On Suffering and Happiness

by Derrick G. Jeter

We live during trying times, amidst economic difficulties, political drift, international dangers, moral deviancy, and natural disasters. The recent earthquake in Haiti has raised questions that haven’t been thought about or discussed since the Christmas tsunami in 2004 and the terrorist attacks on 9/11 in 2001. Questions like: “Does God what us to suffer?” and, “Doesn’t God want us to be happy?”

The answer to the first question is yes. The answer to the second question is yes and no, depending on what you mean by happiness. The biblical idea is God wants us to suffer so that we might be happy. Does that surprise you? Let me put it another way, the purpose of suffering is happiness—the painful process of making us good. So we could say, God brings suffering into our lives to produce happiness, and happiness is goodness.

The reason we find this truth so hard to choke down is because have turned happiness into sugar and spice, and everything nice. We simply misunderstand what happiness is. We think about happiness subjectively, as a feeling. If you feel happy then you are happy. Our word “happiness” comes from the Old English word “hap”—meaning chance or luck: it “happens.” For us, happiness depends on what happens to us from the outside material world, from circumstances, and not within our own souls. Happiness, then, comes and goes—its uncontrollable and transient.

The ancient notion of happiness comes from the Greek word, eudaimonia, literally meaning good spirit or good soul. “To be happy is to be good,” Peter Kreeft wrote. “By this definition, Job on his dung heap is happy. Socrates unjustly condemned to die is happy. Hitler exulting over the conquest of France is not happy. Happiness is not a warm puppy. Happiness is goodness.” This view of happiness isn’t concerned with what is happening to us on the outside; its only concern is with what God is doing on the inside. Our modern idea of happiness is too shallow to keep us rooted when the strong winds of suffering blow. But the ancient idea of happiness is deep and rich, and will keep us firmly planted and growing.

This is why the purpose of suffering is happiness, to make us good—to make us, in the Christian sense, like Christ. We are rebels at heart, preferring our own way rather than God’s way. Because God loves us too much to allow us to continue in a rebellion that will ultimately lead to death, He must get our attention and turn us back to Himself. He often does this through suffering. In The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Or, as Lewis later wrote, “[Pain] plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul.”

Once God has our attention, what is He trying to accomplish? He’s trying to mold us into the character of His Son, Jesus. The writer to the Hebrews put it like this: “He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness . . . [and] yield the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:10–11). And Paul wrote, within a context of suffering, that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). What is God’s purpose in bringing together all things, including our suffering, for good? That we might “become conformed to the image of His Son” (8:29). And becoming conformed into the image of Christ, though not always a pleasant experience, will, in the end, make us good—it will make us happy.