Pause for thought
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I can’t shake the feeling that I’m being harassed by the media this week.

There is a flyer from a cruise line in my mail that is entitled “The Joy Issue”. There is a mail piece from a local charity begging me to “Share the Joy” for Thanksgiving. Our local theater company wants me to come and share the “joy” of their latest holiday production. The music channel I listen to is trotting out Beethoven’s ninth symphony’s last movement — “Ode to Joy” at least twice a day. Stores are playing music to shop by — “Joy to the world”!

It’s good marketing, but I think it’s ultimately flawed. I think the world is trying to conflate “joy” with “happiness”, and although there is certainly a connection between them, there is a fundamental difference.

What is joy? What is happiness? And what is the difference between joy and happiness?

The difference between joy and happiness lives in the mind and heart.

Joy is in the heart. Happiness is on the face. Joy is of the soul. Happiness is of the moment. Joy transcends. Happiness reacts. Joy embraces peace and contentment, waiting to be discovered. Joy runs deep and overflows, while happiness hugs the moment. Joy is a practice and a behavior. It’s deliberate and intentional. Happiness comes and goes merrily along its way. Joy is profound and Scriptural. "Don't worry, rejoice." Happiness is a balm. "Don't worry, be happy." Joy is an inner feeling. Happiness is an outward expression. Joy endures hardship and trials and connects with meaning and purpose. A person pursues happiness but a person chooses joy.

Happiness depends on external factors. Happiness happens to us. Even though we may seek it, desire it, pursue it, etc., feeling happiness is not a choice we make. Joy, on the other hand, is a choice purposefully made.

Happiness doesn’t bring joy, and joy isn’t the byproduct of happiness. Joy is something grander than happiness. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit, and when we find joy it’s infused with comfort and wrapped in peace.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” — Galatians 5:22-23, NASB

It’s possible to experience joy in difficult times. It’s possible to know joy or feel joy in spite of grief or uncertainty. Joy doesn’t need a smile in order to exist.

Although joy does feel better with a happy smile, joy can share space with other emotions — sadness, fear, anger ... even unhappiness. Happiness can’t.

Happiness isn’t present in darkness and difficulty. It can’t be present when its opposite rules. But, once discovered, joy anchors our spirits and brings to life peace and contentment, even in the face of unhappiness.

Joy blooms through connection. It’s what God wants for us. Often the connection is with other people, but it can also be with pets, creation, creativity, etc.

Joy is present, in the moment. Every moment. Happiness is ephemeral and temporary. It’s mostly just passing through.

When happiness is present, it’s larger than life. It feels good, and nothing feels better or seems worthy of attention. But happiness is also fickle. It can be present for weeks on end and gone in an instant. True joy is constant.

The true definition of joy goes beyond the limited explanation presented in a dictionary — “a feeling a great pleasure and happiness.” True joy is a limitless, life-defining, transformative reservoir waiting to be tapped into. It requires the utmost surrender and, like love, is a choice to be made. Joy is not simply a feeling that happens.

Joy is also not great happiness or even extreme happiness. It is not elation, jubilation or exhilaration — emotions that may be present with joy, that may seem like an expression of joy, but which don’t define joy. In its truest expression, joy transforms difficult times into blessings and turns heartache into gratitude. Joy brings meaning to life. It brings life to life.

This why the apostle John in exile can write: “We write this to make our joy complete.” 1 John 1:4 NIV [Emphasis mine]

We have the example of Jesus in a very unhappy situation: “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:2 NIV [Emphasis mine]

Paul writes to his church in Thessaloniki : “Indeed, you are our glory and joy.” 1 Thessalonians 2: 20 NIV [Emphasis mine], and to the church in Rome: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Romans 15:13 NIV [Emphasis mine]

In looking for references to joy in the scripture, the all-time record is found in the Psalms with fifty seven verses alluding to joy. For example: “Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy” Psalm 98:8 NIV

Happiness happens, but joy is a choice. The source of joy is, and can only be, God Himself. By choosing to have the spirit of Jesus filling us, we are choosing joy. Joy is one of the consequences of his spirit!

And we can claim the words of Nehemiah: “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Nehemiah 8:10 NIV

I am reminded of a Sunday School chorus: (sung to “Jingle Bells”)

“J-O-Y, J-O-Y, surely that must mean Jesus first, Yourself last, and Others in between; J-O-Y, J-O-Y, surely that must mean Jesus first, Yourself last, and Others in between."

By all means, hope for happiness, but choose joy!

Blessings on you and yours, Jim Black

P.S. if you’d like to read previous ruminations of mine they can be found at