What Makes You Happy? (Genesis 29:15-35)


Big Idea: We’re all frustrated in our search for happiness, until we find our happiness in God.

Everyone wants it, but not everyone has it. Books have been written about how to get it. Many people would consider trading money and health for it. What is it? Happiness.

Surprisingly, though, for something that everyone wants, we can’t even agree on what happiness is. Just look at some of the definitions of happiness:

  • Happiness is to love and to work. (Freud)
  • Happiness is a warm puppy. (Charles Schulz, of Charlie Brown fame)
  • Happiness is like obscenity. We can’t define it, but we know it when we see it. (US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart)
  • Happiness is the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile. (Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of the book How of Happiness)
  • Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony. (Mahatma Gandhi)
  • Happiness doesn’t depend on any external conditions, it is governed by our mental attitude. (Dale Carnegie)
  • Happiness is the interval between periods of unhappiness. (Don Marquis)

We make many of the decisions in our lives based on what we think will make us happy, but there is a problem. According to Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert, we are bad at predicting what will make us happy in the first place. The things we think will make us happy don’t, and sometimes the things we don’t think will make us happy do.

I have good news and good news for us tonight. The good news is that happiness is a worthy goal. This may surprise you, because some people seem to think that God is a cosmic killjoy. No, he made you for joy. He hardwired you for happiness. There is an enemy to your happiness, but it is not God. Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). There is an enemy of your happiness, but it is not God. God created you for happiness. Jesus came to restore our happiness. I love what John Piper says:

If you want to try your hand at stoicism, forget the Bible. It has little for you. Scripture does not support the idea that our motives are more pure the less we are pursuing our own interested happiness…God blatantly entices us to seek happiness, joy, pleasure … We’re supposed to want pleasure.

I told you I have good news and good news. Here is the other good news: the Bible has a lot to say about how we can be happy. You can get opinions on happiness. You can get scientific research on happiness. Both of those will probably be helpful. But you can get something even better: you can learn what your Maker and Designer says about your happiness. You can learn about happiness from the One who not only made you, but who is actively pursuing your happiness this very day.

So let’s look at what the Bible says. Today we’re going to be looking at an obscure and ancient passage. Before we look at it, I want to explain why we’re doing this. There are two reasons, actually. The first is that I want you to be happy. Blaise Pascal was right when he said:

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.

Since you were made to be happy, and you want to be happy, I would love to help you on this quest.

But there’s another reason. It’s because we are talking this year about how we can be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, so that we can entrust the gospel to others. Happiness has to do with both of those. One of the ways I like to think about our church is that we are in the joy business. Someone might say, “Are you bringing religion to Liberty Village?” I want to tell them, “No. Actually, we’re bringing joy to Liberty Village.” There’s a verse in the book of Acts that describes the spread of the gospel into the city of Samaria: “So there was much joy in that city” (Acts 8:8). I want the spread of the gospel to look like that in this community. As our church grows, I want people to say, “There was much joy in Liberty Village.”

I want to help you be happy. I also want this church to be “fine purveyors of joy since 2013.”

So let’s look at this passage and learn how we can be happy. We’re going to see three things. The first of them is this:

We’re all on a search for happiness.

I love the honesty of the Bible. As we look at this passage, we’re going to see that the time and the geography are different, but our hearts are the same. Let me introduce you to some of the characters, because one thing is for sure: they are all on a search for happiness.

  • Jacob — Who is Jacob? Jacob is grandson of Abraham. Years before, God had appeared to Abraham and said, “Do you see this world? Do you see the mess around you? I’m going to fix it. The way that I’m going to do this is through your family. One of your descendants will save the world.” Sure enough, at an advanced age, Abraham has a child, and the rescue plan is underway. Things get messed up pretty soon, though. Abraham’s son Isaac has twins, Jacob and Esau. Normally, the firstborn would be seen as the one through whom God would keep his promise. He would be the line to the one who would save the world. But God turns this upside-down and picks the second born child, but Isaac completely ignores this and picks the first. The result is devastation in the family. Esau, the firstborn, becomes proud; Jacob, the second born, becomes a liar and a deceiver. Both of them are looking for happiness, but one does it through power, and the other through manipulation. By the time you get to this story, Jacob’s life is over. He has no faith. It’s all ruined. He has no money. He has no place. It’s all over. He’s on a quest for happiness. He’s used deception, but he’s failed.
  • Laban — Laban is the second main character in this story. He’s a businessman who hires Jacob and realizes that Jacob is really good at what he does. Laban has two things that he’s looking for. He wants more success in his business, and he wants to look after his family. We’re going to meet his daughters in a minute, but he’s got at least one problem in his home. He’s got a daughter that he wants to marry off, but he’s having problems doing so. The other thing that you need to know about Laban is that he’s also a deceiver, except he’s had more experience than Jacob. He’s been at it a lot longer. He’s good at exploiting the weaknesses of other people to get what he wants.
  • Leah — The next character in this story is Leah. Leah is the daughter of Laban. We read in verse 17, “Leah’s eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance.” This doesn’t mean that Leah needed glasses. We’re actually not sure what it means exactly: the word means that her eyes were more tender. Maybe she had some kind of eye problem: cross-eyes or protruding eyes or some kind of eye disorder. In this story we read that Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Leah, but that Jacob never loves her the way that she desires. Here is Leah, who is not as beautiful as her sister, and who never receives the love that she wants. She’s on a desperate search for happiness, but she doesn’t find what she’s looking for.
  • Rachel — The final character is Rachel. Rachel becomes Jacob’s second wife, but Jacob loves her most. Rachel’s problem is in verse 31: she’s barren. She can’t have children. She has her husband’s love, but she can’t have children. In this culture and in most traditional societies, motherhood is perceived as the crowning joy of a woman’s life. It’s even worse when you are married to the same person as your sister, and she keeps having babies. By the way, a lot of people get confused about the Bible’s teachings on polygamy. It describes it, but it never approves of it. Every time it describes a polygamous relationship, it describes how bad it is, and how much pain it causes for everyone involved. You see that here. This is a very painful scene to watch.

