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Joy and Happiness: Is there a difference?

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You have probably heard it preached in many sermons, especially in sermons from James chapter 1, that joy and happiness are different. Many preachers will respond with something like, “Joy is that constant in your life, but happiness has ups and downs.” Or, “God calls us to have joy, but not happiness.” These, and similar, are sayings that I heard growing up in the church. In fact, in a recent series I did on trials from the book of James, as I was studying to preach James 1:2, I pondered the words joy and happiness and thought to myself, “Am I going to tell the people that God doesn’t say He wants you to be happy?” Then I stopped and thought, “I had better study this for myself.”

The famous passage in James 1:2 says, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials.” When James uses the word joy, some preachers will tell you that James doesn’t mean that he wants you to be happy. Recently, I heard a pastor in a devotion say, “Joy is an attitude, but happiness is an emotion.” As I began to study the difference between joy and happiness, I came across a book by Randy Alcorn called Happiness. Alcorn does a great job of laying out the argument that there is no difference between joy and happiness. In fact, he argues that the Bible uses those words interchangeably in many places. Here are a few quotes to help clarify:

“In Zephaniah 3:14, God calls upon his people to be glad using four different Hebrew words that convey happiness: ‘Sing aloud [with joy, or rinnah], O daughter of Zion; shout [for joy, or ruah], O Israel! Rejoice [samach] and exalt [alaz] with all your heart.’ The gladness here is over the top—surely a God who isn’t happy would never call his people to such happiness.”[1]

“[Quoting Zephaniah 3:17] ’The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice [sus] over you with gladness [simchah]; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you [gyl] with loud singing [rinnah].’ There’s more happiness, tenderness, and love of God for us in this single verse than we can wrap our minds around . . . We’re accustomed to thinking of God as angry or saddened by us. But here we’re told, four times over, of God’s happiness over us!”[2]

Parents understand this concept of happiness over their children in child rearing. When you train your child to obey, and they do it, it not only brings happiness and joy to your heart, but you can see happiness on the face of your child as well. When my child obeys and I tell him “great job,” his smile isn’t just some kind of inner joy, but he is happy. Speaking of joy and happiness in reference to obedience, Alcorn also says,

“When we seek holiness at the expense of happiness or happiness at the expense of holiness, we lose both the joy of being holy and the happiness birthed by obedience. God commands holiness, knowing that when we follow his plan, we’ll be happy. He also commands happiness, which makes obeying him not only duty, but also pleasure.”[3]

When we seek happiness through sinful measures, of course this is wrong. But God wants us to find joy and happiness in Him. As redeemed people of God, we should be happy people. This doesn’t mean that we will never go through difficulties in life that make us sad or bring pain, but overall, we should be happy in Christ. Don’t think that you must sacrifice happiness in order to live the Christian life. Our churches should be full of happy people who rejoice over the fact that we have been saved from Hell and will spend eternity in Paradise with Christ forever.

 

[1] Randy Alcorn. Happiness (Carol Stream, Ill: Tyndale House Publications, Inc., 2015), 219.

[2] Ibid, 120.

[3] Ibid, xii.