I wrote this article several years ago for Boundless Webzine, but have found the question it answers to be timeless and always relevant. In fact, I just had a discussion last week with a young man who was wrestling with his faith and asking this question. Here’s the article for the first time on my blog. Having walked with Jesus for about 40 years now, I find I can answer yes to this question with more passion and conviction every year.
Is life as a Christian really better than the alternative?
It was about 2 a.m., and we were all exhausted from laughing over each others’ most embarrassing moments. I was their former youth pastor, and we had planned this overnight as our final get-together before the students headed back to college following summer break.
The mood turned more serious, and some began to share their struggles. Then one of them asked the all too-familiar question: “All my friends are wondering, ‘Will I be happier if I live life as a Christian?'”
In my near-decade of working with young people, I find this the most popular question students ask. It can be phrased different ways, but the underlying query remains the same: “Is life without God better? Maybe the Christian life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe I should be looking elsewhere.”
The author of Hebrews writes, “whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). In other words, saving faith is not just a firm belief in the truths of Christianity; it is a conviction that God is good to those who are faithful to Him.
Many of us start our journey with God believing in His inherent goodness. We believe He loves us and will forgive our sins; we believe He will give us a more fulfilling life here and heaven later.
But then life gets hard. Christians disappoint us; our dreams shatter; we struggle hard against temptation. We look at others and begin to feel like the psalmist who wrote, “I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles…. Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure” (Psalm 73:3-5).
In these times of doubt and pain, we can become so focused on our problems that we lose all perspective. The same psalmist affirms this when he says, “When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant” (vs. 21). It is then that we need to step back and look at the big picture.
Delayed Gratification Is Key to Long-Term Happiness
In his book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman talks about a marshmallow test conducted at Stanford University. Preschool children were brought into a room and each given a marshmallow. They were told they could eat the marshmallow right away. Or they could wait until the researcher returned, and then they would get two marshmallows. Some ate the marshmallow right away; some waited a little while; and one third waited the full 15-20 minutes until the researcher returned.
Fourteen years later, the researchers tracked down these students. The study revealed that the children who waited the full 15-20 minutes scored an average of 210 points higher on the SAT. These children understood the concept of delayed gratification and as a result were more successful, and reportedly, more emotionally stable.
The Christian life is much that way: God often asks us to refuse immediate gratification in order to obtain a greater reward. In the short-term, we may feel gypped, but in the long run, we’re better off.
God commands us to abstain from sex outside marriage so we can eventually experience the greater joy of true intimacy in marriage. God requires we not lie so we can experience the joy of honest relationships. God asks us to give up our earthly life so we can obtain an eternal life.
We want gratification now. Like a toddler who’s refused candy before dinner, we rage at the one who is withholding something from us. We envy the neighbor kids who can eat lollipops whenever they want.
But I’ve ministered to kids who grew up without boundaries, and their lives are anything but enviable. They fail their studies because they’re always playing and never studying; they get STDs because they can’t control their impulses; they buy whatever pleases them and drown in debt.
Sin results in pain, and God’s boundaries are there for our protection. God wants control of our lives because He knows we will shipwreck them otherwise. He’s not some cosmic killjoy; He cares deeply about our happiness.
Jesus, the Supreme Reward
What exactly is the prize we are holding out for as Christians? Is it a more fulfilling life, free from the consequences of sin? Yes, but not ultimately. God’s laws are only a partial revelation of himself. That’s why people can live moral lives and still find themselves horribly unsatisfied.
Is it heaven then? Yes, but not for the streets of gold and sea of glass; not even for the pain-free existence. It is the promise of perfect fellowship with Christ: He is the full revelation of God.
As John Piper writes in Desiring God, “The kingdom of heaven is the abode of the King. The longing to be there is not the longing for heavenly real estate, but for camaraderie with the King.” Jesus is our supreme reward. And though we may not know Him completely this side of eternity, we still can enjoy rich relationship with him now.
I spent years in college unaware of this basic truth. I pursued the things of God — Bible study, church attendance, moral living — but lost sight of God himself. I was influenced by those who disdained anything that hinted of emotionalism and buried that part of my relationship with God. I stopped personal times of worship; prayer became a duty; and I became deeply depressed.
Fortunately, God eventually broke through my misguided religiosity and touched me in life-changing way. But I will never forget those dark years or what I learned from them.
