Friday, December 25, 2020

Is There Any Joy?

It is often said that joy is different from happiness. Happiness is a thing based on “hap” (which means chance), or one based on circumstances going well — on “good happenings”. By contrast, joy is an abiding sense of fulfillment and well-being, a disposition not based on circumstances, but one that is durable in the face of change. Something like that must be what RZIM spokesperson Max Jeganathan has in mind in this video, for example.

That distinction's good to note  — and true, so far as it goes. But we might press the issue further: What accounts for the quality of joy that enables it to endure when mere happiness is taken away from us?


One obvious feature is that happiness is comparatively easy, and is often brought about by fairly trivial things. A smile, a small gift, or even a friendly word can be sufficient to induce a momentary flash of happiness; and bigger things, such as achieving a goal or winning the affection of a desirable partner can produce more lasting feelings of happiness. But big or small, the happiness these things brings is always somewhat less than what we might call “joy” — that is, if distinctions like the one above are right. Happiness just does not prove permanent. A kind comment can be forgotten, the sense of triumph at an achievement can fade. Sadly, even the elation of being loved by another person can abate with time.

The two experiences are certainly related. Happiness produces feelings of elation and wellbeing; so does joy. And the one can certainly be mistaken for the other, at times. So is it the case that “joy” is just a prolonged feeling of happiness? Or is there really anything to the distinction people like Jeganathan point out to us?


If you have experienced the sensation of both in your life (and I’m not sure that everybody has really known joy, though we would perhaps be surprised if anyone told us they had never had a moment of happiness at all), then I think you can probably detect a difference, even if only intuitively. There’s got to be something to it, doesn’t there?

If happiness can fade but joy is more durable, we have to ask what makes joy more durable. What component of being joyful gives it this greater imperviousness to changes in fortune?

Let me make a suggestion. Joy is a product of the perception of having one’s life oriented in a meaningful direction. Profound joy is a product of having one’s life ordered toward what one believes to be the very best direction. And it is this longer-term quality that makes joy more durable.

Various episodes of trial, misfortune and setback may well be incorporated within a larger story of success. The athlete who is running the marathon is not perturbed by the obstacles he is facing or the lactic acid building up painfully in his muscles; greater than either is his elation at overcoming and reaching his goal. The expectant mother strains in agony as her baby is born, yet she has chosen and embraced this suffering because of a goal of joy beyond the misery of the moment. The scientist who has been defeated in a hundred trials of her theory shouts “Eureka: I have found it!” at the moment when her hypothesis is finally confirmed by the experimental data. And the engineer who built the great bridge over the greatest waterway is filled with delight at his achievement, precisely because it was so hard, so seemingly impossible to achieve.

Joy in Pain

And that’s an important point. Joy is not frustrated by sorrows; indeed, it is empowered by them. The very realization that one is overcoming in the pursuit of one’s noble goals is made possible by the setbacks, the failures, the obstacles and the frustrations. So long as the sense of progress continues, the problems are actually just opportunities for triumph. It is only when the goal no longer seems worthy or possible that joy lapses back into misery or defeat. Joy is durable because it has this long-term quality of transcendent value.

“Joy to the world,” goes the song, “the Lord is come; let earth receive her king.” The latter is the reason for the former. If the world has its rightful king, and the reign of righteousness is upon us, how can we not explode with joy? Heaven has come down, justice, truth and yes, happiness are all guaranteed to follow. The problems of sin, suffering and sorrow — even the problem of death — are marvelously transformed from ineluctable causes of unhappiness to mere hurdles on the joyful path to glory. Henceforth no obstacle can be serious anymore. It is only a matter of time. So long as the king has come and redemption has been made available, sin can no longer have ultimate say over what happens in this world. “The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, of peace on earth, goodwill to men.” (That’s from the carol I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, in case you didn’t know.)

Joy, then. The Lord is come. Just receive.

The Joy of the Lord

Jesus Christ our Lord also knew this. For what does the writer of Hebrews say about him?
“Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking only at Jesus, the originator and perfecter of the faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
He had a goal before him. His joy was that he would buy back many sons to God, snatching them away from the power of death and delivering them as a kingdom of worshipers to God the Father. And for the prospect of doing that, Jesus not only endured the misery of the cross, but wrote off the shame of being treated as sin for us and of being forsaken by his Father, he even passed through the grave so as to bring you to God. And he had joy.

So I don’t know what you’re struggling with this Christmas season. I have no idea how bad it can get for you. But in this world, I have no doubt that there is terrible suffering and fear going on, even at this time of year. What loss has there been? What terrible circumstances have loomed? What awful outcomes have been realized? I would not dare trivialize them by trying to guess. But I’m certain it can be very, very bad. And if that’s where you’re at, I’m so sorry.

But here’s what I want to say: “Joy to the world.”

There are grounds for joy. The Son of God has come … for you. A new long-term orientation point, a new basis for durable joy has been offered you. It’s to open your eyes for the first time, perhaps, and to realize that Jesus Christ has claimed you as his joy. Your circumstances are not, and cannot be, the end of you. If you know him as your Savior, you are clasped with a divine embrace that cannot be broken; and before you is set this destiny — that one day, you shall look into the face of the very Son of God, and see his joy in you. “Well done, my good and faithful servant,” he shall say; “enter into the joy of your Lord.”

And so we shall ever be with the Lord. Therefore, comfort one another with these words.

The Point

In the midst of winter darkness, of political insanity, of dread diseases impending and the world in desperate turmoil, even in the midst of the most painful and sorrowful personal circumstances, we can still rejoice in the depths of our hearts. For come what may, our lives are still oriented to that eternal moment of consummate joy.

Think on that.

Merry Christmas


  1. Merry Christmas and come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!