If you’re like me, this past year has felt like, well … an exercise in embracing “from bad to worse.” Not only has the world stage seemed to have more than its fair share of “downs,” but myself and many people I know have faced a myriad of rough circumstances in 2016. (Can I get an “Amen”?)
Recently my pastor was preaching on joy, and he made the very astute observation that Christians are pretty good at making a distinction between happiness and joy. Happiness, they say, is generally based on circumstances (“happenings”) while joy is something deeper. In the worst of times, joy can still be found. And that’s great comfort. But sometimes we take that idea a step further and actually associate joy with hard times. We take a cue from James 1:2, which says: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.”
Joy also seems to be more spiritual than happiness. If you search the word joy in Scripture, more than 200 verses come up. Happiness? Only two. (Although to be fair, “happy” is found eight times.) Another strike against happiness is that it is often associated with seeking out and indulging in worldly pleasures.
So, it would seem, that as believers we should reject the shallow idea of happiness and instead embrace its deeper, more sorrowful cousin—joy. And with an emphasis on joy, should we even attempt to be “happy”? A few years ago, Randy Alcorn addressed this topic in his book Happiness. In the Christianity Today article, “God Wants You to Find Your Happy Place,” Alcorn speaks out about the tension between happiness, holiness and the world in which we live.
Something would be terribly wrong if we weren’t grieving for this world and those who suffer. But is it okay to be happy when we live in a world of hurt? And beyond that, is it actually God’s calling? Because if God commands us to rejoice, he must empower us to rejoice. He must want us to be happy. That’s what got me interested in God’s happiness. Is God happy? Can he be happy when he sees so much sin in the world, when he knows what his Son endured on his behalf, when he sees the persecution of his people? Can we?
Clearly, the answer is yes.
As beings created in God’s image, we are designed to be happy. A lot of things in this imperfect life may get in the way of that, but I’m sure we can all attest to moments of pure delight. Running down the stairs on Christmas morning as a child. Viewing a gorgeous sunset. Witnessing an act of kindness. In some moments, we suddenly realize: I’m just really happy right now. This is the “rejoicing” Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 6:10. And when we credit God for His good gifts that make us happy, we give Him glory.
What makes gladness rise up in your soul? A walk through fall leaves? A good cup of coffee? A faithful pet curled up at your feet? For me, it’s watching a great stage production. (I’ve been known to burst into tears at odd moments.) Even during the hardest times in life, a musical can captivate my imagination, make me wonder at human creativity and talent, and plaster a smile on my face … for days. For Alcorn, his “happy place” is nature.
I like to travel and snorkel and do underwater photography. I remember one of my first experiences snorkeling. I saw this amazing fish and heard a startling noise. I realized after it happened that it wasn’t the fish, but the sound of my own gasping. The snorkel was magnifying the sound. I was literally gasping, but I wasn’t aware because I was so lost in the beauty and the colors.
It’s OK to be happy, friend. Even God experiences gladness and pleasure (Zephaniah 3:17). As Christians, we don’t have to forsake the good things that bring us bliss. We can walk in holiness—and even grieve for all the havoc sin causes in this world—and still unabashedly enjoy the happy moments God provides, the moments that make our souls come alive. In fact, living this way is a testimony to others that with God in your life, you can be happy in the truest sense of the word.
So, go ahead: Be happy. Start the new year rejoicing in the good things God has done and continues to do in your life. And as you allow yourself to be happy, you may even realize you have gained something deeper—joy.