The Suffocating Hunt for Happiness


Men have killed to have it. Kings have gone mad trying to find it. Wars have served it. Affairs have worshiped it. Its pursuit binds us all together.

I can remember my own desperate search for it.

The best experiences in this life would feed my craving for it. Sunny days at the beach, Friday nights on the field, caresses of beautiful music, summer evenings dancing at Latin clubs, Christmas mornings with family. Although these mesmerized for a moment, the spell was soon broken with their departure. Summers turned to winter. Laughter turned to silence. The sun vanished from the horizon. Full rooms emptied. The music stopped.

Play as I would with sports, dance, women, and entertainment — the cacophony of all of earth’s enjoyments didn’t silence the still small whisper: There is more. When the scrolling ceased, the season passed, and the sin was spent, something still beckoned in the silence.

So, I set off to find the enchanted flower on the next hillside: that pleasure, this girlfriend, that achievement. When I would get to the end of each rainbow, I discovered the cheat afresh. All is vanity, a chasing after the wind. It was the small fire perfectly placed between my soul’s shoulder blades. Reach as I may, the throbbing remained.

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Joy Is Not an ‘It’

I doubt I describe an ache you have not felt. I wager that all can give their personal testimony to what Pascal wrote so long ago:

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.

We all, to varying degrees, are conscious of this yawning cavern placed within us by Someone without. Inexplicably, we hunger for a meal we have not yet tasted; we thirst for streams our lips have never touched. And we cannot shake it. We try to appease the appetite with earthly snacks or distract ourselves with cheap thrills, but silent rooms still scare us. There, the whisper finds us. There is more.

That voice finally caught me one silent evening in my dorm room. Exhausted and mostly unwillingly it brought me to a Book. And there I read the secret it had prepared me to hear my whole life: Unfading joy, the kind that does not wilt or flee, that cannot be stolen or destroyed, the indomitable, the unrelenting happiness I longed for was not an impersonal it, but existed in relation to a him.

Joy, the Bible said, was not a philosophical idea or chemical reaction; it was that which is chained unchangeably to the presence of God: “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). It is experienced in his orbit, the atmosphere of his presence, the aroma of his fragrance.

Fullness of joy, it claimed, was found nowhere else. What many call “true joy” — a noun so battered and bruised that it needs the crutch of an adjective — does not originate or terminate in this world. God revealed that billions of us have spent our lives digging for stars.

Hidden Terms of Happiness

But God also revealed that he had terms for this happiness to be mine. Terms that, for years, I couldn’t believe I needed to receive to be happy. I would find a different door. I believed the myth that Satan started so long ago: The happiness I craved lived outside the kingdom of the Happy God. I did not need God to have heaven. I did not need Christ crucified.

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Nothing but boredom and drudgery, I thought, stood on the other side of repentance and faith. And I was dying clinging to this fiction. I would not surrender. Joy without atonement was my idol. Joy that did not make me bow, did not deal with my Maker, nor face my treason was my golden calf. I was like a rabid dog running from the day to chase after the moon, hiding from the daylight’s warmth — joy — as I shivered in my night. Man’s small fires could not replace the sun.

Laughter’s Invitation

We can look under every rock and chase after every wind, and we will not find this joy we hate to need apart from that carpenter from Nazareth. We pant for a resurrected joy that stands on the other side of payment for sin. A joy that required blood to attain — the flow from God’s own veins. The joy all longings whisper lives prostrate before the cross, offered freely to those who repent of their sins and trust in Jesus. The happiness that all other pleasures speak invites you to kneel.

Perhaps you have not yet tired of exploring this world’s wells. You have not grown desperate enough to knock at heaven’s door. You still have hope to find a world elsewhere. But let God bring you to your senses, and you will realize that this tormenting thirst was given to you that you might hear this invitation from Jesus:

“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.” (John 7:37)

That you might consider his promise:

“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35)

That you might find the completion of your joy in receiving his:

“These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:11)

I have found that God is the end of all joyful craving. He is the heaven, the life, the joy of all those who are forever happy. Paradise is to know him, to experience his glory. And his desire: to be seen in that glory. He received a thorny crown, five wounds, and a wooden cross to safely show us that resplendence which shall soon shame the sun into extinction. Eternal joy is not an it, but a he. Will you turn from sin and go to him?

A version of this article previously appeared on the Desiring God website under the headline, “Anywhere But God: The Suffocating Hunt for Happiness.”

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Desiring God produces God-centered resources from the ministry of John Piper. Its mission is to produce and distribute resources that spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.