. In a few short pages you’ll pick up many precious nuggets that have been refined over forty years of pastoral ministry. Chapter nine demonstrates how to pull and put it all together to interpret the book of Ruth. And that’s the huge strength of this book – its practicality. Sinclair doesn’t just toss you the keys and say, “All the best.” He puts his hand on yours, guides you to the lock, helps you to turn it in the right way, opens the door, and guides you around the precious treasure.

Part Three – Applying the Bible
The third section lays the basis for application, proving that the Bible calls for more than bigger brains, before briefly proposing some basic guidelines for applying the Bible to our times and lives.

Appendices
In addition to a guide for future reading and a Bible reading plan, there are two articles on guidance by John Murray and John Newton.

Conclusion
A good book for young people and young Christians, probably after they’ve read Kevin DeYoung’s even simpler and briefer Taking God at His Word. A great book for everyone else. No matter how mature you are, it will increase your love for and confidence in the Bible, as well as give you some invaluable keys to help you understand and apply it better.

For me, I’m still living off the first two pages of the introduction, where Sinclair briefly expanded upon his choice of title, From the Mouth of God. The Bible is the mouth of God. Pause. Pause longer. Repeat. The Bible is the mouth of God. That totally changes the way I open it, read it, and hear it. I hope it will do the same for you.

From The Mouth of God: Trusting, Reading, and Applying the Bible by Sinclair B. Ferguson.


New Student Tip #5: Lastpass

I just counted how many different passwords and usernames I have.

Sixty eight (68!).

And I can’t remember one of them.

That’s partly because no two are the same for any of the multiple online services, accounts, memberships, etc., that I use.

Which helps keeps the hackers out. But it often leaves me out in the cold too as I try the bazillion possible combinations.

Sound familiar?

Like me, you probably have tried writing them all down, but the consequences of losing all that information or having it stolen are just too horrendous to contemplate.

A couple of years ago, I tried one of those password manager apps, but it was quite expensive at the time (@$70 a year), and every software update seemed to throw a new spanner in the works that took forever to fix.

A few months ago, though, I found the ideal solution, Lastpass.

LastPassLogo

Some of the benefits are:

  • A single master password
  • Remembers all of your passwords and usernames.
  • Lastpass can create secure passwords for you.
  • A simple user interface to organize and edit your passwords.
  • You can chose auto-login so that as soon as you go to a site like Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, etc, it automatically logs you in.
  • Lastpass encrypts all data before it leaves your device.
  • As you browse and enter passwords, Lastpass will prompt you to store them.
  • Install on any number of laptops, home and work computers – PC or MAC.
  • Store secure notes in the vault.

And its another free service, just like the previous four New Student Tips!

Probably that’s all you need, but I pay the extra $12 per year for premium service which lets me use it on all my mobile devices too. Plus, there are some really neat sharing features which will help you if your family or friends share access to online services.

There are two ways of using the service. The first is to go to the site you want access too and Lastpass will either log you in automatically or auto fill and then prompt you to hit enter. Or simply click on the Lastpass plug-in icon on your browser navigation bar, then click on the website I want to use and Lastpass takes me there and signs me in.

Now where did I put that Master Password?

Here’s a brief video summary:

Other Resources

New Student Tip #1: Dropbox

New Student Tip #2: Wunderlist

New Student Tip #3: Evernote

New Student Tip #4: Diigo

Thriving at College by Alex Chediak (for students)

Preparing Your Teens For College by Alex Chediak (for parents of students)

Top 10 Books for Students