As a kid, my idea of happiness was watching Saturday morning cartoons.

I’d get my bowl of cereal, turn on the TV and kick back on the couch, enjoying every moment. I was happy.

Often, as we age, our definition of happiness changes. Most research points to these factors as important for overall happiness:

  • Individual income
  • Labor market status
  • Physical health
  • Family
  • Social relationships
  • Moral values
  • Experiencing positive emotions 

While I agree that each of these factors is certainly important to our overall well-being, the problem with this list is that many of the areas above are unpredictable and outside of our control. My happiness as a child vanished as I grew up because many of the factors listed above as necessary for overall happiness were filled with negative experiences or didn’t happen at all. By the time I was in high school, happiness seemed elusive and always just out of reach.

What the Rich Young Ruler Teaches Us About Happiness 4

In my sophomore year of college, I became a Christian, and I began to realize that my idea of happiness wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. It would always be flawed by my constant desire for more. I didn’t know God was the solution, but I knew my idea of happiness was a problem.

Since becoming a Christian, I’ve learned that happiness isn’t sustainable without a relationship with God. If being happy is dependent on our mood, a positive situation, or relationship, we may be able to have happy moments but we won’t be able to maintain them because of the unpredictability of life. We’ll be left constantly searching for things, people, or events to make us happy. 

In contrast, God is constant. He never changes. So we can rely on him even when life is unpredictable. 

The challenge is, having a relationship with God fundamentally changes the definition of happiness, and change is hard.

Redefining happiness

My son, give me your heart. Let your eyes find happiness in my ways.

Proverbs 23:26 (GW)

This scripture teaches us that happiness comes when we give our hearts to God. It doesn’t say happiness is when we get the job, the guy or the girl, when we have a baby, or when we get to go on our dream vacation. It says happiness comes when we embrace God’s ways.

We’re going to look at the story of a young man (the rich young ruler) who struggled to come to terms with this spiritual definition of happiness. His false definitions of happiness prevented him from experiencing true happiness. 

Reflection Questions

  • What does happiness mean to you?
  • Does your idea of happiness include having a relationship with God? Or is it focused on getting something you want?

The search for happiness

One day a man came to Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he asked. ‘What good thing must I do so that I can live with God for ever?’  17Jesus replied, ‘Why do you ask me about a good thing? Only God is good. Nobody else. If you want to have real life, then you must obey God’s laws.’

Matthew 19:16-17 EASY

This man wanted to know just what to do to live with God forever. His attitude seems to be to something like wanting the cheat codes for a video game, and I relate. I often want the easiest route to God with the least amount of resistance.

He’s searching for something, but this man doesn’t seem interested in the process of building a right relationship with God. He seems only interested in the result.

There’s a quote by Dan Milman that says, “The journey is what brings us happiness, not the destination.”  Think about the trips you’ve taken over the years. Often, getting from “point A to point B” isn’t even the most memorable part; it’s what happened in between that we remember forever. 

What this man didn’t know is that the journey of wading through life with a God who loves and believes in us is the road to happiness. 

Read More: Why Serving Others Makes For a Happy Home

Happiness starts with desiring depth 

18 The man asked Jesus, ‘Which laws must I obey?’ So Jesus replied, ‘Do not kill anyone. Do not have sex with anyone who is not your wife. Do not rob anyone. Do not say things that are not true about people. 19 Love your father and your mother and obey them. Love other people as much as you love yourself.’ 20‘I have always obeyed these laws,’ the young man replied. ‘What else must I do?’ 

Matthew 19:18-20 EASY

Jesus replied to the rich young ruler by listing off a few basics needed to please God. Keep in mind, these are laws that can be dutifully obeyed, meaning they can be done without necessarily engaging the heart. So the young man was probably starting to feel really good about his chances.

But then he asked, “What else must I do?” He must have felt he was missing something. 

Have you ever felt that way? I have. 

My “what else” moments with God have always been when God wants me to put more security in him and less in myself. Perhaps I’m going through the motions of trying to be a good Christian, but I feel something is still missing. Each of these moments have been both frightening and exhilarating because they require more faith in God.  

Currently, my “what else” is God wanting me to embrace the value of vulnerability. It is a challenge for me, because I trained myself over many years to be a private person. I never really shared everything on my heart and mind, because I’m so afraid of being rejected or harmed in some way.

Thankfully, years of following God have graciously chipped away at this. Each time God has helped me risk rejection and self-protection a little more, I have felt a little happier because my relationship both with him and those around me grew closer.  Still, God wants me to change more because he wants me to be happy.  

How about for you? What are the “what else” moments in your life? When has God asked you to do something outside of your comfort zone that was difficult, but once you did it, you were actually happier?

Reflection Questions

  • How do you feel about asking “what else” God wants you to do?
  • Does your desire for God still drive you to question your relationship with him for the purpose of growing closer to him?

Happy people value spiritual relationships

21Jesus said to him, ‘If you want to be completely good, then you must do this: You must sell everything that you have. Then give the money to poor people. If you do that, you will have many valuable things in heaven. Then come back and be my disciple.’  22 When the young man heard this, he went away. He was not happy. He was feeling sad because he was a very rich man.

Matthew 19:21-22 EASY

Jesus told the rich young ruler that his “what else” was giving up everything he had. Why would Jesus ask that of him? Did he want him to be poor? 

No, not at all. There were many followers of God who were wealthy and of good status (Matthew 27:57, Luke 8:3). Jesus knew that the young man’s most valued possession and his source of happiness was his wealth. To be in a right relationship with God and find lasting happiness, he would need to value his relationship with God more than anything else.

