In college I belonged to a popular para-church group. Their approach to “witnessing” was to invite “unbelievers” or “the lost” to find happiness in a relationship to Jesus. I totally bought into this way of evangelism. So I was shocked when I was told by potential converts that their lives were just fine, thank you, and they were happy without Jesus.

It didn’t make any sense. How could someone be happy without Jesus? Now, years later, I’ve found that the appropriate question really is how someone can be happy with Jesus.

See, the “be happy in Jesus” stuff is all a lie. Jesus never promised we would be happy if we followed him. Blessed, yes, but despite some translations, blessing is not happiness. Instead, Jesus promised persecution and hardship (Matthew 10:16-23; John 15:20). He said we would have enemies even in our own families because of him (Matthew 10:31-39). We would be dragged before authorities who would demand an account of our faith (Matthew 10:16-23). He invited us to take up our cross and follow him. Let us not forget that the cross was a cruel instrument of execution; condemned prisoners were forced to carry the crossbeam on the way to the place they were to be killed. As Bonhoeffer reminded us: “When Jesus calls [people], he bids [them] come and die” (The Cost of Discipleship).

Being a follower of Jesus is hard. I guess that’s why some folks started saying that Jesus would make us happy. It’s easier to sell. And if the goal is to get butts in pews, then you surely don’t want to preach a message that turns off folks whose focus is all on themselves and their self-fulfillment.

I haven’t been to a para-church meeting in a long time, and I haven’t even inquired of my colleagues in that ministry if they still preach the happiness gospel. Somehow I doubt it. Today’s college students see right through the lie. And happiness is not what they seek. Instead, they want to give their lives to someone and something worthwhile. As Tony Campolo said a while back, “We’re losing an entire generation of young people because we’ve made Christianity too easy for them. Being young is about being heroic” (Tapestry Conference, Tupelo, MS, January 2006). The students I know want to be heroes for Jesus.

Following our Lord does not bring happiness. But it does bring joy. Frederick Buechner said it: “Happiness turns up more or less where you’d expect it to—a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it” (Wishful Thinking [1993 edition]: 58).

© 2006 by Tom Cheatham