Happiness Verses Joy
The other day I was driving down the highway when I found myself behind the most common vehicle on the road: an Amazon delivery van. On the back of this van I was presented with a surprising caution: “Warning: contents may cause happiness.” This got my gears turning and they quickly clicked into a common Christian refrain , that happiness is found in happenings but joy is found in Jesus. This refrain says happiness and joy are two different things. Happiness is superficial and temporary, but joy is deep and lasting. It has a ring of reasonableness but I don’t think it works biblically. Let’s work through the reasons.
The Bible Doesn’t Separate Joy and Happiness
It makes sense to distinguish the differences in what we feel and experience. Chocolate makes me happy, family makes me happy and Jesus makes me happy. But all of these are radically different. But can the difference really be contained and defined by having two words and forcing everything into them?
When it comes to the Bible, we simply don’t find this distinction in the words themselves. In the New Testament the word “joy” is commonly found, but the word “happy” is regularly translated “blessed.” It may surprise some that this word “happy” or “blessed” is used extensively for all kinds of spiritual good that a person rejoices in, e.g. the beatitudes. The word joy is also used for rejoicing in spiritual good, but it should be understood that it is also used for regular things. In Matthew 13:20, it is used for an unbeliever’s joy in the word that is receive but later latter rejected. In Matthew 13:44, is used in a parable of a man who finds buried treasure. In John 3:29, it is used for joy at a wedding when hearing the bridegroom’s voice. And in Acts 12:14, it is used when Rhoda heard Peter’s voice.
What is the conclusion? The word “happiness” can be used to speak of true spiritual joy, and the word “Joy” can be used to speak of happiness in worldly things. These are interchangeable words. There is no distinction between joy and happiness. They speak of our emotional experience of delight and pleasure.
So Where Is The Difference?
If these words are interchangeable, then how do we explain the difference between joy/happiness in chocolate and joy/happiness in Jesus? Indeed there is a difference, but it may not be as different as you think. The issue is not with the kind of happiness; happiness is happiness wherever and however it is found. The emotional experience is the same. The difference is in the object that causes that happiness. If I have my highest and deepest happiness in chocolate, then as chocolate goes so goes my happiness. And that is not good news. I may not have access to chocolate. I may develop an allergy to chocolate. I may get a bad case of Covid and not be able to taste chocolate again. If any of these things happen my real and true happiness is gone. The object that produced it could not continue to give it for a variety of reasons.
But Jesus is different. His glory and beauty and power and grace should cause a real and deep happiness. He is fairer than 10,000 and we should be overwhelmed by him. This happiness has no bounds. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. I cannot be snatched from the Father’s hand. Even in our sin, we can know the wonder of forgiveness and security.
So the difference is not between joy and happiness, the difference is between a capable source and an incapable source. If an object is subject to fading, destruction or separation, then so is my happiness. But Jesus is subject to none of that. Sin can disrupt our joy, but it doesn’t have to. And when it does we can find instant restoration in confession and repentance because God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
But What About Lesser Happiness?
Should we be wary of joy in chocolate and sunsets and family? The only wariness we should have is about our idolatrous hearts. These joys are true joys that should be savored in all their varied pleasures. The key though is to savor rightly, and that is what our hearts have trouble doing. If the focus remains on the item itself or pursuing it wrongly or at the wrong time, sin is working its destructive ways. Every idol is simply a good thing that is being treasured wrongly. How do you treasure things wrongly? “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) When we do not see that all good things are from the hand of God and show us his glory, we fall short of his glory and we fall into idolatry. That thing or person was meant to make us know God a little bit more. But instead we just wanted that thing and not the creator of that thing. Not only is this cosmic treason of the highest order, it is an unsustainable happiness. That created thing will fail in its joy-giving abilities. Only God can support our inexhaustible desires for awe and greatness because only God has inexhaustible joy-giving glory. When we know that all things come from God and are for God, then our pleasure in them is truly God-glorifying because it rejoices in the true source of the pleasure. As 1 Timothy says “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer.” Therefore, 1 Corinthians 10:31 says, “So whether we eat or drink, do all to the glory of God.”
So, yes, there may actually be happiness in that Amazon van. But if we are not able to see God’s wisdom and power and kindness and creativeness in and through those Amazon items, then our happiness is as transitory as the item itself. Every millionaire has had this reality crash upon them. Find your highest, truest, deepest happiness in Jesus. Not only can he sustain it, he will forever increase it in ways you never dreamed. No one and no thing will ever be able to take this joy from you.