They say college is less about learning the subjects (although that’s important too) and more about learning to learn. One thing college taught me is the power of research to change your mind. You can’t just go into something with your mind completely made up and refuse to listen to what the research proves, even if it’s easier to pick and choose pieces that fit what you want to say. A pasted-together fiction will never be as strong as fact.The same thing is true with Bible study, but the consequences (positive or negative) are eternally more important than a term paper. In Bible study, you have to be willing to let God teach you. This morning I sat down at the computer smugly thinking about how I was going to teach everyone the difference between happiness and joy. I was going to write about how happiness is fickle and dependent on my circumstances, while joy is an attitude and a lifestyle. But then I turned to my Bible’s concordance, and it had plenty of good things to say about happiness too. For example, Proverbs 12:21 says, “He who despises his neighbor sins, but happy is he who is gracious to the poor” (hey look at me tying together blog topics!). That kind of “happy” seemed to better fit my preconceived definition of joy than my preconceived definition of happiness, and I couldn’t find anywhere in the Bible where one was less valued than the other. That was ok, though. Like the Millennial I am, I just knew Google would help me out and prove my point! Spoiler alert: It didn’t.
The Google definition of happiness is “feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.” The definition of joy is “a feeling of great pleasure or happiness.” It would seem that, if there is a difference, it is simply that joy is more happiness, greater happiness. On John Piper’s website Desiring God, there is a podcast about the subject: “Is Happiness Different from Joy?” The guest speaker Randy Alcorn says no: “I think the first thing we need to realize is that historically there was no such distinction in the church and in the English language. You simply look up a secular dictionary, say Webster’s Dictionary, and you will see joy defined as happiness and happiness defined as joy. They are synonyms.”
So maybe the words happiness and joy don’t represent different concepts, at least not in their definitions. But there are different concepts. There is a difference between emotion and attitude, whether you choose to define it as an emotion of happiness or an attitude of being happy, or as a joyful exclamation of emotion or an attitude filled with joy. Maybe we can’t define the difference as “happiness” versus “joy,” but we have to define the difference somehow.
People used to tell me I smiled too much. Maybe I did, and maybe I do. But I don’t always feel happy or joyful. There was a week last month at work where it seemed like I made a big mistake every day, and it weighed on me every night. It probably wasn’t a big deal—no one else seemed to think it even mattered much—but I let it steal my happiness and joy. I was the same way as a kid: I was the softball pitcher who cried if she walked two people in a row and then was out for the rest of the game because she couldn’t pull herself together. My emotion of happiness is fickle. My emotion of joy is dependent on my circumstances.
My lifestyle of happiness and joy, however, is not. The happiness and joy deeply rooted in me as a daughter of the one true King, however, is not.
This selfish culture of ours focuses far too much on “Do what makes you happy.” Maybe that’s where happiness got its negative connotation in Christian circles. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but Jesus never called us to always feel happy. He called us to a lifestyle of following him that would inevitably lead to sometimes suffering. Do you think Jesus was emotionally happy while dying for our sins? The Bible tells us that as he was dying for the world’s sins, he cried out, “Father, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). He was forsaken by God while he took on the weight of our sins. That’s not a moment that would be traditionally defined as “happy.” Even putting the word “happy” in the same paragraph as a description of Jesus’s death feels wrong.
But Jesus had a joy much greater than earthly circumstance: “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2, italics mine). Seems to me that the kind of “joy set before him” that would cause him to “endure the cross” and “scorn its shame” is a little deeper than the kind of happiness brought by the American Dream.
Jesus did not call us to pursue our own happiness, but he did call us to be joyful where we are. This kind of unconditional joy is not caused by an extra vacation day because it’s snowing or because you finally got that car you really wanted. It’s not the kind you feel when you come home to your white picket fence and husband and kids and Labrador Retriever. Although those can be good things, and we can take joy in them because God has given them to us, they can be gone in an instant. They are temporary and the joy they bring is temporary. So if they vanished, would they take all of your joy with them? Or would you be like Job, who after losing everything said, “Then I would still have this consolation—my joy in unrelenting pain—that I had not denied the words of the Holy One” (Job 6:10).
You see, the kind of joy we are called to is not dependent on anything earthly. It is the deep-rooted joy that comes from hope, from knowing that you’ve been saved by a Savior on a cross and that you are forever secure in His arms. What earthly thing could steal that kind of eternal joy?
There isn’t one.