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

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.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: “God Wants Me to Be Happy” – A Reflection on a Deeply Flawed Moral Stance

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

  1. Interesting article with many good points. I could say, though, that God wants me to be joy filled. Nehemiah states that the “joy of the Lord is our strength.” St. Paul in Philippians commands us to “rejoice in the Lord, and again I say: REJOICE.”

    Earlier in Galatians he states that the fruit to the Spirit is…JOY. Even the word “happy” is used in Psalm 1 where the happy one meditates on the word of God, or the happy one lives out the beatitudes given to us by Christ.

    It is true, a ME ORIENTED happiness is neither biblical or Christian. But a God and other oriented life is the secret to true happiness and joy. So in the end I could say: “God wants me to be happy…in HIS way, not mine.” This delivers me from narcissism and frees me to be what I was intended to be, a joy filled person who delights in God and serves other with this same Spirit empowered joy.

  2. I get your point and can’t disagree with the premise that the concept of God has been changed by many Catholics into a “stuffed bunny/cotton candy” type of God that will “love” (as in affirm) you no matter what you do. This view of God has caused people to do all sorts of immoral actions all in the name of being able to define what is most important in their life (their strongest preferences). However, it would have been nice if you had written the article in a more sophisticated manner that takes into consideration the language the Church’s moral tradition. Certainly in the Aristotelian/Thomistic moral tradition, God wants people to be happy; and not just when they get to heaven. Since God is wise, he makes humans for a purpose, and since he is loving, when they perform actions fulfilling their purpose they are happy. Even in the bible, the term beatitude (as in the 8 beatitudes) means happiness in Latin and is a translation of the Greek word that referred to the happiness of the gods. When you are poor in spirit, mourn, meek, merciful, etc., you share in God’s happiness. A much better way to address this issue is to make a distinction between true and false happiness (corresponding to the way that John Paul II and Benedict made distinctions between true and false freedom). God does not want you to have false happiness – as this comes from sin and in the long run always causes unhappiness. God wants you to have true happiness that comes from fulfilling your purpose of entering into loving relationships with God and others.

  3. It all depends upon what you mean by “happy”: if you mean to feel pleasant, content, then your point is well-taken. But to be happy can mean to be fulfilled as a human being. God does want that, and all good practical reasoning begins with the desire for such happiness. It is worth noting that Saint Thomas Aquinas begins the part of the Summa theologiae that treats practical reasoning with a section that is typically called the “Treatise on Happiness”: that is because a correct understanding of happiness is the foundation of good practical reasoning–the sort that leads to union with God. And a correct understanding of happiness is fundamental because God DOES want you and me to be perfectly happy, and perfect happiness consists of union with God (in the beatific vision).
    There’s nothing wrong with attacking the narcissism of our “I-me-mine” culture. But the best way to do this is to argue that what each of really wants and needs is to become a virtuous adult, someone who is capable of entering into healthy, generous relationships with others. And the most important relationship is with the One who calls us to perfect happiness through union with Him. As Saint Irenaeus says, “The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God.”

  4. I would point out also that most people put their happiness in the flesh.

  5. When confronted with this argument (or many of the other contemporary arguments, such as, “It’s my body, so you can’t tell me what to do!”), I usually engage in a little exercise in reductio ad absurdum:

    “So you’re saying that if God just wants me to be happy, and what were to make me happy would be to engage in sexual assault (or murder (or …)), then that’s OK?”

    Somehow, I’ve never received a “yes” to that question.

  6. The Beatitudes in Matthew 5 pronounce “Blessed” or “Happy” is the person who extends mercy, etc. to others. Hard to argue with that.

  7. Biblical happiness is the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23 which says “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.”

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