Have you ever heard that phrase? It seems to be pretty much everywhere, but what does it mean? I quote my neighbor, who often teaches: what does it look like?
I’ve been doing a bit of thinking on joy recently, as the subject has come up in various ways over the last few months, and I wanted to write those thoughts down somewhere.
So, what is joy, and how does it differ from happiness? For starters, it would be good to define ‘happy’. It’s an adjective, describing a positive mood in response to outside stimuli. It’s an emotion, which is fragile and swayed by situations and circumstances. ‘Happiness’ is a transient state as fickle as the wind. That vase of flowers makes you happy one moment, but then they wilt and drop petals and pollen everywhere and suddenly you’re frustrated that there’s yet another mess to clean up, and couldn’t they have lasted just one more day? I wanted them for the company coming tonight. Now what am I going use as a table centerpiece?
I know for myself that I have swung from happy and laughing to wanting to throw something and spit on someone in a matter of seconds. Happiness feels good, but it doesn’t last, and what makes us happy isn’t always what’s good for us. That’s what I struggle the most with the ‘pursuit of happiness’ and the attitudes of those who ‘just want to make ______ happy’. Yeah, feeding your kids donuts and Gatorade every day and never making them lift a finger around the house might make them happy, but in no wise is that good for them! They’ll grow sick, lazy, and irresponsible—and that makes nobody happy.
So if happiness is an emotion dependent on situations and circumstances, what is joy?
Now, I’m not going to pretend to be some theological genius and lay out any solid biblical revelation about joy and how utterly different it is from mere happiness. This is just my thoughts based on what I’ve read and observed.
Joy, as a word, is a noun and a verb. So already it is something beyond a simple description. It is a thing, and things can be chosen, grasped, and maintained. It can be held onto. While happiness can slip through your fingers, joy can be clung to.
Well, in my understanding, it’s because joy is deeper and stronger than happiness. It’s like happiness, but isn’t the same. In the same manner that a pond is like the ocean, but so much not the same. But even more than that, happiness is tied to the things of this world, but joy is tied to the Lord.
“So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” John 16.22
“I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” Isaiah 61:10
“Sing for joy to God our strength; make a joyful noise to the God of Jacob.” Psalm 81:1
“Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and joy are in his dwelling place.” 1Chronicles 16:27
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Romans 15:13
The Bible has a LOT to say about joy (but not so much about happiness. Interesting, no?) Maybe it’s because we mortals have a memory as ephemeral as our earthly lives. We need constant reminding that we have salvation through Christ [John 3:16-17, 1 Timothy 1:15]. We are his [John 10:14] and nothing can separate us from his love [Romans 8:38-39]. He works all things for the good of those who love him [Romans 8:28] (note ‘for the good‘, not ‘for the ‘happiness’) and about a million-five other things.
In light of these, which do not change whether or not the sky is blue or it’s snowing or the neighbor’s dog is barking all night or your job conditions suck or sickness strikes or your plans fall through, how can one not have joy? To rejoice in the Lord, who is our strength, who is our peace, who is our hope and salvation from an eternity of suffering into an eternity of, well, joy? Of goodness and light and life?
Joy is a fruit of the Spirit [Galations 5:22-23], which, to my understanding, means that it is a product of a healthy life in obedience to God. A healthy tree, doing what it’s supposed to do, naturally produces fruit in season. It may seem a little oversimplified, but that’s how I think it works for us as Christians, too. A healthy Christian, doing what we’re supposed to, naturally experiences the joy that can only come from service to and dependence on God. Even when we fall into various trials [James 1:2-3].
So, in summation, I understand joy—real, Biblical joy—as a thing with substance. It’s an observable product of obedience, and it’s a gift from God that we can actually hold onto. It’s a peace, an assurance, a reason to smile, in the midst of all the cruddy things that happen in our lives that make us unhappy—the world can steal our happiness, for happiness is of the world, but joy is from the Lord, and the Lord has overcome the world.
That’s my two cents on it, anyway.