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What is joy? Please take a moment and seriously consider this before reading any further. How do you define joy?
This question came up during a home fellowship Bible-study. We were reviewing the fruit of the Spirit mentioned in Galatians 5:22. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” Surprisingly, it developed into a relatively heated discussion. One of the leaders of the group was adamant that “joy was NOT happiness; it was more than happiness.” I too had a difficult time defining joy; but I felt very strongly that it was important to recognize that joy was happiness, though it was more than happiness. I even pulled out a dictionary which defined joy as happiness. We ended that evening without reaching an agreement upon a good definition of joy.
Over the next several weeks, I surveyed many of my Christian friends, asking them their definition of joy. 75% or more responded something along the lines of, “It’s not happiness, it’s more than happiness. It’s a peace, a contentment, a feeling of being at rest.” I would respond, “No, that’s peace and contentment, but what is joy.” To which they had no reply. Few said that joy was happiness; and typically those who I considered more mature in the faith responded that joy was not happiness, but something more than happiness.
These “more mature” Christians, were typically very serious minded, but not what you would say markedly happy people. They were disciplined in their Christian life, compassionate, kind, gentle people, and often carrying the cares of many others on their shoulders. It wasn’t that they were sad, per se, but very serious and reserved. These “mature” Christians would typically say that joy was not happiness, but more than happiness.
I pondered the meaning of joy for a few months. Sometimes, seemingly insignificant questions like this will nag me until I eventually come across the answer. A clear definition of joy was illusive, like grasping sand. I believed it was happiness as defined in the dictionary, but it was also much more than happiness! One day as I was again considering this, I thought to try and define joy by determining its opposite, its antonym. Almost immediately, the word “depression” came to mind. With this thought came the answer to the meaning of joy.
Everyone knows what depression is. It’s that funky-kinda-gloom that hangs around a person like a cloud—the Eeyore-syndrome (from Winnie the Pooh). Though there might be moments of happiness, the person is typically sad. Some people are so depressed that they don’t even have moments of happiness. It’s a hopeless, faithless, fearful, anxious-filled, emotional pattern of sadness. DEPRESSION! At the drop of a hat, a depressed person is offended, cries, gets angry, or is tempted to respond in some other negative manner.
The lights came on and I understood what joy is. Joy is an abiding sense of happiness! It’s a bright, sunshine-filled emotional pattern of happiness—the Tigger-syndrome. Though there might be moments or seasons of sadness, even these are tempered with a confident expectation that the sun will soon return piercing the darkness caused by the passing clouds. Joyful people are typically happy. They smile and laugh a lot. Joy is the result of hope, faith, and love! Joyful people often smile and seem to breeze through difficult situations. They see problems as opportunities. The glass might be almost empty, but the joyful person will be thankful for the little they have, enjoy it thoroughly, and not fear it running out!
Joy is an emotional pattern, an abiding sense of happiness! Understanding this helps us understand why “the joy of the Lord is our strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). Did you know that it is difficult to offend a joyful person? Joyful people let insults role off them like water off a duck’s back. There is a spring in their step and a light-heartedness that is contagious. When they do something, they do it with zest and vitality. Joy empowers a person to be loving, kind, gentle, and self-controlled, consistently denying our selfish tendencies.
Why would so many “mature” Christians say that “joy is not happiness?” I think that it is an attempt at self-deception, in order to cover up our own lack of the fruit of the Spirit. It’s difficult to fake joy, especially to ourselves. We can convince ourselves that we’re being loving, kind, gentle, and exhibiting great self-control, even when we’re not. But it’s difficult to convince ourselves that we’re happy, when we know that we’re really sad, angry, or upset most of the time, or possibly not sad, but not happy either, just numb.
There are also religious beliefs that promote an austere, reserved, suspicious, judgmental, and even depressing attitude among believers. It is far too easy for Christians to fall into this Pharisaical mindset. This type of religious person is not happy and is often suspicious of anyone who is happy.
I have often heard an acronym for JOY being: “J” is for having Jesus first in your life. “O” is for placing Others second; and “Y” is for placing Yourself last. There is a lot of truth in this simple acronym. If we put Jesus first in our lives, joy is a natural byproduct which empowers us to really love others and love ourselves.
Joy is a vital aspect of the fruit of the Spirit; so be filled with the Holy Spirit today! So, how full of joy are you? Are you typically happy, sad, or just existing? What can we do to be more joy-full?