A Theology of Happiness

When I pause for a minute to ask my self what I really want in life, my unedited first response is . . . well, embarrassing.  I want to be happy, and my shallow definition of a “happy” life looks something like this:  a vehicle that never breaks down, children who behave well and experience a measure of success, a maintenance-free house, and a healthy body.  Now, truly, there is nothing wrong with any of these lovely things — or even with my desire for them.  However, life on a fallen planet makes their simultaneous fulfillment unlikely, at best.  This is why those of us who believingly follow Jesus Christ must find our way to A Different Kind of Happiness — one that does not depend upon a problem-free life.

Larry Crabb offers helpful clarification for my happiness-seeking heart by tying my understanding of happiness to the notion that happiness comes from loving others sacrificially.  Because this flies in the face of our instinct for self-protection and desire for instant well-being, Larry’s argument unfolds over the course of over two hundred well-constructed and earnestly compelling pages.

We’ve long distinguished between happiness and joy, but Larry uses the words interchangeably, instead creating two helpful categories of happiness:

  1.  “Second Thing Happiness” — which requires at least some of the things on my list in order to feel good;
  2. “First Thing Happiness” —  which is entirely different and “develops when we struggle to love others with a costly love that is possible only if we have a life-giving relationship with Jesus that is grounded entirely in His love for us.”

Does this sound unrealistic?  Does it sound as if it contradicts what we know and experience on this “narrow road that leads to life?”  No one would argue with the truth that the happiness and joy that Jesus experienced in His time on this planet came from giving Himself. And only the gloomiest of theologians would argue against the notion that God is supremely happy, and that He wants to draw us into that happiness.  Yet, at the same time both Old and New Testaments describe Jesus as a Man of Sorrows “and acquainted with grief.”  He was a free agent, entering into suffering — and doing it on behalf of unworthy people, (Romans 5:7,8).

The good news that God draws us into involves life on a narrow road.  For Larry Crabb, this has included a cancer diagnosis, ongoing treatment over a period of years, several recurrences, and now a new episode of treatment being ushered in just as he was grappling with the concepts in this book.  Misery like this is just one of the symptoms of this life under the sun.  However, Scripture, prayer, and a life centered around spiritual discipline offer us a glimpse of life from above the sun in which we pray for grace to relate to others in a loving way that puts Him on display no matter what our outward circumstances.  Larry calls this the prayer “that God always answers.”

The jarring truth that we look for our happiness in all the wrong places is supported by two facts that sound distinctly heretical:  (1)Sinful urges come from a place within us that is experienced on a deeper level than our redemption; (2)Sin delivers a pleasure that Jesus never provides.

If that’s the case, then, how is it possible to find happiness along with a life of holiness?

“In order to compete with sin’s appeal, holy desire, the longing to live a Christlike life that displays the relational beauty of Christ to others, must be rooted in faith.  And that faith exists only when it is lodged in the certainty that soon it will give way to an incomparable experience of joy that will forever destroy the appeal for sin.”

The goal of Christlikeness is always a long way off, but life on the narrow road is designed to “squeeze” the unholiness out of His followers, leaving them free to follow hard after the prize of knowing God at any cost and to hate anything that obscures the reality of God’s loving presence.

The antidote to our persistent “Broad Road Thinking” is a heavy dose of the Gospel which Larry examines in the context of seven probing questions:

  1.  Who is God?  God is relational, a three-Person community of love, fully committed to the happiness of others.  Even His glory is relational.
  2. What is God up to?  He is devoting His unlimited resources to forming those who receive the gospel into disciples who relate like Jesus.
  3. Who are we? We are relational persons with a potential waiting to be realized, created to know joy in knowing God, with potential to put Jesus on display.
  4. What’s gone wrong?  As a race, we’ve rejected God’s identity as “the source of all that is good.”   We look elsewhere for goodness and happiness.
  5. What has God done about our problem?  He killed His Son.  Of course, this will seem of little consequence if we persist in settling for “Second Thing Happiness.”
  6. How is the Spirit working to implement the divine solution to our human problem?  This side of heaven, “we experience the Holy Spirit’s presence most richly in our darkness and distress” and “His power most potently in our weakness and failure.”
  7. How can we cooperate with the Spirit’s working?  By never giving up on ourselves and others; by battling for a better love and seeking to truly know one another; by giving in both word and deed.

What would happen if we threw ourselves into this battle for a better love?  The happiness that Jesus experienced on this Earth coexisted beside the worst kind of anguish and suffering.  It was fueled by deep and significant relationships.  Truly His narrow way is the way that leads to life.


This book was provided by BakerBooks, a division of Baker Publishing Group, in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”Subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews from Living Our Days delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the box at the top of this page.

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31 thoughts on “A Theology of Happiness”

  1. Looks like a wonderful book! Makes me think of Kara Tippetts and her joy-filled service in the midst of excruciating circumstances.

