Happiness And Joy: What’s The Difference?

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Christians have given happiness a bum rap. You’ve probably heard something like this from the pulpit: “Happiness is a temporary emotion based on circumstances, but joy is an ongoing contentment based on our relationship with God.”

Sounds nice, but is it true?

As someone with a master’s degree in English, I appreciate nuance, and I’d usually agree with making such thoughtful distinctions. I once heard a poet say “a stone is not a rock.” A stone is something the river glides over and makes smooth — something you hold in your hand, or skip across the water. But a rock is something that stands tall against crashing waves; it’s what you build on and break things against. I’ve always stood by these distinctions: a stone is a stone, and a rock is a rock.

But pitting happiness against joy? I’m not feeling it.

Only in church settings do we perpetuate the myth that happiness and joy are different. In his excellent book Happiness, which I review here, Randy Alcorn writes, “an ungrounded, dangerous separation of joy from happiness has infiltrated the Christian community.” Until very recently, he says, happiness had a place right alongside joy in the Christian faith. From Church Fathers to Puritans, Christian writers have used “happiness” and “joy” in the same way the dictionary does, and in the same way we do in everyday conversation: synonymously. Even the Bible itself makes no distinction. In a chapter devoted to this very topic, Alcorn gives a couple dozen examples of where Scripture uses forms of “happiness” and “joy” side by side — pairings that occur more than 100 times in various translations!

Even so, church folks continue to say happiness and joy are different emotions and experiences. I think there are two reasons for this “great divorce.”

1.  They want to make a clear distinction between worldly pleasures and godly pleasures. So they attach “happiness” to worldly pleasures, which are shallow and fleeting, and “joy” to godly pleasures. As a result, well-meaning Christians say things like, “We’re not supposed to be happy; we’re supposed to have joy!” Although the intentions behind it are good, this false dichotomy has consequences for both believers and unbelievers.

For believers, we begin to fear happiness. Instead, we search for joy — something we’ve been told isn’t an emotion and therefore (not surprisingly) doesn’t FEEL joyful. We start to believe God doesn’t want us to be happy, which simply isn’t the case. The Bible is filled with commands to be happy. Dare we tell Christians NOT to pursue the very thing God desires of us?

For unbelievers, the separation of happiness and joy can be a roadblock to believing the gospel. Imagine telling someone, “Jesus can’t give you happiness, but he can give you joy.” That makes no sense to me, much less to an unbeliever. (I imagine it makes no sense to God either!) Happiness is the ONE THING every person is searching for, and Jesus is the ONE PERSON who can offer it. Why on earth would it not be part of our message?

2.  They know God calls us to rejoice in suffering — to “consider it all joy” when we face various trials — and they try to describe this tension using terms that the Church has deemed appropriate. So, for example, when a loved one dies someone might say, “I’m grieving, but I still have joy in Christ.” That’s because they’ve been told joy isn’t an emotion, it’s something more like peace or hope. But we could just as easily say, “I’m grieving, but I still have happiness in Christ.” Does that change the meaning? For me, the paradox of Christians being called to rejoice in suffering isn’t a good enough reason to redefine happiness and joy — as though they’re not what the Bible says they are, and what we, deep down, know they are: one and the same.

If Christians continue to believe there’s a difference between happiness and joy, we’ll lose out on both. We need to reclaim happiness — not just the word, but also the experience — as a vital part of the Christian faith.

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One response on “Happiness And Joy: What’s The Difference?

  1. Caroline

    I think the church’s overt distinction between the two often leads to a misunderstanding of God’s character, as well as an unintentional hindrance to the enjoyment of God through emotion. Since I saw your reference to C.S. Lewis I was reminded of his work Surprised by Joy, which I haven’t yet read, but leads me to regard joy as often both uncontrollable and spontaneous. Joy can be the happiness experienced when your favorite song comes on the radio-it makes you want to sing.

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