I just don’t believe God wants me to be so unhappy.
I’ll never forget those words. I had just asked a young man—a professing believer—why he thought it was acceptable for him to leave his wife for another woman. And his response was the tragic verbalization of a lie too many people believe—that the goal of life is personal happiness.
While most people don’t articulate it in exactly these terms, they live in a relentless pursuit of their own personal happiness. Theirs is a nonstop quest, because they’re effectively chasing rainbows—where satisfaction constantly beckons just beyond their reach. There’s always another dollar to gain and another pound to lose. There’s always a better car to drive, a nicer place to live, a bigger prize to win, and a more enticing romance to enjoy. For most people, happiness remains an elusive destination.
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
Even those who do possess the means to fulfill all their material desires and personal goals find the happiness of those achievements fleeting and hollow. That’s the nature of worldly happiness—it’s rooted in insatiable lusts and sinful pride. No matter what sinful man achieves and accumulates, his wretched heart only longs for more. For the unrepentant soul, there is no true satisfaction or lasting happiness.
Few people could speak more authoritatively on that subject than King Solomon, a man who indulged the pursuit of happiness in a way most people can only fantasize about.
I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy yourself.” And behold, it too was futility. I said of laughter, “It is madness,” and of pleasure, “What does it accomplish?” I explored with my mind how to stimulate my body with wine while my mind was guiding me wisely, and how to take hold of folly, until I could see what good there is for the sons of men to do under heaven the few years of their lives. I enlarged my works: I built houses for myself, I planted vineyards for myself; I made gardens and parks for myself and I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees; . . . I possessed flocks and herds larger than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. Also, I collected for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I provided for myself male and female singers and the pleasures of men—many concubines.
Then I became great and increased more than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. My wisdom also stood by me. All that my eyes desired I did not refuse them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart was pleased because of all my labor and this was my reward for all my labor. Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun. . . .
Then I said to myself, “As is the fate of the fool, it will also befall me. Why then have I been extremely wise?” So I said to myself, “This too is vanity.” For there is no lasting remembrance of the wise man as with the fool, inasmuch as in the coming days all will be forgotten. And how the wise man and the fool alike die! So I hated life, for the work which had been done under the sun was grievous to me; because everything is futility and striving after wind. (Ecclesiastes 2:1–5, 7–11, 15–17)
Solomon dripped with the world’s bounty yet it left him decidedly underwhelmed and despairing. But beneath his philosophical disappointment are great rewards for the thoughtful reader. His lament can potentially spare us from investing our efforts and wasting our lives climbing the wrong mountain. Solomon has already ascended the summit of worldly happiness and sent his report back to us at base camp: It was all “futility and striving after the wind”—an utterly pointless pursuit.
Yet Ecclesiastes closes by pointing us in the right direction when it comes to the true goal of life. Solomon calls us to embark on the only quest worth pursuing.
The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every work into judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13–14)
The Goal of Life Is God’s Glory
Giving glory to the One who will inevitably judge us is the only worthwhile pursuit in life. That very point undergirds the opening lines of the Westminster Catechism.
Question 1: What is the chief and highest end of man? Answer: Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy Him forever.
Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? What is the only goal in life worth pursuing? The great seventeenth-century theologians who formulated the Westminster Catechism began their treatise by answering all of those questions in fifteen words. Life is not about pleasing ourselves—we can’t, because our sinful appetites know no satisfaction. Instead, the goal of our lives should be glorifying our Creator.
That is the purpose for which we were created. And we’re confronted every day with the consequences of abandoning that calling, as the culture around us futilely pursues the sinful self-satisfaction it cannot attain.
True happiness is only possible when we lift our eyes off ourselves and pursue the glory of God. The resounding testimony of Scripture is that God is glorious and infinitely worthy of our steadfast devotion. As the psalmist Asaph wrote,
Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For, behold, those who are far from You will perish; You have destroyed all those who are unfaithful to You. But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all Your works. (Psalm 73:25–28)
The apostle Paul recognized God’s place as the glorious epicenter of the entire universe: “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever” (Romans 11:36). Our response, therefore, should be to glorify God through every facet of our lives. “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Commenting on that verse, John MacArthur reminds us that
God is to be glorified. His glory is to be our life commitment. It is the purpose of our whole life, which now belongs to the Lord because we have been “bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 7:23). Not only when we eat or drink but in whatever we do we should do all to the glory of God.  John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 Corinthians (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984), 248.
Scripture offers us many practical ways in which we can glorify God. John MacArthur points to several examples: the confession of sin (Joshua 7:19), trusting God (Romans 4:20), bearing spiritual fruit in our lives (John 15:8), giving thanks (Psalm 50:23), suffering for Christ (1 Peter 4:14–16), contentedness (Philippians 4:10–20), praying (John 14:13), and preaching (2 Thessalonians 3:1).  MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 Corinthians, 244. Everything we do and say should be for the sake of bringing God glory.
The highest purpose any individual can have is to be totally absorbed in the person of God, and to view all of life through eyes filled with His wonder and glory. That is the perspective of the true worshiper, the one who truly glorifies God.  MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 Corinthians, 244.
The goal of life is not personal happiness. But we shouldn’t ignore the second part of the answer to question one in the Westminster Catechism: “Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy Him forever” (emphasis added). In other words, the only true and lasting joy we can know on this side of heaven is the byproduct of glorifying God. That is the only happiness worth pursuing and proclaiming.