Joy vs. Happiness

joyJoy has always been an issue that I’ve wrestled with. Nehemiah 8:10 says, “Do not sorrow, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”

I’ve been a born again Christian for more than 10 years and the one thing I can’t seem to get a handle on is joy. I’ve had many people advise me that one of the hallmarks of being a Christian is being joyful. Galatians 5:22 lists the fruit of the Spirit; joy being secondary in the list next to love.

Thelma Wells The November/December 2008 issue of Today’s Christian Woman (TCW) published a special section that focused specifically on the topic of joy. TCW editor Ginger Kolbaba interviewed Thelma Wells, a popular Christian speaker and author who struggled with cancer. If anyone would know about the highs and lows of joy, it’d be a woman who was placed on life support with the grim prognosis of impending death.

The entire interview is worth reading but Ginger asks Thelma key questions that elicit winning answers—one of them being that people don’t lose joy but rather, it goes “underground.” I’ve highlighted a few of Thelma’s answers that I really identified with.

TCW: What gets in the way of us truly experiencing joy?

THELMA: Trying to be somebody we’re not. God made us wonderfully in his image. But we look at life from the eyes of our culture: where I should live, what I should drive, where my kids should go to school, what I should have in my house. We compete for status, for recognition, for all these things that mean little or nothing in the end. And when we do that, we become confused about who we serve and why we serve.

If we aren’t careful, we can become so depressed and confused and overwhelmed that our joy goes underground. [emphasis mine]

Here I can identify the source of my lack of joy: discontentment. I’m not discontent with my family or my friends or most of my circumstances, however, I am continuously discontent with myself. I am always trying to be—or wishing to be—someone I’m not. I am never satisfied with the person God made me. I try to be a social chameleon but never quite succeed (in my own mind anyway). Discontentment with myself breeds depression in my life.

Thelma’s statement about joy going underground is vital. I appreciate Ginger exploring the idea further.

TCW: Underground? That’s a different way to put it. Usually we talk about losing it.

THELMA: We don’t lose joy. Once God gives it to us, it’s ours. The Spirit of God lives in us. And he brings joy that the world cannot give and cannot take away. But we can make it go underground, where it gets covered up by the stuff of the day.

If I’ve had joy all along, why don’t I always feel joyful? Perhaps it’s because I’m mistaking happiness for joy and vice versa.

Elisa Morgan, founder of MOPS International, wrote an article on The Difference between Joy & Happiness for the same TCW issue. Here’s how she defines it:

Joy and happiness. What’s the difference? Happiness comes from the root hap, which means chance. … Where happiness is circumstantial, joy is not. Joy is more than happiness. The Old Testament describes joy as a quality of life as well as an emotion.

The fruit of joy is confidence in God, in his grace, despite circumstances–despite what happens. Joy is the ability to hold up because we know we’re being held up. Joy is the conviction that God is in control of every detail of our lives even when those details appear to be out of control.

Joy is confidence in God no matter what happens. [emphasis NOT mine]

joyfulThe joy that I’m supposed to have as a Christian is supposed to be a quality of life—something that keeps me grounded despite the ups and downs life throws at me. Joy is knowing God is sovereign no matter happens (resists the urge to italicize) or how I feel. However, I’ve always viewed my joy as dependent on my circumstances. And basing your emotions on circumstances almost always leads to disappointment and depression. Thelma continues in her TCW interview:

The doctor told me, “You’re always trying to please everybody, and people don’t even expect that of you.” … He said, “I hear you saying, ‘I can’t do anything right.” … We can’t wait for people to affirm us or our joy goes underground.

Joy, for me, also becomes intermingled with people-pleasing. I don’t really want to get into that too much but my joy has been dependent on whether someone compliments me or insults me. That’s no way to live. Elisa wraps her article up with this:

Joy is about God and his character—and what we really believe about him. Such joy is more than the happiness that happens when life happens to go the way we want. Joy reveals to us what we believe about God. Further, it reveals what we believe about God to those who are watching and wondering how we’ll respond when life happens to let us down. [bold emphasis mine]

So that’s what joy is! Having that peace and assurance that God’s got everything in control. I’m happy when my car is working well but I can maintain my joy even when the driver’s side door won’t latch and I’m running late for work. Why? Because I know that everything will work out in the end.

Perhaps that’s all joy is—knowing things will work out in the end. What’s your definition of joy? Is there a difference between joy and happiness for you?

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1 Comment

  1. May 17, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    Joy, happiness, sadness, and disappointments are integral aspects of life. In order for you to have and maintain a balance and healthy life you must be able to endure sadness and disappointments with the same temperament you display your joy and happiness. One without the other is only an illusion.
    People who are most often described as stable and happy appear to maintain an even temperament amid adversity. They are most often recognized as consistently displaying positive attitudes. Accomplishing real joy or true happiness within our short span of life is about self awareness, personal growth, and feeling fulfilled or satisfied with your personal identity.


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