Yesterday I started a new teaching series on the book of Philippians. We are calling the series Happy: Embracing the Unshakable Joy of the Kingdom. I knew that I was going to see a few eyebrows raised when I told people the name of the series was Happy – and people didn’t disappoint! I grew up in the same Christian sub-culture that made the statement, “God doesn’t want you to be happy, he wants you to be holy.” That never seemed quite right to me. It seemed to be an unnecessary distinction. Why can’t we be both happy and holy… and shouldn’t getting closer to God (who is the happiest being in the universe) also make us happy? It didn’t seem like the heart of our Father to create us with such an innate desire that he didn’t intend to satisfy. Much of the rhetoric I heard suggested that we were supposed to ignore one of the main controlling desires of our life; the pursuit of happiness.
I know, I know… there’s a difference between joy and happiness. That’s another thing I was told and something I believed for a long time. The reasoning went something like this: God wants us to have joy, and he doesn’t care if we are happy. Joy is a conviction we can choose to have in the midst of any circumstance. Happiness, however, is a trite feeling that is completely dependent on your circumstances – it’s cheap. In essence, happiness is something we can feel that we aren’t supposed to want (even though we know we want it), and joy is something we’re supposed to have, but something we can’t feel and that may or may not actually impact our daily life.
There are two huge problems with that line of reasoning. First, if we claim that God doesn’t care if we are happy because happiness is dependent on our circumstances, we are essentially saying that salvation isn’t a circumstance. (Hint, here in lies one of the huge problems!) What lies subtly beneath the surface is the reality that we don’t believe the work of Jesus actually changes our lives. If we believed the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus actually did what the Scriptures say it does, we would view that as a circumstance! The reality that we have been born again, moved from death to life, transferred from the Kingdom of Darkness and placed into the Kingdom of Jesus IS A CIRCUMSTANCE! The Bible never suggests that it’s anything other than that. When we say, “Well, happiness is dependent on our circumstances, but joy is transcendent of our circumstances and God only wants us to have joy,” we are relaying our belief that we don’t really trust what the Scriptures say about our salvation.
The second issue is equally as troubling. The Scriptures never make the distinction between happiness and joy. It’s easiest to look at this in the New Testament. In the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible (which is a good word-for-word translation), the word joy is used 61 times. Most of the time it is a translation of the Greek word χαρᾶ (chara). In contrast, the ESV uses the word ‘happy’ or ‘happiness’ 0 times.
That’s right ZERO times.
We are left with two options. First, the New Testament never talks about happiness. If that’s the case, we would have to draw the conclusion that Jesus and his followers were either unhappy or unconcerned with happiness. I take issue with both. I’d argue that Jesus was the happiest person to ever walk the face of the earth. I would also assert that God is the happiest being in the universe. That being the case, it seems unlikely that happiness wouldn’t have been mentioned. The second option is that the Scriptures don’t see a difference between joy and happiness. Based on the evidence, I think this is far more likely!
The distinction between joy and happiness is actually fairly new. It’s an invention of the 20th Century and would have been foreign to followers of Jesus before the early 1900’s. Here’s the good news, GOD WANTS YOU TO BE HAPPY IN HIM! He designed you with the longing for happiness, every person who walks the face of the planet wants it, and he has made every provision for our happiness through the redemption and life that he offers!
That’s great news… you might even call it gospel!
An excellent resource on this topic is the book Happiness by Randy Alcorn.