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Happiness vs. joy

Dear Father Paul:  Is there a difference (in the Christian context) between happiness and joy? If so, what is it? My friend Lisa and I have been discussing this for some time. — Angela.

Dear Angela:  Thanks for your excellent question. We do often use these two terms almost interchangeably in our conversations, don’t we?  “John is always so happy.” And, “John is always so joyful,” are two examples that come to mind.  And there is probably nothing wrong with this. But, as you mention, in the context of the Christian faith and the way the Bible treats these two words, there is, indeed, a big and an important difference.

Checking these two words out in a good Bible concordance indicates that the word “joy” is used about ten times more in the Bible than the word “happiness.” Does this mean that God considers joy a higher state of being than happiness? Perhaps. I personally think it means that God considers us living and being in a state of joy deeper, more profound and more valuable than our being (merely) in a state of happiness. Careful study of the over 100 verses in the Bible that use either the word joy or happiness reveals that this is indeed very likely the case.

Jesus uses both words in the Bible. In John 13:17, he says this: “Now that you know these things (the things he has just spoken of in earlier verses), how happy you will be if you practice them.” (Good News Translation)

The New Testament books were originally written in the Greek language. And the Greek word that Jesus uses in this verse for “happy” is the word “makarismos.” Makarismos literally means “supremely blessed, fortunate and well off.” These are all indeed good things that are to be valued and sought after. But they all depend on events, something happening.

Get it? Happening? Happenstance? Happiness.?  These words all come from the same root word. So happiness is conditional. Nothing wrong with that. Lots of things are conditional … so long as we understand that happiness, again, usually depends on what is happening. When good things are happening, we are happy. But when bad things are happening, we are unhappy. So “happiness” can be shallow, hit or miss, up or down.  Happiness is a good thing. It should be sought after, wished for and hoped for, but it is not guaranteed. A few years of life’s experiences on planet earth demonstrates this for most of us.

In the Gospel of John, Chapter 15, verse 11 Jesus uses the word ‘joy.”  He says this: “I have told you this (in an earlier verse: to remain in my love) so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” (Good News Translation)

In this verse Jesus uses the Greek word “chara” which is translated into English as “joy.” Chara literally means cheerfulness, gladness, calm delight. Chara is deeper than Makarismos. It is a permanent, ongoing, every day state of mind, emotion and being. Joy does not depend on what is “happening.” Basically Jesus is saying that we can have complete joy (that is, cheerfulness, gladness and calm delight) all of the time, 24/7, when we “remain in his love.”

The Apostle Paul, in Galatians 5 lists joy as one of the nine fruits of the Spirit which are produced in us when we live in a close relationship with Christ and walk in his Spirit.

Thank you again for your question Angela. I trust that, as a Christian, your  life, every day, is filled with joy and that your joy draws others to the God who loves us without measure and who gave himself for us. Good luck, much joy and happiness too.

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[Father Paul Massey is pastor emeritus of Church of the Holy Cross in Fayetteville, Georgia. Visit www.holy for more information, service times, directions and downloads of Sunday services.]