What the Rich Young Ruler Teaches Us About Happiness 5

What we value matters and it’s evident in how we spend our time, who we spend it with, and where we invest our hearts. We can be devoted to following every rule like this rich young man without being devoted to our relationship with God. That means we can attend every church event, serve others, and even read the Bible and pray regularly without valuing our relationship with God more than anything else. 

22 But when the young man heard this, he left grieving and distressed, for he owned much property and had many possessions [which he treasured more than his relationship with God].

Matthew 19:22 Amplified Bible

Reflection Questions

  • What do you treasure more than your relationship with God?
  • Do you think this “treasure” is giving you lasting happiness?

Happy people let God rule

23Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘What I say is true. It is very difficult for rich people to let God rule in their lives. 24The hole in a needle is very small. A big animal cannot go through it! But I tell you, it is even more difficult than that for a rich person to let God rule in their life.’ 25When the disciples heard this, they were even more surprised. They said, ‘So perhaps God will not save anyone!’  26Jesus looked at them and he replied, ‘For people, it really is impossible. But God can do it. God can do everything.’

Matthew 19:23-26 EASY

Happiness comes when we decide to let God rule our lives instead of our desires. We can only ever be ruled by one thing (Matthew 6:24). It will either be our desires or God’s desires and his ways. The rich young ruler wouldn’t let God rule; he wanted to do things his way.

Our desires can be so strong and our will so stubborn that only God can help us break free of their control to choose a relationship with him. How often are you honest about the desires of your heart?

Often when we think about the evil desires of our hearts, we think about things like getting drunk or being greedy or indulging in hating someone who hurt us. But our desires can be thoughts like, “I just want to be left alone,” or, “I just want to do what I want to do,”  or, “I just don’t want to listen to you.”

These seemingly harmless thoughts stem from our willful desires and prevent us from experiencing the happiness God wants to give. He knows that when we want to check out by overindulging in substances or foods or spending money we need help because we are hurting and looking for relief. He knows that when we want to selfishly or stubbornly be left alone, we are feeling overwhelmed and are just looking for a way out.

God helps us be happy by showing us these truths with scripture and prayer. When we go through life with God, there is a certain peace that only he can give. That peace frees us from the troubles in our hearts:

“I leave the gift of peace with you—my peace. Not the kind of fragile peace given by the world, but my perfect peace. Don’t yield to fear or be troubled in your hearts—instead, be courageous!

John 14:27 TPT
What the Rich Young Ruler Teaches Us About Happiness 6

Reflection Questions

  • How have your desires hindered you from allowing God to rule your life?

Happy people sacrifice for God

27Then Peter said to him, “We’ve given up everything to follow you. What will we get?” 28 Jesus replied, “I assure you that when the world is made new and the Son of Man sits upon his glorious throne, you who have been my followers will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or property, for my sake, will receive a hundred times as much in return and will inherit eternal life. 30But many who are the greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then.

Matthew 19:27-30 EASY

When we decide to value our relationship with God above all else, we find out that God ends up giving us much more than we expected. He wants to provide for us; he just wants to make sure that nothing is more important than him in our lives.

Read More: How to Be Selfless: An In-Depth Guide for Selfish People

God sacrificed for us when Jesus gave his life for us on the cross. All he asks in return is that we do the same (2 Corinthians 5:14-15), even though our sacrifice will never compare to his. The sacrifice God calls us to make is to give up the control we believe we have over our lives and let him rule us. Happy people are so grateful to have a relationship with God that putting him first is the least they can do: 

But may all who look for You discover true joy and happiness in You; May those who cherish how You save them always say, “O Eternal One, You are great and are first in our hearts.”

Psalm 40:16 Voice
What the Rich Young Ruler Teaches Us About Happiness 7

One of the ways we can “sacrifice” for God is by giving our hearts to him in prayer. In prayer, we sacrifice our time, our pride, and our self-reliance by choosing to humbly tell God everything every day so he can help.  

At each and every sunrise you will hear my voice as I prepare my sacrifice of prayer to you. Every morning I lay out the pieces of my life on the altar and wait for your fire to fall upon my heart.

Psalm 5:3 TPT

Another way we can find true happiness by sacrificing for God is surrendering ourselves to God’s will. We do this by humbly admitting that God’s way is better than ours and choosing to obey him.

If any of you want to walk My path, you’re going to have to deny yourself. You’ll have to take up your cross every day and follow Me. [24] If you try to avoid danger and risk, then you’ll lose everything. If you let go of your life and risk all for My sake, then your life will be rescued, healed, made whole and full. 

Luke 9:23-24 Voice
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Once we gain this fundamental belief that giving up everything for God is the best thing we can do, God is ready to give us a whole and full life and a spot in heaven with him. True happiness comes when we choose to entrust ourselves to God.

Reflection Questions

  • When was the last time you asked yourself the question, “Is my relationship with God what I value most?”
  • When was the last time you sacrificed what you value most in life for the sake of your relationship with God? 
  • What needs to change in your life so you can experience the joy that comes when you entrust yourself to God?
Explore more:
What the Rich Young Ruler Teaches Us About Happiness 12

Martin Oji is a contributor to Deep Spirituality. He works with college students and young professionals in the San Francisco Bay Area.

What the Rich Young Ruler Teaches Us About Happiness 12

Martin Oji is a contributor to Deep Spirituality. He works with college students and young professionals in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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What the Rich Young Ruler Teaches Us About Happiness 14