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“God Wants Me to Be Happy” – A Reflection on a Deeply Flawed Moral Stance

October 6, 2015

One of the questionable, and unfortunately common, forms of moral reasoning today is the rather narcissistic notion that God wants each of us to be happy. Sometimes it is put in the form of a rhetorical question: God wants me to be happy, doesn’t He?

And this sort of reasoning (if you want to call it that) is used to justify just about anything. Thus, in pondering divorce, a spouse might point to his or her misery and conclude that God would approve of the split because God wants me to be happy, doesn’t He? Many seek to justify so-called same-sex marriage, and other illicit sexual notions in the same way.

Further, other responsibilities are often blithely set aside as too demanding, under the pretext that God would not make difficult demands because, after all, He wants me to be happy. Since getting to Mass is difficult for me, God will understand if I don’t go; He wants me to be happy, not burdened. Forgiving someone is hard and God does not ask hard things of us; He wants me to be happy. Refusing to cooperate with some evil at work would risk my income; surely God would not demand that I withstand it since He wants me to be happy, content, and financially secure.

The notion that God wants me to be happy thus becomes a kind of trump card, some sort of definitive declaration that obviates the need for any further moral reflection. Practically speaking, this means that I am now free to do as I please. Since I am happy, God is happy, and this is His will … or so the thinking goes.

There are, of course, multiple problems with the “God wants me to be happy” moral stance. In the first place, happiness is a complex matter that admits of many subjective criteria including personal development, temporal dimensions, and worldview. For example, a spiritually mature person can find happiness simply in knowing that he is pleasing God by follow His Commandments. On an interpersonal level, many are happy to make sacrifices for the people they love. To others who are less mature, even the smallest sacrifice can seem obnoxious and bring on unhappiness; pleasing God is not even on their radar, let alone something that would make them happy.

Happiness is also temporally variable. Most of us are well aware that happiness tomorrow is often contingent upon making certain sacrifices today. For example, the happiness one gets in taking a vacation is usually dependent upon having saved up some money beforehand. Making sacrifices today enables happiness tomorrow. If all I do is please myself in the moment, insist on being happy right now, my ability to be happy in the future will likely be seriously compromised. Setting no limits today might mean that I am broke tomorrow, or addicted, or unhealthily overweight, or afflicted with a sexually-transmitted disease. True, lasting, deep happiness in the future often requires some sacrifice today, some capacity to say “No” right now. Without any consideration of the future or of eternal life, “happiness” in the moment is vague, foolish, and meaningless, if not outright destructive. God desires our happiness, all right, but the happiness He wants for us is that of eternal life with Him forever. He has clearly indicated that this will often involve forsaking many of the passing pleasures and the “happiness” of this world.

More troubling still is the self-referential and narcissistic aspect contained in the simple little word “me.” God wants me to be happy.

Those who expresses this “me” notion might be surprised to discover that God has bigger things in mind. God actually cares about other people, too! He also cares about future generations and about the common good. Yes, there’s just a little more on God’s radar than you.

So the divorced man who might say, “God wants me to be happy” should consider that God might actually care about his children too; He might care about the culture that suffers due to rampant divorce; He might care about future generations that would inherit a culture shredded by destroyed families.

Wow, God might actually want others to be happy besides me! Even more shockingly, God might want me to sacrifice my happiness for them! He might actually want me to consider them and even regard them as more important that I am.

As a moral reference point, “me” is remarkably narrow and usually self-serving. And yet many today use this almost reflexively and authoritatively. “God wants me to be happy, so all discussions and further deliberations are over. God has spoken through my desires. He wants me to be happy. Who are you to dispute that? We’re done here; I will not be judged by you.”

“God wants me to be happy” is not a legitimate moral principle. It bespeaks a narcissism that is, sadly, too common today. Call it “Stuart Smalley theology.” You don’t know who Stuart Smalley is? This video shows it plainly enough. The bottom line is, don’t be Stuart Smalley.

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Comments (11)

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  1. Msgr. Charles Pope says:

    Note to Readers – This critique of the “God wants me to be happy” movement is not set forth by me as an absolute refutation of happiness as a goal or of what St. Thomas calls “Beatitude” The pursuit of happiness is a universal human quest. But there is such a thing as true happiness offered by God and the false notions of the world which amounts fundamentally to a rejection of the cross and the summons to truth. The more obnoxious aspect of course is that God wants ME to be happy. “ME” being grasped in isolation to anyone or anything else.

    • C Beltz says:

      I believe that God wants us to love Him and in doing that we will be happy. If we make happiness our goal we have taken Him out of the equation, dooming our results. Our attempts to achieve happiness outside of Him almost always result in a condition of less happiness not more, and there are often casualties.

      When we make God our focus we do right things, people do not suffer needlessly, and miraculously, our happiness survives beyond a day or two.

  2. Barbra says:

    Thank you for this insight. I have been guilty of “Stuart Smaller Theology” more than I’d like to admit. But I never thought of it this way. Being a Mother can sometimes bring that out. I sacrifice “A” for the children so God would want me to have “B” right? I will keep your words in mind next time I face such a decision, probably tomorrow. ????

  3. Fredi D'Alessio says:

    Wonderful as usual Msgr. Pope

    I hope you don’t mind this: ‘God wants me to be happy, so I’ll do it my way’ – https://fjdalessio.wordpress.com/2015/10/07/god-wants-me-to-be-happy-so-ill-do-it-my-way/

    Thank you and God bless.

  4. Jeanne D'Arc says:

    If your God lets you do whatever you want, then your God is you.

  5. Therese says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! Makes perfect sense!

  6. Annie says:

    This is a terrific explanation of what is wrong with that pernicious idea! Thank you so much!

  7. Nick says:

    Either Saint Augustine or Thomas said, “The goal of morality is happiness” or “The end of morality is beatitude.” That to me is a clear sign against narcissism, as a clear sign toward authentic love.

  8. Pattie, RN says:

    Wonderful post (long time reader who rarely posts…) To me, God’s love and wishes for us are like a human parent in some ways. If I love my son, I make him eat his veggies, not just the ice cream that makes him “happy”. I ensure that he does his homework and says his prayers, when playing video games makes him sooooo much happier! When he had strep throat, I made him VERY unhappy by insisting he take yucky pink medicine three times a day!! I know in my heart that whatever God has in my life is for my ultimate good and eternal life with Him, but sadly I often react like an unhappy child……please keep your readers in your prayers!