When people are asked what they want in life, to be happy is a popular answer. Some would even say, “I deserve to be happy.” Happiness seems to be much sought after. Do we deserve, have a right to be happy? Is that a realistic expectation?
On July 4, 1776, Congress approved the final draft of the document referred to as “The Declaration of Independence.” It was signed on August 2, 1776. An often-quoted portion reads,
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
Does this state that we have the right to be happy? Many think so, but it actually states we have the right to pursue happiness. Nowhere is happiness guaranteed.
The pursuit of happiness is listed as one of God’s (the Creator’s) undeniable rights for man. So, we must ask, “Does God want us to be happy?” God created Adam and Eve with everything they would need to be happy, but that was not enough for them. They didn’t have all they wanted, so in pursuing that, they breached their relationship with God. Happiness was not enough; they wanted even more. They discovered that happiness was not some thing, but a relationship with some One, God. Unfortunately, they discovered that too late.
Peter wrote that God has provided all we need for life and godly living, “May God give you more and more grace and peace as you grow in your knowledge of God and Jesus our Lord” (2 Peter 1:2). Happiness is not on that list, but grace and peace are.
Even being faithful to God doesn’t always guarantee happiness. Just ask Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego when they were in the furnace or Daniel when he was in the lion hotel. The disciples were not always happy, even in the presence of Jesus. They complained quite a bit. Those twelve guys frequently seemed to be unhappy. One undeniable aspect of happiness is that it is situationally dependent. If the situation you are in is not a happy one, you will most likely not be happy.
Don’t miss this important point; happiness is situationally dependent. From time to time, we will find ourselves in circumstances that don’t make us happy. Our happiness is highly dependent on our situation, and situations change.
Does that mean we are doomed to be unhappy most of our lives? Not necessarily but, happiness is a counterfeit, poor substitute for something much better, and that’s joy. Being in the presence of God may not mean you are in happy circumstances, but it is a source of joy which is much different. The Psalmist writes,
You will show me the way of life, granting me the joy of your presence and the pleasures of living with you forever. Psalm 16:11
One of the significant differences between happiness and joy is that happiness tends to be dependent on our situation. If the situation is a happy one, we are happy, if it is not, then we are likely not to be happy.
For example, we can feel happy when we receive something like a gift or achieve some award or honor. These are situations we experience; external things or circumstances make us feel happy. Happiness tends to be circumstantial and fleeting.
Joy, on the other hand, is something much deeper.
It is something we can experience even when the situation is not a happy one. Joy comes from within but does not need to depend on us. Joy comes from God, not our circumstances. Joy comes through God living in and through us. Nehemiah, in leading God’s people in extremely challenging times wrote,
Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were interpreting for the people said to them, “Don’t mourn or weep on such a day as this! For today is a sacred day before the Lord your God.” For the people had all been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. And Nehemiah continued, “Go and celebrate with a feast of rich foods and sweet drinks, and share gifts of food with people who have nothing prepared. This is a sacred day before our Lord. Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:9-10, NLT, emphasis added)
Did you get that? Joy comes from God, not our circumstances. Joy gives us the strength to go on even in difficult situations where we may be unhappy. God produces the joy in our life.
Jesus said this to His followers, which includes us. “I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow!” (John 15:11 NLT). God promises to fill us with joy, not happiness. Joy is independent of circumstance, but God is above our circumstance.
The apostle Paul is perhaps the best example of the fact that one can have joy even in difficult situations. In 2 Corinthians 11:16-27 he lists some of the challenges he faced in living for God. Those included: Put in prison, whipped numerous times, faced death multiple times, he was stoned, faced danger from robbers and the religious front, and was shipwrecked on three different occasions (once being adrift for 24 hours). He said, “I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm,” (2 Corinthians 11:27, NLT). In short, Paul said his life had been anything except one filled with happy situations.
Many of Paul’s most encouraging letters were written from prison. It is thought that Paul wrote some letters from the Mamertine Prison in Rome. Some authors have called this the house of darkness. Few prisons were as dim, dank, and dirty as the lower chamber Paul occupied. Certainly not a place of happiness, but a place where Paul was filled with joy from the Lord. A major theme of the letter to the Philippians is joy. Paul wrote about joy from prison, not because he was happy but because God had filled him with joy from within.
James, the half-brother of Jesus, wrote, “Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing,” (James 1:2-4, NLT, emphasis added). Wait, when troubles come your way, it is an opportunity for joy? You’ve got to be kidding! Remember Nehemiah’s words, joy comes from the Lord and not our circumstances. It is God’s joy that strengthens us in the midst of unhappy circumstances.
Don’t just settle for happiness, seek joy.
Not the kind of joy that is just some vague sense of serenity, but the joy of the Lord. Here are three things you can do to develop the joy of the Lord in your life.
Joy comes from knowing God.
This is not the same as being familiar with who God is or a deep knowledge about Him. Knowing God means you have a deep, personal relationship with Him. God gives you the opportunity to know Him intimately as He reaches out to you. To “know Him” is to agree with God that our sin separates us from Him, ask His forgiveness for our sin, allow Christ’s sacrifice on the cross to pay the price for our sin, and to surrender our lives to Him. It’s about replacing our will with His will.
Joy comes from abiding in Christ.
Jesus illustrates this in the parable of the vine and branches. He says, “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing,” (John 15:5 NLT, emphasis added). The branches of the vine get their life, vitality, sustenance, and productivity from being connected to the vine (Jesus). When the branches are cut away, they wither and die. Their life and productivity depend on the vine. When connected to the vine, the branches flourish. We must continually cling to Jesus as our vine and depend on Him. He is our source of joy.
Joy comes by being filled with the Holy Spirit.
“But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!” (Galatians 5:22-23 NLT, emphasis added). Joy in our lives is not something we well up and produce but is the product of the Holy Spirit living in us. The more we allow the Holy Spirit to fill us, the more we will experience joy regardless of our circumstances.
The joy of the Lord is a gladness of heart that is a result of the above and is not dependent on our circumstances. Circumstances change, but God never does. Don’t accept the counterfeit of happiness when you can have the real and abiding joy of God.