Updated: Dec 4, 2022
We live in a world today that encourages us to seek personal happiness at every turn. We are told to “do what makes you happy” without considering the consequences. We are told to be happy for others when they seek and find what makes them happy. We say we want our children to be happy. We are assaulted with constant messaging about the things and circumstances that will make us happy: If I get a promotion, I will be happy; If my spouse was more attentive, I would be happy; If I can save enough money for that vacation, I will be happy; If I lose weight, I will be happy; and the list goes on.
To be clear, none of these things, in and of themselves, are bad or wrong. In fact, it is written into our American constitution – written by devoutly Christian men – that we have an inherent right to the pursuit of happiness. Happiness is a good that is given to us by God, and we ought to be grateful when it is achieved. However, there is an even greater good that is deeper than happiness and that is joy. Let’s take a closer look at the differences between happiness and joy.
At its base level, happiness is an emotion or feeling. Feelings always change and are not particularly reliable or stable. They are fleeting and very often dependent on outside circumstances. Take the example of being promoted at work. When your boss calls you to give you the news, of course you feel happy. You may even take your family out to dinner to celebrate the happy occasion. However, if had been just another day at the office, would you feel compelled to have the same sort of celebration? Probably not. Marriage is another great example of how the feeling of happiness can be fleeting and fickle. When a couple first gets married, of course they are happy. However, as the years pass, married couples will experience sadness, loss, frustration, anger, stress, and so on. There is no such thing as a married couple that has been 100% happy, 100% of the time.
Feelings can also be influenced by one’s personality. For example, you may know people who find it very easy to be happy at any given time, while you may also know others who have more melancholy temperaments. Some people are so wonderful about encouraging us to be happy and in doing so, they might be reminding some of us to choose happiness over other negative feelings. In other words, we should refocus our thoughts and activities away from those which make us unhappy to those that make us happy. For example, rather than stewing over that irritating conversation the other day, you can choose to go for a walk and take in the beauty of nature around you. That is an active choice a person can make about owning his or her feelings.
So, the next time you hear someone tell you to “Be happy,” make that choice and let go of something negative. While the feeling of happiness is something fleeting and circumstantial, joy is more of a disposition and therefore, more stable, regardless of circumstances. For Christians, joy is the disposition we possess because we know that God will always provide for us, and that heaven awaits us at the end of this earthly life. When you are aware of how short life is and how long eternity is, you are less concerned with worldly, circumstantial happiness.
While the feeling of happiness is something fleeting and circumstantial, joy is more of a disposition and therefore, more stable, regardless of circumstances. For Christians, joy is the disposition we possess because we know that God will always provide for us, and that heaven awaits us at the end of this earthly life. When you are aware of how short life is and how long eternity is, you are less concerned with worldly, circumstantial happiness. God wants every single person to live with Him forever in heaven, so He will provide each of us with everything we need to get there. We just have to be open to receiving it. Therefore, our focus should be on His will and heaven, rather than on the fleeting things of the world.
Joy is a by-product of faith and trust in in the Lord. For Christians, joy is knowing that everything will always be ok in the end because God is in charge. Letting go of our own human desires is a key factor in obtaining true joy. Think about a particular situation where you struggle to let go of your own personal desires. Perhaps you have a difficult relationship with someone, and you wish they would just come around to your perspective. Perhaps you have a difficult work situation. Perhaps your children have left the Faith. These things can cause us anxiety and overshadow our joy if we let them. Now, what if you were to just let go of your desires for that situation and hand them over to God with the trust that He will make everything alright in the end? Having faith that God (who loves you more than you know) will take care of you, while releasing those emotional burdens, will lead to ever more unshakeable joy. Let’s take a look at some good examples of the disposition of joy as opposed to just the feeling of happiness, beginning with Scripture. The entire book of Job is about a man who had it all – family, wealth, respect, etc. In order to carry out a test on Job’s faithfulness, God allowed Satan to take everything from Job. To make a long story short, with a little bit of a struggle, Job remains faithful, trusting that God is allowing bad things to happen for a greater plan unknown to him. By the end, God rewards Job by restoring everything to him two-fold. The Psalms are full of feelings other than happiness. The psalmist experiences sadness, betrayal, and remorse, but in all of these circumstances, he never ceases to praise God for His goodness in songs of joy. We know that Jesus Himself, in His humanity, experienced feelings other than happiness. When His dear friend died, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). When the temple was being treated as a marketplace, “Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons” (Matt 21:12). As we know, He also experienced tremendous suffering at the end of His earthly life, yet He remained faithful to the greater plan saying, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). Of course, we also know how that ended – with the most glorious and joyful resurrection that enables the faithful to join Him in heaven.
The stories of our saints also give us examples of Christian joy in the midst of trials and suffering or other unfavorable circumstances. St. Joan of Arc fought on a literal battlefield and was burned at the stake. St. Thomas More was imprisoned for telling King Henry VIII he could not get a divorce. St. Padre Pio had the stigmata and was physically beaten by demons. St. Thérèse of Lisieux contracted tuberculosis. St. Monica had a philandering and abusive husband and a wayward son. St. Teresa of Calcutta served the poorest and sickest outcasts of India’s society. All of these examples are of circumstances that do not foster happiness, but every one of these saints endured their circumstances with the kind of joy that only comes from knowing God and knowing what awaited them after their earthly lives. Look at photographs of more modern saints and you can see the joy on their faces and in their eyes because the source of it is the Lord.
This week, think about how you can facilitate more joy in your life despite your particular circumstances. What can you let go of, trusting that God will take care of all of it in the end? Consider shifting your prayers for other people from what might bring them happiness to what will lead them to real joy. BACK TO LIST