Are Happiness and Joy the Same?
Written by Pastor Jim Law
A common teaching among Christians for the last 100 years has been that happiness and joy are not the same thing. On the one hand, happiness is fleeting and circumstantial, while joy has its roots in something more substantial. Happiness is a fun, bouncy feeling that comes and goes based upon one’s circumstances. However, joy is an inner quality of delight in God that springs up within the Christian regardless of the adversities or circumstances of life.
But are these distinctions true? Does scriptural evidence support such an understanding? I have come to believe that the Bible does not support such a separation, and that it adversely affects our communication of the gospel as a message that doesn’t really meet the deepest longings of our heart.
Randy Alcorn’s book Happiness has done much to help me eliminate the competition often presented between joy and happiness. I would recommend his book as a “must read.” I took six months in 2020 to work through the 450 pages and extensive footnotes. It was worth every effort as Alcorn made his case that joy and happiness are in fact synonyms and used together in Scripture to describe the same experience. My purpose in this post is to share a few thoughts I hope will help recover what it means to be happy in Christ.
Joy and Happiness in the Bible
In looking at different Bible translations, there are over 100 verses that use happiness and joy together. This is especially true in the Psalms with the use of parallelisms. For example,
Psalm 68:3- “May the righteous be glad and rejoice before God; may they be happy and joyful.” (NIV)
Psalm 89:15- “Happy are the people who know the joyful shout; Yahweh, they walk in the light of Your presence.” (HCSB)
The Hebrew word, אֶ֫שֶׁר asher, used in the Psalm 89:15 reference is found frequently in the Old Testament and means “happiness, blessedness.” It is also used in Psalm 32:1, “Happy is the man whose sins are forgiven,” and continuing in v.2, “Happy is the one whose transgressions are not counted against him.
Psalm 32 speaks of the deep happiness that comes when one is right with God, a God who himself is happy. A God who created us in his image to be happy in him, but until this reconciliation, sin has taken its toll. Our pursuits for happiness in sin leave us devastated and consumed (v. 3,4), but God’s grace brings rescue from those cul-de-sacs of misery for “in his presence is fullness of joy and at his right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Psalm 16:11)
This word, אֶ֫שֶׁר asher, is also used in Psalm 1:1, “Happy is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly…” In this Psalm, it describes the happiness that comes by walking in God’s ways and meditating upon His Word, v. 2. The imagery of such a life is described beautifully in v.3, “He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.”
The Bible certainly speaks of happiness, and we find many examples of joy and happiness referring to the same thing. We also observe this in our lives through personal interaction with others. Joyful people are typically glad and cheerful. They enjoy the life God has given them. To put it in simple terms, they are happy.
Joy and Happiness Were Used Together
Until about 100 years ago, there was not a difference in using joy or happiness among Christian leaders. Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines joy as happiness, and vice versa. This is why when we read the Puritans, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, and other writers we find they use joy and happiness interchangeably with no distinction between them.
Charles Spurgeon once said, “God made human beings as He made His other creatures, to be happy…They are in their right element when they are happy.” And again Spurgeon encouraged his congregation with both joy and happiness, “Despite your tribulation, take full delight in God, your exceeding joy this morning and be happy in him.”
Likewise, Jonathan Edwards commenting on John 15:11 presses this point by saying, “The happiness Christ gives to his people is a participation of his own happiness.” He did not follow up his statement by saying, “Let me clarify that….I really meant joy.”
In more recent years, some Christian writers have maintained this emphasis as well. Joni Eareckeson Tada, whose life was radically changed by a diving accident as a teenager, has spent her life as a quadriplegic pointing others to Christ. I remember attending a conference on suffering in which she was one of the speakers. During the singing segment of the conference worship service, she was twirling around in her wheelchair as she sang praise to God.
Tada writes, “Scripture uses the terms (joy and happiness) interchangeably along with words like delight, gladness, blessed. There is no scale of relative spiritual values applied to any of these. Happiness is not relegated to fleshly-minded sinners nor joy to heaven-bound saints.”
One familiar quote among many evangelicals in the last twenty-five years has been John Piper’s summary of Christian hedonism, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” Piper defines hedonism carefully as pleasure, satisfaction, and happiness in God. Piper writes against this supposed joy vs. happiness distinction, “If you have nice little categories — joy is what Christians have and happiness is what the world has — you can scrap those when you go to the Bible because the Bible is indiscriminate in its uses of the language of happiness and joy and contentment and satisfaction.”
A Bridge to the Gospel
I think fear is a major reason for this distinction between joy and happiness. With the advances in the 20th century that lifted many burdens of life, pleasure and ease became major pursuits in a culture that was becoming more affluent. Materialism and the constant craving for more brought concern of misplaced values among Christians. These developments seemed to fuel the growth of the prosperity gospel which teaches that if one has enough faith, then by declaring health and wealth, a person who believes enough can create their reality, and thereby achieve happiness. (See Running the Race Podcast for further development of the prosperity gospel; 9-16-2020 and 9-30-2020 at: https://www.fbcg.net/rtr)
I understand the concern many have with too much talk about happiness under these terms, but I believe these trends produced an unintentional consequence by in effect saying, “Joy is for Christians, and happiness is for those in the world.” The evil one delights in such a spin.
We must be clear that God’s word calls us to seek happiness, joy, delight, and pleasure in him, and that this is a good and right pursuit. However, we are forbidden and warned about trying to find happiness through loving the values and goals of this present world system. (I John 2:15-17) The writer of Hebrews speaks of the seasonal pleasures of sin (11:25), but these seasons don’t last, and the crop it brings forth is more than we can bear.
We all seek happiness. The Bible presents a happy message of redemption and forgiveness found in Jesus Christ. The good news of happiness is the good news of the gospel. The angel’s message to the shepherds at the birth of Jesus was this, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” (Luke 2:10)
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the bridge over the troubled waters of life. In Christ, we find the universal source of happiness, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” (John 1:4)
Augustine of the 4th century identified the struggle in an economy of words, “You have made us for Yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in You.” May we find our rest and happiness in the One who promised that his joy would be in us, and our joy would be full. (John 15:11)