A friend of mine recently asked me, “How would you define the difference between joy and happiness?” I immediately thought I knew the answer. But as I opened my mouth to speak, I realised how complex the answer really was. We ended up having quite a lengthy conversation on the matter.
Here’s where we ended up: happiness is mood or circumstance-based, whereas joy is something more permanent. Joy is based on certain truths and it is relational. Joy does not happen in a vacuum.
This is what I mean: I may be happy when a friend texts me but I rejoice in the friendship. I’m excited at the prospect of a romantic dinner out but I find my joy in the marriage. Playing with my nephews makes me laugh, but it is in the personhood of my nephews that I find my real joy.
Joy goes beyond the here-and-now into the future, into my hopes and dreams, into promises made by God, into my relationships with others and with God. Because joy is bigger than me – bigger than this moment. It has the capacity to endure horrible circumstances. Joy feels broader, deeper, richer somehow, more so than mere happiness.
Jesus felt joy. Hebrews 12:2-3 says, “For the joy set before [Jesus] he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
Jesus experienced joy as he headed for the cross, even knowing the shame that awaited him there. Wait, what? He felt joy about that? Does that mean he even felt joy in the garden of Gethsemane, that place of anguish?
Apparently so. Jesus was looking at something beyond the cross – the throne of God. He knew about the eternal reality of his actions and he held onto the joy of that. I think that’s totally amazing.
It tells me something too. It speaks to me about the state of my joy when I’m enduring my “Gethsemane”, that is, that I can feel joy even on my worst day. It helps me to “not grow weary and lose heart”. Because joy is not based on having a good day. It’s not based on having the things I think I need, nor my health, nor the number of days I have left on this planet.
It’s based on my eternal relationship with God. It’s based on things that endure, like God’s love, his peace, his steadfast, unbroken companionship. Hardship and suffering do not shift any of those eternal things. Therefore joy may survive even in those dark places.
Tomorrow is Good Friday. It is based on the horrible day of Jesus’ gruesome death. Yet there is joy to be found there too. There is joy in knowing Jesus, in understanding that his sacrifice was for sinners like you and me, in knowing that Jesus’ ghastly death has brought about eternal reconciliation with God. It was indeed a good day.
Are you suffering? Enduring? Waiting on an answer from God? May you know God’s eternal joy this day, despite your earthly circumstances. May you accept the lasting joy that comes from being welcomed into perfect communion with him.