July 17, 2015

Joy and Happiness

Today is a good day, a very good day. It is July 17, 2015, and I woke up feeling well. Yes, I feel refreshed, and rather perky, which is to say quite a lot about me! Normally, I wake up a bit grumpy, just with that "oh, is it really time to get up" look on my face. In truth, I usually do wake up happy, with a feeling of overall contentment about the state of my life, the way things are going, and generally, with the belief that the day will be positive or hopeful (optimistic). I guess my physical appearance is what gives the hint that I am unhappy or grumpy (so says my family). I think it is more that I am the type of person who needs a little time to wake up, so I prefer quiet solitude, a slow start, plenty of coffee, and a gentle start to my day. Some people bound out of bed, eager to start the day, and seem to be filled with exuberance right from the start. I am not that way, but just because I don't beam like the sunshine, doesn't mean I am not happy or content with my lot in life. 

The Essence of Joyful Living

Recently, I have thinking about the subject of joy, contentment and happiness. It seems that happiness gets a bad rap these days, especially in church. I am not sure why, but it seems that Pastors and some church people want to distance themselves from the "purveyors of the health, wealth and prosperity gospel" who like to champion happiness as a promised gift in Scripture. In fact, if you query most of the Christians I know they will say something about happiness not being promised in the Bible, and that it all about learning to be content, rather than happy. Sometimes it seems that Christians are not supposed to be happy. Happiness is seen as a forbidden fruit, a temporary thing. What is more, happiness it seems, is only acceptable to people who live in the world (not Christians) as it is the objective of those who seek worldly indulgences and selfish desires. Christians, conversely, are not to seek after happiness because it is fleeting emotion, a fickle partner, and a fantasy aberration not common to those who follow Christ. Sigh. 

I am guilty of thinking this way. I admit it. I struggle to define "happy," and I fail to understand the difference between joy, contentment and happiness. 

A case in point - Two weeks ago, our Pastor gave a poignant sermon on happiness (as a by product of teaching on John 15:1-10). He ended his sermon with this saying, and it stuck with me: 

"Happiness is temporary, but joy is an unstoppable force that's rooted in Christ."

I understood his point, especially in context with what he taught that week. I blogged about his sermon shortly after he gave it, and I shared how moving it was for me. The story he shared at the end of the message was especially difficult for me. The story was about a couple who had delivered their first child -- a child born with severe birth defects. The child lived only 6 months, but the experience shaped the couple to such an extent that both left their jobs and began full-time ministry work. It seemed that the Lord had used this devastating experience to help them figure out their individual callings, and He used the pain, the sorrow, and the suffering, to bring them into closer, more sweeter, and more deeper fellowship with Him. The young woman in the video said something to the effect that "happiness was temporary, but joy was eternal." It was her words that struck my heart, and I guess, as a mother, I understood her point completely. Even though her child had passed away several years prior, and she was now the parent of a beautiful two-year old, the pain she experienced was clearly evident in her heart, her mind, and in her words.

It was just after this sermon that I began to think more deeply about the various attributes of "happy" or "happiness," and I started to ponder, to question really, if I was taking the "its a hard life knock" too quickly, too seriously, and too casually -- without really thinking it all through. Was there justification for happiness in my life? Is it right for me to be happy, to share my happiness with others who may be suffering or is it better (more acceptable) for me to maintain a more seasoned, more toned-down manner, in order to keep from making others feel less than valued, important, cared for, or worthy. Let me explain...

Happiness Versus Joy

Like the good little grammarian and social scientist that I am, I started to parse words, and to delve into a word study. I started to think about questions I have asked myself over the years, questions such as...
  • Can Christians be happy?
  • Have Christians been been conditioned to accept unhappiness in life?
  • Is this a normal expectation or a fear or both?
  • What is Christian happiness and is it acceptable to be happy in this life (earthly)?
If I were honest with myself, I would not have described myself as being happy, generally speaking, for most of my life. I would use any number of other adjectives, but happiness would not be listed among them. It has only been recently that I have started to see myself as happy, genuinely happy. This is in part the result of my lifestyle change (single), my focused study and purpose (my calling), and the fact that the Lord has brought a wonderful man into my life (something I never thought would happen to me). My general feelings of unhappiness, however, had a lot to do with the way I was raised, with some of the teachings on happiness I received early on as a Christian in the church where I grew up, and the pain I suffered with in my almost 30 year marriage. 

As a child, my family didn't put down happiness, per se. Rather, they viewed "happiness" as something tenuous at best. The church I attended taught that it was wrong to seek happiness in this life because most people will not find the "Christian walk" to be a happy one. They also preached a dour sort of Christianity, with a strong focus on legalism, obedience, and faith that wasn't supported wholly upon joy (in life or in the Lord). Then due to choices I made, my life choices, proved to be a source of great unhappiness. I married hoping for happiness, but instead found a very difficult and unhappy experience. Over time, I came to believe that seeking happiness or expecting happiness in this life, in my life, was futile. 

Of course, the church I attended for most of my life did teach "biblical joy." Yes, I was taught that joy was a good thing, and that joy came through our relationship with the Lord. Happiness, if you were lucky (fortunate), might be attainable, but most Christians would never experience it so it was better to not seek it, look for it, or strive after it. This meant to me that in marriage, in families, and in life -- there might be temporary happiness (I am happy today, but sad tomorrow) -- but that there wouldn't be a prolonged, sustained, and determined state of happiness -- at the least -- not on this side of heaven. 

