Advent: Joy vs. Happiness

Having trouble getting into the Christmas cheer? This time of year is either one of the best for people or one of the worst. Some people reflect on the loss of loved ones and other’s just “don’t feel it” for whatever reason. So how can we have joy at this time of the year when we’re not happy? Is it possible?

Joy vs. Happiness: 4 Distinctions

Using we can see four definitions of joy. We might have one or many of these definitions in our mind of Christmas joy, but let’s take a look at each one and see the distinctions between joy and happiness.

1. the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying; keen pleasure; elation: She felt the joy of seeing her son’s success.

Here the idea of it being an emotion and equated to happiness is most likely what people think that you’re supposed to have at Christmas. “Can’t you feel the joy of Christmas,” someone might ask. This is the fleeting and unreliable aspect of joy. If all it were to us were an emotion then passages in the Bible like Isaiah 65:18, “be glad and rejoice forever,” would be impossible. Or Philippians 4:4 that says, “rejoice in the Lord always.” This definition of joy doesn’t help us with these passages. It pretty well makes you want to pick up the Bible and throw it across the room because you can’t feel that emotion all the time.

3. the expression or display of glad feeling; festive gaiety.

Yes, I’m jumping around, but I think that these two decisions go pretty well together. Number 3 here plays off of number 1 in that this is what people expect of us. It’s what we want to express ourselves at this time of the year, and sometimes we just can’t do it. When you go to those Christmas parties what do you often do? You put on the good face because you don’t want to stand out. Maybe everyone else is doing it too, or I’m sure some people have some genuine happiness at this time. But this “festive gaiety” is not always there. Whether it’s been sucked out of us because of the faster pace and increased stress of the season or because of past/present experiences that just make it tough; displaying this “glad feeling” is not always a real thing for us.

2.  a source or cause of keen pleasure or delight; something or someone greatly valued or appreciated: Her prose style is a pure joy.

This definition is probably the most helpful in understanding what the Bible calls joy. It does still deal with pleasure and delight, but it focuses more on the source of it all rather than the emotion of it. Let’s go back to Isaiah 65:17-18.

“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness.”

When God, speaking through Isaiah, instructs His people to rejoice it’s for good reason. There’s an amazing source to the joy. God is going to make all things new and bring His people into this new state of perfection. When this was written about 2500 years ago, God’s people hadn’t experienced this yet. As of this writing, we still haven’t experienced it. Yet, God encourages us to rejoice because of the source and the promise of His action. He is at work and doing great things now, but even greater things are to come. By focusing on the source of all of this, namely God Himself, there can be joy. This will be expressed in times of happiness, but it can even be there when you’re not feeling the emotion.

4. a state of happiness or felicity.

So how do we get to the “state of happiness” if we’re not always happy? It has to do with that last point. Focusing on the source. Resting in Jesus and His work of redemption. Paul says in Galatians 5:22-25,

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.

This joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. In other words, it’s not something that we can muster up or somehow get more of. Rather, when we are in Christ He works this state of joy into our lives. It’s not so much about the emotion, it’s about the source. It’s about the hope that we have in Christ and His promises. And it’s about the peace that He gives us through His Spirit.

So having joy at all times and rejoicing in the Lord always is a possibility. Having joy this Christmas even though you might not feel the happy emotions you want to have is available. Rest in God’s work through His Son Jesus. Hold on to the promises that He gives and look to Him as the source of your joy. Perhaps the emotion will come along a little more easily this season.