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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?

Views: 41599

Tags: Fruit, Spirit, of, the

Comment by Bill Hale on November 18, 2010 at 6:31pm
Very thoughtful and thought provoking, especially because of the responses you received when you asked the question. I approached the issue somewhat differently when I posted about pleasure (within a sexual context) and joy. I suggested joy was being in relationship - but a relationship that was grounded in the emerging kingdom and being in His presence (http://www.evangelicalmonk.com/apps/blog/show/4055512-being-single-...)
Comment by Daniel on November 18, 2010 at 8:12pm
Very good!
Comment by Ron Lair on November 18, 2010 at 9:18pm
I tend to think of joy in the same way as the Hebrew, shalom. Shalom is much more than the absence of conflict. It is a sense of well-being, an assurance that everything is in His hands. To me, happiness is dependent on circumstances. James said "Consider it pure joy...whenever you face trials..." It must be more than "put on a happy face"
Comment by mem on November 19, 2010 at 8:43am
I think CS Lewis has the best definition of joy I have ever read. Surprised by Joy is one of his best works. (Others may disagree, but they are wrong.)

It seemed to me self-evident that one essential property of love, hate, fear, hope or desire was attention to their object. To cease thinking about or attending to the woman is, so far, to cease loving; to cease thinking about or attending to the dreaded thing is, so far, to cease being afraid. But to attend to your own love or fear is to cease attending to the loved or dreaded object. In other words, the enjoyment [i.e., experience] and contemplation of our inner activities are incompatible. You cannot hope and also think about hoping at the same moment; for in hope we look to hope's object and we interrupt this by (so to speak) turning around to look at the hope itself. ... This discovery flashed a new light back on my whole life. I saw that all my waiting and watchings for Joy, all my vain hopes to find some mental content on which I could, so to speak, lay my finger and say, "This is it," had been a futile attempt to contemplate the enjoyed [experienced].
Inexorably, Joy proclaimed, "You want - I myself am your want of - something other, outside, not you nor any state of you." ... I thus understood that in deepest solitude there is a road right out of the self, a commerce with something which, by refusing to identify itself with any object of the senses, or anything whereof we have biological or social need, or anything imagined, or any state of our own minds, proclaims itself sheerly objective.
Comment by Marv on November 19, 2010 at 10:05am
Lewis used "joy" in an idiosyncratic way. A beautiful way, but not necessarily what most of us mean by joy.

The conclusion I have come to in this joy vs happiness thing, is that the concept of happiness has an objective as well as subjective component. In fact I think that the objective component may be historically the more basic idea of the word. It has to do with being well-off, objectively, however you might feel about it. It is being in a situation that you ought to be glad about, even if you don't actually have the accompanying emotion. Thus it is pretty much what we mean by "lucky." You're in a good situation. You've got it made. This is, I think, pretty much was the Declaration of Independence has in mind with the "pursuit of happiness." This was almost going to be the "pursuit of property." The idea is working toward personal prosperity.

The fact is that much of the time one does have the appropriate emotive reaction. This is a sense of well-being that goes along with the situation of being well off. It is the subjective that correlates with the objective.

I think, maybe, originally "happiness" referred more properly to the objective situation, "joy" to the subjective sensation. Though clearly there is almost always a strong tie between the two.

That tie is not necessarily always present however. As you pointed out "depression" often is an affective state at odds with the external reality. People sometime feel bad even when things are going good.

The reverse is also possible. One can have a sense of joy, even in adverse circumstances. I think this is one thing the Spirit does for us. He ties joy to something above and beyond our situation in life.

So I think the good feeling we call "happiness" is pretty much what we also mean by "joy." Only we can use the word "joy" to emphasize that our sense of well being is tied into our eternal blessedness rather than the current state of our temporal life.
Comment by mem on November 19, 2010 at 11:05am
That's true, Marv. Lewis does write his own definition.

But I think by and large it is one of the better ones. (My parenthesis above was quite tongue-in-cheek.) The simultaneous "wanting and the having," a desire that is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction, is something that I think best expresses the experience. As Lewis would describe it, joy is in fact a deprivation of sorts; it is this, I think, that allows us joy in the midst of difficult circumstances.

