Must Christians Choose Between Being Happy or Having Joy?

Until 2017, when I read Randy Alcorn's excellent, 450 page book titled, Happiness, (a book that I highly recommend and one that exhaustively covers the subject), I had believed, preached and taught for 47 years that Christians are to experience joy but not happiness. I asserted that happiness was a bubbly, superficial, and circumstantial feeling that comes and goes. In contrast biblical joy was a deep-seated and enduring affection that endures. My position had been reached primarily on the basis of the books that I had read and the sermons that I had heard all my Christian life. In my understanding, joy and happiness were fundamentally different. But Alcorn's exhaustive tome refuted that discrepancy and helped me to see the light.

Unfortunately, this distorted understanding and division between happiness and joy has been a long standing issue in the church. For example, in 1418 the Roman Catholic Church Council of Constance decreed, “If any cleric or monk speaks jocular words, such as provoke laughter, let him be anathema.”

In contrast to the churches attitude toward happiness in the past, the typical church in modern America has for the most part imbibed the world’s understanding of the term and takes it to mean as long as a person is gratified, satisfied, and magnified, they are happy. So, most people say that their dominant desire in life is to be “happy.” This misunderstanding of true happiness makes me the goal of life and it encourages me to manipulate all circumstances to achieve my gratification. Also, it sees no purpose in life or its circumstances if my highest gratification is not achieved. Its motto is, “If happenings happen to happen happily, I will be happy; but if happenings happen to happen unhappily, I will be unhappy.”

Randy Alcorn’s research reveals that one of the first people in modern history to really speak out against happiness and contrasted it with joy was Oswald Chambers, a man I greatly admire and have been enriched by most of his writings. But some of the dramatic anti-happiness things he said were astounding.

For example, Chambers wrote: “Joy should not be confused with happiness. In fact, it is an insult to Jesus Christ to use the word happiness in connection with Him. We must continually remind ourselves of the purpose of life.”

Again he wrote: “Happiness is no standard for men and women because happiness depends on my being determinedly ignorant of God and His demands. We are not destined to happiness, nor to health, but to holiness.”

Then Chambers makes and astounding statement: “Joy is not happiness; there is no mention in the Bible of happiness for the Christian, but there is plenty said about joy.” This is an amazing statement coming from a man so well-versed in Scripture and is untrue.

Randy Alcorn challenges Chamber's assertions as he observes, “While Chambers claim may be technically true, happy is found in the King James Version that he used twenty-nine times. Just as holy speaks of holiness and joyful speaks of joy and glad speaks of glad, obviously happy speaks of happiness.”

Randy continues: “Forcing a choice between holiness and happiness is utterly foreign to the biblical worldview.

“The idea that 'joy is not an emotion' promotes an unbiblical myth. Yet that statement appears online more than 17,000 times, virtually all of them by Christians. Most unbelievers rightly realize that happiness, gladness, and joy are synonyms, and they involve real emotions, which are not bad, but good.”

However, there’s a long rich, history of equating joy with happiness in Christ. For example, Jonathan Edwards cited John 15:11 (“that [Jesus’] joy might remain in you,” KJV) to prove this point: “The happiness Christ gives to his people, is a participation of his own happiness.”

Charles Spurgeon said, “May you so come, and then may your Christian life be fraught with happiness, and overflowing with joy.” Spurgeon’s views of happiness and joy, evident in hundreds of his sermons, are completely contrary to the artificial wall the contemporary church has erected between the two.

The brilliant mathematician and Christian, Blaise Pascal wrote, “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. They will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”

Everybody wants to be happy. Perhaps we can’t put in words what we mean by happiness, but we know the desire for it stands behind much of what we do, and we know it’s not just one more thing we want, along with meaningful relationships and significant work and material possessions, but it’s the Thing itself, the reason for our pursuit of everything else.

Ask the typical Christian what God wants of them and they will probably answer, “To be good, go to church, try hard to live morally, serve Him faithfully, give up harmful habits, help others, read the Bible, pray and witness, etc.” But to have this attitude is to miss the very essence of the Christian life. God’s design is that we glorify Him and enjoy Him forever beginning right now. He wants His children to be exceedingly happy. In fact, the Christian faith was designed to be the most exhilarating, the most exciting, and the most enjoyable existence possible!

In spite of the extreme views of the concept of happiness, when we come to the scriptures, we find to our surprise that God commands us to be happy, joyous, blessed!

Psalm 34:7,Delight yourself(seek, pursue your pleasure, your happiness, your satisfaction) in the Lord….”

Psalm 128:1, Happyis everyone who fears the LORD, who walks in his ways.”

Psalm 128:2,“You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you.”

Psalm 144:15,“Happyare the people who are in such a state; Happyare the people whose God is the LORD!”

Psalm 146:5, “Happyis he who has the God of Jacob for his help, Whose hope is in the LORD his God,”

Proverbs 16:20, “He who heeds the word wisely will find good, And whoever trusts in the LORD, happyis he.”

John 13:17— “If you know these things,happy(The Greek word translated as “happy” is “makarios. It is defined in all the Greek lexicon as, “supremely blest”; “fortunate”, “well off”: “blessed”, “happy”) are you if you do them.” (KJV)

Probably the most serious question we can ask, or be asked is, “How Happy are You?” This question takes us to the bottom of our hearts. It searches out our values, our lifestyles, and the quality of our faith, the nature of our relationships, and the inner feelings we have about ourselves.

Although everyone wants to be happy and is constantly pursuing happiness, the majority of the world never finds it because they look in all the wrong places!

How do I find true happiness?

There are an almost incalculable number of theories on how to find true happiness. One that I recall so vividly is from a song that I frequently heard during my teenage years. It said, “If you want to be happy for the rest of your life, never make a pretty woman your wife! So from my personal point of view, get and ugly girl to marry you!” Bad advice!

True Happiness is Found in Coming to Know that A Happy God Designed us for His Glory and Has made it Possible for Us to Know Him in an Everlasting Love Relationship Through His Son, Jesus!  

John Piper writes, “God is offering us a happiness, a joy, that infinitely transcends all other happiness’s and joys combined in the power and potential to satisfy, thrill, fill, and fulfill. And it is all to be found in only one place: in God’s presence and in His Person. If you delight yourself in the Lord, you will discover that there is power in the blood of Christ to wash out sin’s darkest stains; power in the grace of God to purify the foulest heart; peace to calm life’s roughest storms; hope to cheer guilt’s darkest hour; courage available that will enable you to defy death and descend calmly into the tomb; treasure which makes the poorest rich and without which the richest are poor indeed. Life in the kingdom has treasures greater far than east or west unfolds, and its rewards more precious are than all their stores of gold."

“The people of God ought to be the happiest people in all the wide world!” (A.W. Tozer)

Finally, we should heed the advice of Randy Alcorn as he says: “If someone declares a desire to be happy, we should never say, “You just need to obey God and forget about being happy.” Rather, we should say, “God wired you that way.” Then we can ask, “Have the things you’ve thought would make you happy always worked out for you?” The answer is probably no.

“That’s the time to suggest, “Maybe you haven’t looked in the right place.” We can then present the Bible’s bad news, which explains the sin problem that makes them unhappy. Then we can share the good news of the gift of God that can reconcile them to their holy Creator and thereby make them eternally happy.”

But if you continue to search for happiness without coming to saving faith in the Holy, Happy, Loving, Holy, Merciful, Mighty God of the Bible, you will end up like the poet who said:

“I tried the broken cisterns, Lord, but, ah, the waters failed.
Even as I stooped to drink they fled and mocked me as I wailed!

True Happiness is no laughing matter!