I recently gave the message at our church on the difference between Happiness and Joy. Although the finished talk was a bit longer and fuller than what is below, this is where that journey started. I am going to post it as it is, and then later I may add some things, such as the revelations from Ecclesiates and from the "if only" post from stuffchristianslike.net. Anyway, here it is:
Happiness and Joy
A few weeks ago, my husband and I were counseling a young woman who was making some poor life decisions. She admitted that what she was doing was wrong, she acknowledged that God didn’t like the decisions she was making, but she wasn’t willing to make the changes she needed to make. After going around and around with her, she finally blurted out the crux of her argument to stay where she was in life: “But everyone has the right to be happy!”
In a flash, I had one of those “lightening bolt” moments where God opens just the tiniest corner of His revelation to you and it about knocks you off your feet. The instant she said that, the Lord spoke directly to my heart and said, “That is not true. That is a lie.”
Whoa! Whoa! What? We don’t have the right to be happy? God doesn’t want us to be happy? What kind of a theology is that? How can that be God? Doesn’t the Bible say He wants us to have the desires of our heart? Doesn’t it say, “I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live”? (Eccl 3:12) How can I say that we don’t have the right to be happy?
Let’s for a moment examine this rights business. We are very concerned with our rights as Americans – the right to free speech, the right to assemble, the right to practice our religion, the right to walk down the street in orange plaid pants and a tie-dye purple t-shirt, whatever. We believe we have the right to a great many things. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with these rights, people should have the freedom to do and say what they like, that’s what this free will business is all about. But the focus on our rights becomes, for us, a self-focus, to the point where all we see is our selfish gain.
The truth is, the Bible tells us in Romans exactly what we have a right to: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) Death is our right. That’s really what we deserve. It’s the right we have accepted when we sin – the right to choose death over life.
Does that mean God doesn’t want us to be happy? Not necessarily. The truth is, He is not as concerned with our happiness as He is with our joy. He wants us to be joyful. He wants is to live lives of joy and let that joy be our strength. Happiness is secondary to joy in God’s economy.
So what is the difference between happiness and joy? Happiness is an emotion. It’s fleeting. It comes and goes and it is dependent on our circumstances. It’s a reaction to what’s going on. We have a culture that is obsessed with happiness. Look at the theme of most movies and TV shows – the idea of having the right to do what makes us happy pervades almost everything we see. Rose slept with Jack on the Titanic because it made her happy. The characters on Friends jumped in and out of relationships looking for happiness. The pursuit of happiness runs our entertainment industry, and this has a tremendous impact on our lives. Recently, the state of California made it legal for gay couples to obtain marriage status, and hundreds of couples flooded in to get marriage licenses. They are doing what makes them happy. But they are not doing what makes them joyful.
Joy is a choice. It is our inherent right – when we accept Christ. When we turn our lives over to Him and accept His gift of life over death, we have the right to plug into the joy of the Lord – and true joy, like true love, only comes from Him. We can choose to be joyful no matter what the circumstances, because joy is a state of existence, not an emotion. It is an active choice.
There are biblical examples of these differences. In Jonah 4, we see Jonah setting himself down to watch what he thinks will be the destruction of Ninevah, a city he hates. A tree grows over him, and verse 12 tells us that the little tree made him happy. However, when the tree was taken away, he became so angry that he wanted to die. His happiness was based on circumstances, and he was not choosing the joy of the Lord as his strength.
In contrast is the story of Paul and Silas in Acts 16. Here, these two warriors for God are beaten within and inch of their lives and then thrown into prison. Such circumstances do not make one happy. No one says “Yay! I get to be beaten up and thrown into prison today!” However, we are told in verse 25 that they raised their voices in praise to God. They had the joy of the Lord as their strength; they were choosing to live in a state of existence with joy despite their circumstances. As such, they were joyful, and this joy ran deeper and lasted longer than what Jonah was experiencing centuries before.
So what’s the deal – God doesn’t want us to be happy? Ah, here’s the rub: He wants us to be joyful first, and let the happiness worry about itself. Because, you see, when we choose to live in the joy of the Lord, His happiness becomes our happiness. The things that make Him happy start to make us happy. Giving starts to make us happy. Spending time with family makes us happy. Spending time in worship makes us happy. What’s more, the things of this world that bring happiness without joy cease to give us the happiness that comes with the joy of the Lord. Sin, although it feels good, is not as appealing. The things that bombard us on a daily basis that we are told will make us complete no longer hold power over us. The word says He wants to give us the desires of our heart, but we must not forget the first part of that verse: “Delight yourself in the Lord.” When we line our hearts up with Him, our hearts beat as one, and our desires start to become the same. At that point, happiness gets in its proper place behind joy, and our lives have a much deeper, more complete meaning.
So the challenge to us is this: which will we choose? Will we choose happiness over joy? Or will we accept our right to be joyful, paid for on the cross, and let the happiness take care of itself? Because the truth is, no, we don’t have the right to be happy. But as redeemed people of God, we have inherited the right to be joyful – and that will result in and eternity of happiness beyond the reaches of our imagination.