The words are very similar. Happiness and joy. They are sometimes used interchangeably in the Bible. Historically, great church theologians have not made a distinction between the two.
The distinction we will make is not so much in the substance of happiness vs. the substance of joy, but in the object of happiness vs. the object of joy. It is an artificial distinction, but one that can be helpful for us nonetheless as we consider the range of emotions we feel, and what causes them.
Joy, as we will define it here, is rooted in the character and promises of God, especially as they are related and revealed to us in Christ.
Happiness, as we will use it here, is when our sense of joy comes from anything other than the beauty and wonder of Christ. In that way, there is a huge distinction to be made.
What is happiness?
Happiness, as we are using it here, is the positive emotional feeling or sense of wellbeing or joy that derives primarily from external favorable circumstances. It is the feeling one gets right after one receives the job he really wanted, or when the car starts after the third attempt, or when we find out about a large tax refund. Since it is rooted in positive external factors, it is temporary and fleeting.
What is joy?
Joy is the deep, soul-level happiness that is a result of beholding by faith the beauty and wonders of Christ. It is rooted in Jesus, not in external circumstances, and therefore cannot be easily displaced by external changes. Indeed, a Christian can have deep and lasting joy in the midst of life’s most difficult seasons.
Difference between joy and happiness
The most significant difference between joy and happiness (the way we are distinguishing the terms) is the object of each. The object of joy is Jesus. The object of happiness is favorable temporary external factors.
That means that happiness comes and goes. Even something as simple as a rainy day might displace your happiness if your happiness is rooted in a picnic you were planning.
“Joy is distinctly a Christian word and a Christian thing. It is the reverse of happiness. Happiness is the result of what happens of an agreeable sort. Joy has its springs deep down inside. And that spring never runs dry, no matter what happens. Only Jesus gives that joy.” — S. D. Gordon
“Happiness is smiling when the sun’s out, joy is dancing in the downpour.”
“Happiness is based on what’s happening, but joy is based on what we believe.”
“Joy is that kind of happiness that does not depend on what happens.”
“Joy seems to me a step beyond happiness — happiness is a sort of atmosphere you can live in sometimes, when you’re lucky. Joy is a light that fills you with hope and faith and love.”
What causes happiness?
If you give a small child a toy he or she will smile. If they really like the toy, they will smile broadly. If that same child then drops the toy and it breaks then that smile will turn into a frown and probably tears. That is the fickle way of happiness. It comes and goes. It comes when things we think are good happen to us, and it goes either when those perceived good things don’t happen or something, we think is bad or painful happens. We smile upon receiving a “toy” that we really like and we “frown” and cry when we drop it and it breaks.
What causes joy?
Joy is caused as the heart and the mind recognizes the beauty of God and His character and His grace towards us in Jesus. The ability to see the beauty of Christ is itself God’s grace to us. So in a real way, joy is caused by God. It is sustained by God.
Emotions of happiness
Because the object of happiness can be superficial and shallow, the feeling or emotion of happiness can also be superficial and shallow. I can literally be happy in one moment, and be sad in the next.
People crave the feeling of happiness. Typically, they do this by pursuing outcomes that they believe will bring them the longest lasting feeling of happiness. A career, a home, a spouse, or a level of comfort are all goals that people pursue believing that these will bring happiness. Yet, happiness, because it is a fleeting emotion, often eludes them.
Emotions of joy
Since joy is in Christ, it is deeper. Some theologians say it is a “soul-level” happiness. Therefore the emotions that spring up from joy are more stable. The Apostle Paul even went so far as to say that he can be joyful even in sorrow. In 2 Corinthians 6:10, Paul said, “As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” This shows the depth of emotion that come from joy. You can feel the sorrow of sin and loss and grief, and, at the same time, be joyful in the Lord for His forgiveness, His sufficiency, and His comfort.
Examples of happiness
All of us know many examples of happiness. That person we really like asks us on a date; we get that promotion at work. We are happy when our children bring home a good report card. We are happy when the doctor gives us a clean bill of health.
In all these examples, the common denominator is that something positive and good is happening.
Examples of joy
Joy is far deeper. A person can be joyful and also be dying of cancer. A woman whose husband has abandoned her can experience the deep joy of knowing that Jesus will never leave her or forsake her. A person can be persecuted for professing faith in Jesus, and take joy in the sacrifice, knowing that it is for God’s glory.
It should be noted, that we can feel joy at good things happening. Yet, our joy is not in those things, but joy in the Giver of all good things, for His grace and provision for us.
Happiness in the Bible
One of the best and saddest examples in the Bible of a person pursuing happiness in things or people, rather than in God is in the life of Samson. In Judges 14, Samson sought happiness in a woman. In the bigger picture, we know this was “of the Lord” (Judges 14:4), nevertheless, the Lord was using Samson’s shallow pursuit of happiness to accomplish His will.
Throughout Samson’s life we see a man who was happy when things went well, and angry and sorrowful when things did not go his way. He was not experiencing deep joy, but surface-level happiness.
Joy in the Bible
The Bible speaks often about joy. Nehemiah said that the “joy of the Lord is my strength…” (Nehemiah 8:10). The Psalms are full of joy in the Lord. James told Christians to take joy in trials (James 1:2-3). 1 Peter, a letter about Christian suffering, speaks often to the joy we have in Jesus. 1 Peter 1:8-9, for example, says, Though you have not seen Him, you love Him.
Though you do not now see Him, you believe in Him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
Paul commanded Christians to be joyful in all things and at all times. In Philippians 4:4 says Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.
And He prayed that God would fill Christians with joy. In Romans 15:13, Paul wrote: May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.
This is only possible if the object of one’s joy transcends the difficulties and trials we face in this life. And Christian joy has just such an object: Jesus Christ himself.
How to find joy in life?
If joy is the deep, soul-level happiness that is a result of beholding in faith the beauty and wonders of Christ then the way to have joy is to behold Christ by faith. If a man or woman or child desires a joy that is so deep and steady that it cannot be displaced by trials or hardships or even death, then they should look to Jesus by faith. When they do they will behold beauty – a sublime beauty that surpasses all the vain worldly pursuits after happiness. To behold Jesus is to have joy.
C.S. Lewis once described a child who was so busy with his mud pies in a slum that he showed no interest in a holiday at the beach. He was “far too easily pleased.” And so we all are. We give our efforts and time to pursue happiness, and we search for it in money, pleasure, status, the affection of others, or other worldly pursuits. These are mud pies, that satisfy shallowly for a short while, but never give us the deep joy in Christ for which we were designed. We are far too easily pleased.
Jesus offers true, lasting joy; a joy that surpasses all worldly pleasures, and sustains during all of life. A joy that sustains us through trials and hardships, and lasts forever and ever. We find this joy in Christ, by beholding by faith, the beauty of God’s grace and love to us in Christ.
Jesus is true joy.