Life without an intimate relationship with Jesus is not worth living. It is dry and barren — like falling into a pit with no hope of escape. But life with Jesus brings joy and hope. In their book, The Sacred Romance, Brent Curtis and John Eldredge write, “Above all else, the Christian life is a love affair of the heart.”
All of us were created with a deep longing to commune with Jesus. If we fail to satisfy this longing in Jesus, we live our life as singer K.D. Lang says — in “constant craving.” We may turn to religious activity, as I did. Or we may indulge our flesh, turning to eating binges, internet porn or co-dependent relationships. Either way, we are miserable; we are either burned out or bloated, but never satisfied.
That is why C.S. Lewis wrote in The Weight of Glory:
We are half-hearted creatures fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.
When we truly understand the contentment and joy offered in a relationship with Christ, we will endure anything and give everything to obtain it. That is why the early martyrs chose to face the lions in the coliseum.
This past year, I have been serving in a ministry to people suffering from a wide rang of afflictions — from drug addiction to bulimia, homosexual issues and co-dependency. I have been inspired to watch these courageous brothers and sisters forsake their pleasurable escapes from reality, face their pain, and seek healing. Certainly these folks will experience more joy and freedom in this life if they press through their issues. But ultimately, that’s not why they embrace what can be an excruciatingly difficult process. They do it for the greater prize: They want Jesus.
Jesus is our heart’s real desire; everything else is counterfeit. That is why the psalmist, who at first envied the wicked, eventually writes, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And being with you, I desire nothing on earth” (Psalm 73:25).
No Other Options
Right now some may be thinking, But the path is too hard. I will find happiness another way. The problem is, there is no other way.
I admit there seem to be people in this world who have found some semblance of contentment apart from Christ. They are unaware of the ultimate consequences in life; they live in a dream-world where people are basically good, and if there is a God, surely He accepts them. Ignorance is bliss. But what if you’re not ignorant?
One of the most spiritually insightful movies I’ve seen in years is The Matrix. The movie depicts a futuristic world where people are harvested for energy by intelligent machines. To keep the people docile, the machines feed them electronic impulses that create a computer-generated alternate reality, called the matrix. This matrix makes the people believe they’re living fulfilling lives, when in actuality they’re floating idle in individual pods, being sucked of life.
At one point in the movie, Morpheus, a human who’s been shown reality and freed from the pod, enters the matrix to speak to a man named Neo. Neo, unlike so many in the matrix, seems to sense there’s more to reality than he’s experiencing.
“You know something,” Morpheus says to Neo. “What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life — that there’s something wrong in the world. You don’t know what it is. But it’s there — like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.”
Many of us feel that way when we’re on our way to becoming Christians. We know that “splinter” in our mind. Like Neo, we sense there’s more to life than what we see. We know there’s a spiritual reality much greater — something Leanne Payne, author of The Real Presence, refers to as the “unseen real.”
Once we become Christians, that splinter is removed, and we find a better quality of life with Jesus than we knew in the past. But we are also awakened to the painful reality that masses of people are heading for a Godless eternity. And like the small resistance of freed humans who battle the machines in The Matrix, we find we are in a war of cosmic proportions with Satan and his legions.
Sometimes this war seems too great, the sacrifice too large. We go AWOL and try to anesthetize our souls with chemicals, illicit relationships, career. But there’s no drug so powerful it can fully erase the reality our soul knows. What once was a splinter has become a log.
A couple of years ago, we got an early-morning call from an old friend, Dave (not his real name, of course), whom we hadn’t seen in years. Dave had served with my husband and I in youth ministry, but then had walked away from God. Much like the prodigal son, he indulged in all the world had to offer. But that morning, he was giving up the flight; he wanted to come back to Jesus.
Dave later told us that every day he would wake up and hear God’s voice calling him. He would try to silence it, but couldn’t. Amazingly, even in his rebellion, Dave led his searching girlfriend to Christ. When she asked him spiritual questions, he couldn’t withhold from her the truth.
Truly, there is no option of happiness without Christ. There is ignorance. But many of us have lived life that way and found it’s not really all that blissful. There’s willful rebellion, but that only leads to inescapable torment in this life and uncertainty about the next. Happiness truly is found in Christ alone.
We are told in John 6 that many of Jesus’ disciples deserted Him when He gave some particularly hard teachings. It was then that Jesus turned to the twelve, as I believe He does to us today, and asked, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” We would do well to answer as Peter did, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”