Faith & Spirituality

The Joy vs. Happiness Debate

Today I need to pick on a favorite pet peeve of mine. It’s when Christians say that joy and happiness are two completely different things: happiness is a fleshly emotion, and joy is a Christian virtue. Some even go so far as to say they have nothing to do with each other.

This is rubbish, and I can prove it.

For one thing, who are the Christians you know whom you would describe as having “the joy of the Lord”? Are they the grouchy-looking ones? The gloomy ones? No, they’re the happy ones! You know, the friendly ones who smile, who laugh easily, who make others feel at ease. Their happiness is a proof of their joy.

If happiness isn’t equivalent to joy, it would seem to be a necessary ingredient at the very least.

Besides, if there are no emotional indicators of joy, how will you know when you have it? It’s no use giving the standard textbook answer that “God gives us joy in trials even though the problem we’re going through doesn’t make us happy.” That still doesn’t answer the question. Ask anyone who gives that type of answer what is the evidence of their joy in trials, and they’ll give you a list of feelings: a sense of peace, a deep contentment, “assurance” that God will work everything out, etc. This proves that joy is indeed something one feels — or, at the very least, it certainly fails to disprove it.

Even the esteemed Noah Webster offers us a decidedly circular definition of these two terms: “Joy: a state of happiness or felicity. Happiness: a state of well-being and contentment; joy.”

Don’t even get me started on the worn out platitude that “Happiness depends on happenings; joy depends on Jesus.” This makes no sense at all. Why couldn’t Jesus make me happy? Doesn’t His presence and work in my life qualify as a “happening” of sorts, and would that be something that makes me happy, because it’s a happening, or would it make me joyful, because it’s from Jesus? (The yarn of coherence really unravels fast on this one.)

There’s something else fishy about the “happiness depends on happenings; joy depends on Jesus” trope: it derives its catchiness from alliteration and word similarity rather than actual basis in fact. The close phonetic relationship between happiness and happening and joy and Jesus only works in English. Translate this saying into almost any other language, and the similarity evaporates.

We might ask, how does Scripture differentiate joy from happiness? Well, quite frankly, it doesn’t. You could switch out almost any Biblical occurrence of joy or joyful with happy (or vice versa)and still get the same meaning. Note that in the instances below where “joy” appears, there are emotions present, which are of course dependent on particular circumstances, further undermining support for the happiness-happenings/joy-Jesus dichotomy:

“They observed the festival of Unleavened Bread for seven days with joy, because the Lord had made them glad” (Ezra 6:22)

“Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Psalm 33:12)

“Because you made me glad with your awesome deeds, Lord, I will sing for joy at the works of your hands” (Psalm 92:4)

“Let your father and mother rejoice; make the one who gave birth to you happy” (Proverbs 23:25)

“When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy” (Matthew 2:10)

“I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are living according to the truth” (3 John 1:4)

By now you might be asking, why does any of this matter? It matters because human beings want to be happy. We were made for happiness (a point which I’ll say more about later). Or, you may also say we were made for joy. Joy is simply a less frequently used word in our language which has, over time, grown to have more mystical connotations, but without any real justification. Either way, it’s a poor advertisement for the message of the gospel when we make joy out to be some mysterious metaphysical state of being and happiness a passing whimsy. Neither Scripture, nor dictionaries, nor just plain common sense make any such distinction — nor should we.

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