I hope as you look at this passage that you see yourself. I do. We are all somewhere in the story, looking for happiness. Some of us are like Jacob. We’ve had all these plans, but we’ve been cheated out of them and we have lost almost anything. Some of us are like Laban. We’ve had success, but we are still wanting more. We manipulate people and events to try to get what we want. Some of us are like Leah: we are looked over in favor of others, and we look to something — our children, our careers, our accomplishments — to make us happy. Some of us are like Rachel. We have so much going for us, but we don’t have what we long for the most. Everyone is on a search for happiness. This is an accurate picture of the frustration that all of us feel at times: longing but frustrated. We’re all on a search for this happiness. You could sit at the corner of Lynn Williams and East Liberty tonight and watch people, as long as you had a warm parka, and you’d find the same thing: we’re all motivated to find happiness. Our actions are being driven by this pursuit. Everything that we do is driven by our desire to be happy. It’s true of all of us.

So that’s the first thing we see. We’re all on a search for happiness. But here’s the second thing we see.

This search leaves us perpetually unsatisfied.

Notice what happens in this passage. Almost everyone gets, at some level, what they want, but they’re all left unhappy.

  • Jacob gets the wife that he wants, but he also gets out-deceived, and he ends up also having to marry someone that he didn’t want. He gets what he wants, but he also gets more than he bargained.
  • Laban gets the business success that he wants, and he also manages to get both of his daughters married, but he also sows the seeds of division within his family. He gains what he wants, but he does it in such a way that he loses what he wants most. He’s like a lot of men I’ve met: they have achieved everything they wanted, but in the process, they’ve also lost what is more important to them at the same time.
  • Leah gets almost everything she wants. She gets the husband, and she gets the children. But she still doesn’t get what she wants the most. We’re going to look at her in depth in a second.
  • Rachel gets the husband, but she doesn’t get the children she wants, and she’s still left frustrated.

You could almost say this: Be careful for what you wish for, because you’ll probably get it, and you still won’t be happy.

I want to look at Jacob and Leah in particular. It’s tragic. Here is Jacob saying, “Finally, I’m going to have happiness in this life. Finally, I have Rachel!” But behold in the morning it was Leah. Verse 25 says, “And in the morning, behold, it was Leah!” There is a very interesting little commentary written by a commentator, Derrick Kidner. He puts it this way. Derrick Kidner says, “But in the morning, behold, it was Leah. This is a miniature of our disillusionment, experienced from Eden onwards.” In the morning, it’s always Leah. In the morning, it’s always less than what you hoped for. It doesn’t matter what it is. Marriage, career, accomplishments, wealth — in the end, you can get it, but it always delivers less than what you’d hoped for. It’s never what you had expected. Tim Keller says:

Every time you get started into a relationship, every time you move into a marriage, every time you get into a job, every time you get into a new project, any time you get into some new pursuit and you think, “This finally is going to make my life right,” I want you to know in the morning it’s always Leah. You go to bed with Rachel; in the morning it will always, always be Leah.

Nobody put it better than C.S. Lewis who said, “Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise.”

The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers.
I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality. […] The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but [it, the thing we thought was going to be in the center of it always] has evaded us. (C.S. Lewis)

You really see this in Leah’s case. Notice in verses 31 to 35 that she has a series of children. It’s tragic. She names her first child Reuben. Rueben means, “See, a son.” She says, “Because the LORD has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me” (Genesis 29:32). She thinks that now that she has a son, she will be seen and loved. She has another son and names him Simeon, which means heard. She thinks that now that she’s had a second son, she will be heard. She says, ““Because the LORD has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also” (Genesis 29:33). She has a third son and calls him Levi, which means attached. She thinks that now that she’s had a third child, that Jacob will be attached to her. She says, “Now this time my husband will be attached to me, because I have borne him three sons” (Genesis 29:34). She keeps on having children, each time thinking that the next child will give her the happiness that she wants.

