A HUNDRED YEARS AGO, every Christian knew the meaning of joy. Today, if you ask a group of Christians, “What does joy mean?” most will grope for words, with only one emphatic response: that joy is different from happiness. It’s supposedly superior —deep rather than superficial, holy rather than sinful. It’s often said to be unemotional, in contrast to that unspiritual thing called happiness. (This also sends the message that anything emotional is bad.)
Saying that joy isn’t about being happy is like saying that rain isn’t wet or ice isn’t cold. Scripture, church history, dictionaries, and common language simply don’t support this conclusion.
I googled “define joy,” and the first result was this dictionary definition: “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness.” This definition harmonizes with other dictionaries and ordinary conversations, yet it contradicts countless Christian books and sermons that claim joy and happiness are radically different.
The church’s misguided distinction between joy and happiness has twisted the words. A Christian psychiatrist says, “Happiness is secular, joy sacred.” So we should be joyful but not happy when reading the Bible, praying, and worshiping? Is the Christian life really divided into the secular and sacred, or is every part of our lives, even the ordinary moments, to be centered in God?
God created not only our minds but also our hearts. Sure, emotions can be manipulated, but so can minds. God designed us to have emotions, and he doesn’t want us to shun or disregard them. It’s ill advised to redefine joy and happiness and pit them against each other rather than embracing the emotional satisfaction of knowing, loving, and following Jesus.
I’ve become so accustomed to reading misstatements by contemporary Christians about joy and happiness that when I read a devotional by Joni Eareckson Tada I cheered aloud at her words. Tada opens by citing Psalm 68:3: “May the righteous be glad and rejoice before God; may they be happy and joyful” (NIV). She then writes:
We’re often taught to be careful of the difference between joy and happiness. Happiness, it is said, is an emotion that depends upon what “happens.” Joy by contrast, is supposed to be enduring, stemming deep from within our soul and which is not affected by the circumstances surrounding us. . . . I don’t think God had any such hair-splitting in mind. Scripture uses the terms 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.
Joni Eareckson Tada is absolutely right. Modern distinctions between happiness and joy are completely counterintuitive. This is no minor semantic issue. For too long we’ve distanced the gospel from what Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, the Puritans, Wesley, Moody, and many other spiritual visionaries said God created us to desire —and what he desires for us —happiness.
Do we seriously want to take issue with Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892) when he said, “My dear Brothers and Sisters, if anybody in the world ought to be happy, we are the people. . . . How boundless our privileges! How brilliant our hopes!” Was he wrong to say we ought to be happy, and would his meaning be more spiritual if he’d said “joyful” instead? To declare joy sacred and happiness secular closes the door to dialogue with unbelievers. — Randy Alcorn, 60 Days of Happiness: Discover God’s Promise of Relentless Joy (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2017).