Of all of the things I have read on the subject, Lewis' definition is closest to my personal experience and comprehends the greatest range of it. I think it also tied together a great many of his own writings. He says through Hwin in the Horse, for example, "I would rather be eaten by you than fed by anyone else." The Weight of Glory shows a similar train of thought:

If a transtemporal, transfinite good is our real destiny, then any other good on which our desire fixes must be in some degree fallacious, must bear at best only a symbolical relation to what will truly satisfy. ... [I]t is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience.

He goes on to say that the search for this good in the past always turns up memories—memories that are paradoxically memories of a future yet to be had:

These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
Comment by Marv on November 19, 2010 at 11:51am
Well, at any rate, your tongue in cheek remark is frequently applicable to me, since I think sometimes I have the spiritual gift of being wrong... ;-)

I also have great appreciation for Lewis and his joy-thing. I reread SBJ perhaps two years ago. My recollection though is that even he would have said that his usage is not necessarily what other people might mean by the word "joy."

What he means by it may be a far more sublime experience than mere emotional pleasure, but I think he'd have to agree that objectively speaking that isn't what most English speakers intend when using the word "joy."

It's like there's joy and then there's Joy with a capital J.
Comment by mem on November 19, 2010 at 12:16pm
I know what you mean, Marv. I have the spiritual gift of forgetfulness. Or at least of train-off-the-tracks-ness.

He did say in SBJ that he adopted a position held by another (I forget who and don't have the book with me at the moment) that the enjoyment and contemplation of an experience were mutually exclusive. I think this distinction is what kind of sets him apart from common English usage.


I suppose I feel a bit taken apart by him in Weight of Glory ("I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each of you..."), and what he speaks of there is the sort of thing that grips me every so often.

When I read blogs on Christian contentment and happiness or joy, I find often a disconnect between the joy Jesus experienced in enduring the cross ("who for the joy set before him endured the cross") and our often weak desires for happiness. Among some of my peers, there is an undercurrent almost of resentment that we should suffer for doing well, or perhaps rather the idea that God punishes us when we do wrong...and inevitably we can disabuse that notion with the cross: for here is a man who does everything right and suffers the most extreme penalty for it. And promises the same for us—that we should be conformed to his likeness.

In that respect, I confess I often find discourses on joy not centered close enough to the agony of the Cross. I guess I think Lewis gets there in some ways, or at least that his reflections on Joy aren't inconsistent with the Cross anyway.

I think his perspective answers many of the questions of the OP, and perhaps forms the undercurrent of the reason many mature Christians distinguish between Joy and happiness. The range of human emotion is wide and deep enough to accommodate our expressions of joy, whether they're terribly emotive or more introspective.

But I wander a bit here—exercising my spiritual gifts, I guess. At least I have not been gifted with helps, like Char has.
Comment by Sherman Nobles on November 19, 2010 at 1:32pm
Hi Mem, thanks for the CSL quote. I must admit though that I've read it several times and am having a difficult time grasping what he's trying to say. But concerning your point about joy being vitally connected to the Cross, I fully agree. The more selfish we are, the less joyful we will be. And the more we are selfless, giving, loving, and kind, the more joyful we will be. I picture Jesus as the most joyful of all people. This is part of the reason that people loved to be around Him.
Comment by Lisa Robinson on November 19, 2010 at 2:10pm
I confess to have some ambivalence with this post. On one hand, it speaks of a deep and abiding contentment that Christians should have, filled with the Holy Spirit and embracing the free gift of grace. On the other hand, I think it dismisses the reality of trials and discipline in the life of Christians. It seems to suggest that we can only have joy if we are the bouncing Tiggers - happy, shiny Christians. Joy, as described here suggests Christians must always be on the mountaintop.

Maybe its just where I am in my life now, but I don't think this paints a realistic picture of the Christian life. Sometimes there ARE valleys and its all for the purpose of fostering spiritual maturity. The writer of Hebrews says that discipline DOES seem grievous for a time. A lack of happiness doesn't mean a sour-puss Christian, but a real one that is capable of hurt and one that is possibly experiencing growing pains.

I find this statement from the comment above interesting

"And the more we are selfless, giving, loving, and kind, the more joyful we will be. I picture Jesus as the most joyful of all people. This is part of the reason that people loved to be around Him."

How joyful do you think he was when he prayed that prayer in the garden, or was betrayed and abandoned? Was he smiling when they were ripping the skin off his back and driving the nails in his hands and feet? I think not. But this is the problem. When suffering comes, we tell Christians they should smile. Otherwise, they are what? Selfish? That is very dishonest to the sacrifice of our Lord and to the experience of suffering, in my humble opinion.

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