Tim Keller summarizes this lesson by saying, “All life here is marked by cosmic disappointment.” That’s an important lesson to learn. We are all searching for happiness, but we can never quite find it. It’s a major theme of the Bible. We were made for happiness. We’re hardwired for happiness. Yet everything in this world ultimately leaves us feeling empty and hollow, even if we get what we want. Your job, your marriage, your children, your career, accomplishments, and wealth — all of them will give you some happiness, but none of them will give you the satisfaction that you really want. You’ll wake up in the morning and you’ll always be disappointed.

There’s one more thing to notice in this passage, though. It points us to the solution to the problem that we all want happiness, but we are all unsatisfied because we can never find it. Here’s the last thing we see in this passage.

Happiness can ultimately be found in only one place.

There’s a dramatic turn in this passage. The one thing about stories is that there’s usually someone who changes in the story, and in this case it’s Leah. The circumstances don’t change, but Leah changes. Look what happens in verse 35:

And she conceived again and bore a son, and said, “This time I will praise the LORD.” Therefore she called his name Judah. Then she ceased bearing. (Genesis 29:35)

Every time Leah has a son, she thinks that she will finally find happiness. This time, something changes. This time she has a son and she calls him Judah, which means praise. This time she stops looking to her children to make her happy, and instead she says, “I’m going to praise the LORD.” Leah finally looks to the only place we can find true happiness. She looks away from circumstances, away from accomplishments, away from all the things that we think will make us happy, and instead she looks to God. She stops having children, because she doesn’t need to keep using her children as a way to get the happiness that she wants. “She took the deepest, deepest, passionate desires of her heart away from her husband and put them on the Lord” (Tim Keller).

Here’s the thing we need to understand: no person, no job, no accomplishment, no amount of money can bear the burden of godhood. All of them will snap under the weight of our expectations and leave us disappointed. There is only one place we can find the happiness we want, and that’s God. One pastor tweeted this recently:

There is only one place to find the happiness we’ve been looking for, and that happiness is ultimately found in God.

There’s an important caveat here. I think this passage is teaching us something profound. It’s to look to God instead of other things for happiness. But I’d go even further. Ultimate happiness isn’t even found when we look to God for happiness; it’s when we look to God for himself. It’s ironically when we stop looking for happiness that we find it. Happiness isn’t even found in looking to God for happiness; it’s found when we look to God to be God. Notice that nothing changed here except for Leah. “Leah’s was a bad situation, which God did not completely change. But God changed Leah. He gave her grace to live in a less-than-perfect situation” (James Montgomery Boice).

If there is nothing in this world that can ever truly satisfy you, then satisfaction must be beyond this world. If there’s nothing in this world that will ever satisfy me, then it means I am made for something beyond this world. C.S. Lewis said, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”

David Murray is author of an upcoming book called The Happy Christian, asks a great question. He says, “What would a Christian definition of happiness look like? Is there such a thing as Christian happiness? If so, what would it include?”

Here is his answer, and it’s a great one:

I believe there is such a thing as Christian happiness, quite distinct from any other kind of happiness, but the problem is that it is so multi-layered and multi-dimensional that it’s probably impossible to define it in one sentence. Believe me, I’ve tried. Consider even just the following sample sources of Christian happiness.
God is our perfect Father.
We know Jesus as our Lord and Savior.
The Holy Spirit is sanctifying and empowering us.
Our sins are forgiven.
God lives in our hearts.
We are justified and adopted into God’s world-wide and heaven-wide family.
Everything is working together for our good.
God is our guard and guide
We have all the promises of God.
Jesus has prepared a place for us in heaven and will welcome us there.
How do you put all these rich ingredients into one simple recipe? But if you’re going to force me into a short one-sentence definition, then I’d say: Christian happiness is the grace of loving and being loved by Jesus who gave his life for me. That to me is the sum and summit of it all.

We desperately want you to be happy. We want happiness to spread throughout Liberty Village. This evening it begins with this question: Where are you looking for happiness? You’ll be disappointed if you look anywhere but to God. I want us to be the happiest people in Liberty Village, because we have come to experience God as our perfect Father; Jesus as the Savior who gave up his life for us; the Spirit as an active presence in our lives. I want us to know the joy of our sins forgiven, of knowing that he has given us a family; that he is working all things together for our good; that he has prepared a place for us; that he loves you more than you could know, just as you are.

Let’s pray.

Father, we are all on a quest for happiness. Forgive us for looking to good things in this world to make us happy. Our careers, our families, our money, accomplishments, and pleasures can never bear the weight of our happiness. We were made to find our joy in you.

Thank you that you are our perfect Father, that Jesus is our Savior; that the Holy Spirit is with us. Thank you that our sins are forgiven; that you are at work in our lives; that we are your children. I pray that all of us would experience these realities tonight, maybe some of us for the first time. I pray that all of us would say with Leah, “This time I will praise the LORD.” I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada