For, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy…
Did you know that in the Bible we find some form of the words “joy,” “happy,” “delight,” “glad” or “gladness,” and “rejoice” more than 700 times? And if we add in the word “singing” or “sang” or “song,” we approach 1,000 references. We can safely argue that joy is an important theme in the Bible.
One night in the fields near Bethlehem, an angel announced good tidings of great joy, because Jesus was born that night. And he added that these good tidings of great joy “shall be to all people.”
Conventional wisdom distinguishes joy from happiness. According to modern theologians, happiness is temporal while joy is lasting.
“Happiness depends on circumstances, while joy depends on God alone.”
“Happiness is what the world has; joy is what Christians have.”
These are commonplace opinions of the difference between joy and happiness. But is this true? What is joy? Is joy limited to Christmas celebrations, or should it permeate our Christian lives? Is joy something distinct from happiness, or are they 2 sides of the same coin?
You might be surprised to note that the Bible makes no formal distinction between joy and happiness. Joy is characteristic of the Christian life, and happiness is a product of faithful Christian living. Consider this: the Bible never treats “happiness” as a non-Christian emotion.
Happy is that people, that is in such a case: yea, happy is that people, whose God is the LORD.Psalm 144:15
Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the LORD his God:Psalm 146:5
Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding.Proverbs 3:13
She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her: and happy is every one that retaineth her.Proverbs 3:18
He that handleth a matter wisely shall find good: and whoso trusteth in the LORD, happy is he.Proverbs 16:20
Happy is the man that feareth alway: but he that hardeneth his heart shall fall into mischief.Proverbs 28:14
Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.Proverbs 29:18
Behold, we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.James 5:11
But and if ye suffer for righteousness’ sake, happy are ye: and be not afraid of their terror, neither be troubled;1 Peter 3:14
If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified.1 Peter 4:14
The truth is, it is impossible to understand joy apart from the experience of happiness. We understand “joy” in terms of happiness, and “happiness” in terms of joy. As proof, I looked up joy in two dictionaries, one of which was Noah Webster’s 1828, the holy grail of Christian dictionaries. And do you know what I found? Both dictionaries defined joy as “happiness.” Joy and happiness are synonymous. They do not mean exactly the same thing. But they are a different pitch on the same idea.
Happiness belongs to joy the way cold belongs to ice, the way heat belongs to fire, the way wetness belongs to water. You will not find “joy” that is somehow void of happiness, and when you find happiness, you have found the stuff that joy is made out of.
Christian thinkers have identified a variety of forms of happiness that range from the joy of looking at beautiful scenery to the happiness of a pleasant social scene to the satisfaction people find in their jobs or in their health or in their intellectual pursuits, and even in laughter. This kind of happiness is available to every man by God’s common grace.
Remember, God makes the sun shine on the just and on the unjust. The whole world is under the blessing of a good and Providential God. It would be false to say that unbelievers do not know what joy is. They might struggle to hold on to it: in their darker hours they might doubt that joy exists. But they most certainly have experienced happiness or joy.
Unbelievers enjoy themselves. They feel joy at the birth of a child, at a beautiful sunset or fresh snow on the mountain. The one form of happiness that is available only to Christians is “spiritual happiness.” This “spiritual happiness” maps to that characteristic of the fruit of the Spirit called “joy.” The fruit of the Spirit is what the Holy Spirit uniquely produces in us as a result of indwelling us. When the Bible says “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace…” and so forth, it points out all the essential qualities that the Holy Spirit produces in us. It would be wrong to separate joy out from the other elements of that fruit when in fact it is a quality of that fruit. When the Holy Spirit indwells the Christian, that Christian will be a joyful Christian.
Joy that is the gift of the Holy Spirit is distinguished from all the other forms of joy, because it is spiritual joy. But that doesn’t mean that there is such a thing as “joy that comes from the world” as opposed to joy that comes from God. Every kind of joy and happiness comes from God. This explains how it is that “the goodness of God brings us to repentance.” It should be staggering for us to think that God allows men to experience pleasure and happiness, even in sin. He does not withhold the pleasure of it just because it violates His law. When a man realizes that he has extorted happiness – misappropriated it and gained it unlawfully – and yet, God did not withhold the pleasure of it from him, it should drive that man to his knees in repentance. “How could God be kind to me at all, especially when I have returned Him evil for His good?”
We know that sin disrupts our joy. When David repented of his sin with Bathsheba, he cried out, “Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation.” Certainly, if David experienced a disruption of his joy, then unbelievers experience this as well. Unbelievers experience joy and happiness, but their sin prevents them from enjoying the fullness of it because they are in rebellion against the God who gives joy and happiness. Joy comes from God, and must be received with gratitude. When we receive the good things of God in submission to Him and delight in Him, then we are in a position to experience true, spiritual joy.