Joy: 1. The expression or manifestation of intense feelings of extreme happiness.
“…And do not be sad, grieved or depressed, for the joy of the Lord is your strength and stronghold.” (Nehemiah 8.10)
The word happiness evokes visions of unwrapping gifts on Christmas morning, strolling hand in hand along the beach with the one you love, being surprised on your birthday with amazing gifts, responding with unbridled laughter to something funny or having a wonderful holiday in an exotic location.
Happiness is a concept that philosophers, theologians and researchers have tried to define over the years. Some have even tried to apply scientific methods to answer questions about what happiness is and how it might be attained. Being happy is something everyone wants and some people make chasing this elusive ideal a lifelong pursuit. No more so than the Americans who have deemed it to be so fundamental that their Declaration of Independence states the importance of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It’s the “American Dream”. Researchers have defined happiness in terms of “living a good life” or “flourishing” rather than just living. Apparently their findings show that people who have some sort of faith are generally happier and less stressed due to increased social contact and support (attending church), optimism that comes from being part of a community (serving and giving), learning coping strategies to deal with stress (applying the Bible to daily living) and the psychological factor that is difficult to define but comes from having a reason for being (faith).
As a person of faith, I have so much to be thankful for and happy about, however sometimes the pace and pressure of my life squeezes the life (and happiness) right out of me. Occasionally I find myself sitting, with shoulders slumped and head bowed, in tears, finding the days very difficult to get through. On the hard days, desperate, I search for happiness in different places. I watch mindless TV. I buy stuff. I go places. I collect things. I see people. I write. I do things for others. I waste time watching funny (or meaningful) YouTube videos. I travel to new places. I listen to music. I meet new people. In the past I have moved house. Moved church. Changed jobs. Moved in and out of relationships. All in the pursuit of happiness. But none of these things provide me with lasting fulfillment. I might temporarily forget the stress of working and studying and keeping all the juggling balls in the air but it is a momentary feeling. And I’m left feeling flat again with what Winnie the Pooh describes as that “funky kinda gloom that hangs around a person like a cloud.”
The problems with happiness is that it doesn’t last.
If my happiness depends on my circumstances, what will happen when the money runs out, when the stuff I’ve collected and bought breaks or is out of fashion? What will happen when someone I love dies, when health deteriorates, when relationships end? What will happen with the party’s over? I’ve been there. That’s when happiness flees and disappointment, discouragement and despair move in.
The contrast to happiness is joy.
As a way of keeping one another accountable in reading God’s Word every day, a friend and I decided to work together through a bible study of the book of Philippians. Why Philippians? Well there’s no super-spiritual reason other than it was the shortest study I could find on the You Version app on my phone! After all, I’m busy and don’t have the time to plow my way through a study of Romans or Hebrews!
So here we are, about a week into the study and what have I learned?
Philippians is a book about joy. Not happiness. Joy. Paul wrote this letter to the church in Philippi to encourage them and express his joy and thanks for their love and support. In his letter he explains the valuable lessons he has learned – that, in whatever circumstances, whether in poverty or wealth, sickness or health, whether in chains or free, he can have true joy.
My problem has been my definition of joy. I thought joy meant that I had to be intensely happy, upbeat, optimistic and positive all the time. But that’s not possible! Even for someone who is naturally a “glass half full” kind of person (and that’s not me!), it’s not possible to always be happy.
So I have found a new definition of joy and it is this:
Joy is the assurance that God loves me and is in control of all the details of my life. Joy is the confidence that ultimately everything is going to turn out all right. Joy is knowing that God’s peace that passes all understanding can also be mine. Joy is believing that God will be there for me, no matter what. Joy does not come from outward circumstances but from having the inward strength that comes from knowing and loving and trusting God – the One who gives joy.
Therefore, because joy runs much deeper than happiness I will live my life not in pursuit of happiness, but of joy. So when God takes me through places and circumstances that I don’t understand and when I feel like I have ‘lost’ my happiness, I know that it is because He wants to bring me to a place where I can experience more than just happiness and find true joy. I just have to trust Him and remember that my happiness depends on happenings, but my joy depends on Jesus.
“The Lord is my strength and my impenetrable shield. My heart trusts in, relies on and confidently leans on Him. He helps me and my heart is filled with great joy so I burst out in songs of thanksgiving and praise.” (Psalm 28:7)