    A few days ago my husband shared an article with me about happiness written by somebody secular because he recognized some of what I’d shared in the Happiness Dare…but reading it, it saddened me because the key ingredient missing was Jesus and service toward others. It was extremely critical of unhappy people and pretty much pointed out it was their own fault and failed to recognize that the greatest joy comes in sharing what we’ve been given in love. But without Jesus, it is hard to really begin to understand this concept of giving (even in the worst of times) making us happy.

    Jennifer’s book and dares are helping me with this. The more gratefully I receive all circumstances in my day, the happier I become and the more I begin to naturally serve and bless others, thanking God for blessing me with the opportunity. Jennifer encouraged us to swap “should” for “get to” and boy has it convicted me of how circumstance-dependent I am in my service and attitude! I get to be a mother to my children, to cook, clean, read to, play with and dance with them…. I don’t “have to” or “should”, I “get to” with the breath in my lungs and the wondeful able body and mind I’ve been given.


  2. Thank-you for sharing this review, Michele. It sounds like an incredible book, and I always appreciate hearing Larry Crabb’s thoughts. It’s still mind-boggling for me to think about how Jesus must have walked this earth with such happiness and peace, even in the midst of sorrow- I suppose all for the joy set before Him. Thanks for sharing!


  3. Wonderful review and timely as there is so much being shared about happiness these days. I especially appreciated Larry Crabb’s perspective which you shared as it comes from the joining of Scripture and his experience. Not an easy road to travel. Glad you shared about this book!


      1. In our Hindu philosophy we strive for eternal bliss (Paramananda) instead of Happiness (Khushi). Happiness is short lived and we can seek it external world where as bliss is permanent, internal and coming from God directly. Manifestation of God in matter as well as non-matter must be understood to remain in bliss always. Even serving others comes under that as you have rightly mentioned. I pray to God (Cosmic Energy) to grant you the taste of bliss in all your endeavours.


  4. I am so glad to read this review of Larry Crabb’s book since you referenced it in a comment to me on my blog. Do you feel it aligns with the ideas that Jennifer Lee has outlined in The Happiness Dare and/or do you feel his book is a good companion book to Jennifer’s?

    Hope you have a wonderful week Michele!


    1. Yes, Mary, it was such a blessing to be reading it as I read all the comments, etc. about Jennifer’s book. And then . . . my next book was The Happiness Dare, and the reason I titled my review A Theology of Happiness is that Jennifer’s book is really very boots on the ground when it comes to the pursuit of happiness. Larry Crabb’s book gives a lot of psychology and fairly deep Scriptural analysis — and both authors trumpet the beauty of the happiness that God so desires for us to know. This Eeyore really needed a double dose of happiness-theory! So glad you asked those questions because I had been thinking about how the two books are really so complementary.


  5. Michelle, what a great post. And I so appreciate Larry Crabb and the wisdom he shares. This really spoke to me:
    “The goal of Christlikeness is always a long way off, but life on the narrow road is designed to “squeeze” the unholiness out of His followers, leaving them free to follow hard after the prize of knowing God at any cost and to hate anything that obscures the reality of God’s loving presence.”

    I never pictured the narrow road like this before. I love it!


  6. Oh, I too seek happiness that comes from my circumstances. But grace that puts Christ on display whatever comes my way, glorifying Him, serving others … those joys last eternal. But I love that God desires for us to experience both. Thank you, Michele, for sharing and giving me something to think about. : )

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Michele, Thank you for this thorough, thought-provoking review. If the review left me contemplating questions of myself, I can only imagine what the book would reveal.

    Happiness seems to be a common subject this blogging week. I LOVE when God does that! It’s like He is teaching our wonderful blogging community together and this week it is “Happiness” Thanks for being a conduit for that lesson. 🙂


    1. Yes! Reading others reviews of Jennifer Lee’s book as I was reading Larry’s really enhanced my experience — and then I went on to read Jennifer’s so I’m pretty well steeped in happiness theology these days!


  8. Kurt Vonnegut said it was important to pause and recognise moments of happiness – when life was good – and I think seeing the beauty in small things and happy moments no matter how insignificant create a greater sense of happiness.


  9. So glad to be catching up with your posts and to discover this new book by Larry Crabb. Last June my husband bumped into him at a restaurant in Littleton, CO, when we were on vacation and he mentioned the new health challenges he was facing. We have been blessed by so many of his books and enjoyed hearing him in person often. This book reflects so much of the rich maturity of his walk with Jesus. Thanks for sharing and adding to my book list to read!! Love catching up with you.


  10. I love that prayer that God always answers! Thank you so much for linking up at Booknificent Thursday on Mommynificent.com this week! (And thanks for your oh-so-encouraging email this week too!)


  11. I really like those two happiness categories. Finding true happiness is not about me, it about what we can do for the Lord and others. I’m adding this book to my list. Thanks for this wonderful review and for sharing with Thankful Thursdays.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Thanks for sharing this review Michele. So often we seek happiness in all the wrong places in all the wrong ways. It’s important that we understand that focusing on being more Christlike is how we will truly be happy. Thanks for sharing at Mom-to-Mom Mondays.


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