You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.  –Psalm 16:11

“The fact is always obvious
much too late, but the most
singular difference between
happiness and joy is that
happiness is a solid and
joy a liquid.” -J.D. Salinger,
“De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period”
in Nine Stories.

As believers, it’s important for us to distinguish between happiness and joy. I alluded to this in a recent post, “In Hot Pursuit of Happiness,” but let’s examine the distinction a bit more. In my experience and observation, I have found happiness to be external or circumstantial while joy is internal, at the center of the believer’s experience.

The words joy/joyful, and rejoice/rejoicing pop up frequently in the Scripture. In the NIV, my software counted 420 occurrences, with a proportional distribution between Old Testament and New Testament. Happy and its derivatives (happier, happiness) occur a total of twenty-nine times. That’s all. It’s clear the Bible focuses more on joy than on happiness, so I’ll do the same (for this post…and for life).

Happiness is circumstantial.
Joy is central.

I don’t need to give you examples of joy/rejoice from God’s commands to His chosen people or David’s response to God’s blessings in the Psalms, or New Testament believers’ joy when they meet Jesus (literally or spiritually), and we all know that joy is part of the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).

But then there are the more challenging verses (emphasis added)…

And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.  –2 Corinthians 8:1-2

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds.  –James 1:2

I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds.  –2 Corinthians 7:4b

Yep. Even in the middle of a trial.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!  -Philippians 4:4

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.  –1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Always. Really? Well, Paul does say it in two separate places.

Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way…sorrowful, yet always rejoicing…  –2 Corinthains 6:4a, 10a

In this context, Paul gives a long list of the ways they’ve “commended themselves” in every kind of situation, but this one sticks out to me: sad (the opposite of happy), but celebrating at the same time. Make that three times on always.

In my opinion though, the most poignant contrast occurs in Habakkuk.

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.  –Habakkuk 3:17-19

What can we infer from these verses?

    1. Joy does not depend on circumstances. In prison, in sickness, in poverty, on the run, on trial, on the wrong side of a war…none of these can affect your joy. That means a grouchy spouse, a fight at church, difficult in-laws, a job you hate, or anything else that gets you down will not quench the joy that it yours in Christ Jesus!

    As a Christ-follower, you
    always have something to celebrate!

  1. Joy is continual. Because we have His constant presence in the Holy Spirit, we always have joy within us. Revisit Psalm 16:11, at the top of this post. Paul said, Rejoice always. Just scanning through all the references for rejoice/rejoicing, the Bible often uses rejoice in the sense of celebrate. We might say, “You always have something to celebrate.”
  2. Joy is a choice. Just because there’s a party (see #2) doesn’t mean you are celebrating. You can choose to enjoy the party or you can sit in the corner, sulking. Joy always flows within the believer, but sometimes we let “life” dam its flow until there is only a trickle. But it is still there. You can search it out. You can reach it and drink from it and be renewed. Trust me because I’ve experienced this; it is possible! In those times when you can’t even find the faint trickle, pray with David, Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me (Psalm 51:12).

Because of all we see here, I assert that joy is not the same as happiness. There’s nothing wrong with being happy. In Jesus’ parable of the wandering sheep, he describes the shepherd as happy after he finds the one missing sheep (Matthew 18:10-14).  In Psalm 68:3, the psalmist lists both, saying, “But may the righteous be glad and rejoice before God; may they be happy and joyful.”

It’s fair to say that some verses don’t seem so clear on the difference between joy and happiness. If you want to get into the blurry parts, look at John 16:19-24. Since those verses don’t contradict my point here and since I’m not writing a thesis, I’m just going to say that the difference isn’t cut-and-dried.

“NachalParan1” by Wilson44691 at English Wikipedia – Photograph taken by Mark A. Wilson (Department of Geology, The College of Wooster). [1]. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –
In North Africa and the Middle East, the climate is very dry. You won’t see naturally-occurring rivers and creeks. But it does rain on occasion. If you go hiking, you might come upon a dry creek bed, called a wadi. Normally, you will be quite safe hiking in the wadi, but if it rains…well, you should get out of the way fast! The water flows powerfully through the dry bed and sweeps toward the ocean. Happiness is like that wadi. It comes and goes, depending on your circumstances. When it comes, the emotions are strong and intense, but when it goes, you are left with a dry heart that begins to crack within a day.

Photo by Jon Sullivan. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -
Photo by Jon Sullivan. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

Joy, on the other hand, is like Old Faithful, the famous geyser at Yellowstone National Park. It regularly springs up out of the ground, but the water and the pressure that cause the geyser are always present. There’s a constancy, even when you can’t see it. The number of spectators, the weather, political conditions…all are irrelevant. Joy, in the same way, does not depend on circumstances but always flows within the believer. Drink from that constant spring of Living Water.

For further thought:

In studying these Biblical references to joy, I have concluded that joy, thankfulness, and contentment are a package deal. What do you think? Can you have joy without contentment or thankfulness without joy? Share your thoughts in the comments section. It seems there’s more to be written on this topic…

For further reading:

  1. Joyless Christianity is Dangerous at Desiring God.
  2.  On Joy, Thankfulness, and Flat Tires at The Glorious Table.
  3. Philippians, where “rejoice in the Lord” shows up three times and “joy” five times in just four chapters.

For further sharing:

The call to rejoice despite our circumstances doesn’t mean we have to be happy. My #joy is #NotAboutMe via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

4 thoughts on “On Joy

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