Happiness and Contentment Defined

Merriam-Webster defines the adjective "happy" as "feeling pleasure and enjoyment because of your life, situation, etc." The "noun" in this case would be a pronoun such as I, me, he, she, herself, you, it, that, they, each, few, many, who, whoever, whose, someone, everybody, etc. Therefore, if I said, "Carol feels happy" then Carol is the noun, feels is the verb, and happy is the adjective (and the subject compliment). If I said "She feels happy" then "she" is the pronoun that takes the place of Carol. Grammar lesson done for the day...yea!

Happy, therefore, is one of these little words that we use all the time, but with which we have little knowledge of its meaning, its function, and its proper form. I think this is part of the problem with our use and application of the word "happy." If we do not understand the word and how to use it correctly, then we lump it into various categories of "fit" without really knowing if what we are doing is right, proper or correct. 

Happy has a number of definitions, but most often is defined this way,
  • feeling pleasure and enjoyment because of your life, situation, etc.
  • showing or causing feelings of pleasure and enjoyment
  • pleased or glad about a particular situation, event, etc.
When we think about what it means to be happy, we often will express ourselves as showing our well-being and contentment. We may also say that we are glad or pleased about something or that the experience we are having is marked by an atmosphere of good fellowship or of friendship.

In many instances, we use the words joy, content or contentment to be synonymous with happy or happiness. Therefore, when we say that contentment is different from happiness, well, technically we are in error. To be content means "pleased and satisfied" and is used to suggest the feeling of "not needing more." Furthermore, what seems to trap us up at the start is that these words, "happy," "satisfied," "pleased," and "content" are words that come from different root languages. Some are French, some are Middle English, and some are Latin. English derives many of its words from older romance languages such as French and Latin and from Germanic and Norse languages, so we tend to mix and match words to suit our needs. I think this is why we are confused at times by word use (I digress). Thus, as I consider the nature of happiness, I realize that from a purely etymological standpoint, to say you are happy in life is to say you are content in life. Likewise, to say you have contentment in your life also means you have happiness in your life. 

So what then is joy? How does joy function in expressing our contentment or happiness?

Joy is a superlative, a form of an adjective or adverb that expresses the highest quality, the best, the most, etc. Think of it as a super dose of something -- happiness, contentment, pleasure -- and you will get the superlative form.

Thus, Merriam-Webster defines "joy" as,
  • a feeling of great happiness
  • a source or cause of great happiness
  • success in doing, finding, or getting something
Consequently, when we say that we have joy in our heart or lives, we are really saying that we have an abundance or over-abundance (superlative) of happiness. The mistake in word use occurs when we suggest that we can have joy without being happy. I hear this all the time, especially by Christians who have suffered a tragic loss like the one I shared in the opening section of this post. Often I hear these dear people say that they do not have happiness because of the loss they experienced, but that they still have joy. I get what they are saying, and my desire is not to downplay or mark anyone's suffering as insignificant. But, it seems to me that it is impossible to have joy and still express unhappiness.

As I considered this little word puzzle today, I have learned a few things.

  1. Happiness is a state of being characterized by a sense of pleasure, satisfaction, and well-being. It is a good thing! 
  2. Joy is a state of being that is better, thus we term it in its superlative form. Joy is a higher state of happiness, it is more significant, more blessed, and more satisfying. 
  3. For the Christian, happiness should be the "normal every day experience of life" with joy being the overarching superlative that covers the believer from spiritual birth to spiritual and physical death. 
  4. Joy is eternal, for sure, but it is also earthly since the foundation of joy, supernatural and enduring joy, is the Lord.
My little "take away" is this -- when we say we have joy or contentment in our life, then we must understand that we are also saying we are "happy." Happiness is a synonym, therefore, while the two words are different, they carry the same meaning. What this means to me is that often I consider my emotional well-being like a light switch, with up/down suggesting I am either "on or off" depending on the circumstance or event in my life. This is rarely a true or accurate picture of my life. I can be sad and happy at the same time. I can be sad over a specific event while still having a greater sense of happiness over the totality of my life. It seems at odds really but often this is what we experience in life -- a multitude of emotions based on multiple events as we experience them. This is normal, it is a normal range of expression, and it is healthy to be this way. We must, therefore, open our eyes to understand our own emotional ups and downs, and not "toss the baby out with the bath water" so to speak. We can be feeling many different emotions simultaneously, so when we say we are happy or sad, we must also state the particulars surrounding the feeling. For example,
  • I am happy in my life, but I am sad that I don't have a permanent teaching position yet. 
  • I am content with where the Lord has me today, but I am sad about the conditions I see in my home and with my parents failing health.
Emotional healing, wholeness and well-being is promised in Scripture. 1 Peter 5:10 says "And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you," and in 1 Peter 2:24, we read, "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed."

Jesus is our Healer. He came that we might have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10). Furthermore, from Isaiah 61:1-3 NIV we read,
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion-- to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.
For those of us in Christ Jesus, we can experience emotional, spiritual, physical, and mental healing. We can, and should expect, to live a life that is filled with happiness. While our circumstances might be difficult, and we might suffer great hardships, our spiritual state, our emotional well-being, should reflect the fact that the Lord is Lord over every detail and area of our life. Therefore, our expression, our temperament, and our countenance should all be a reflection of what the Lord has done for us. We should be people who live joyous, hopeful, and happy lives -- regardless of the events and circumstances, the trials, the hardships, and the losses we may suffer. Christ came to give to us a crown of beauty and a garment of praise. Let us not forget that we have been set free, and we no longer live in darkness or are brokenhearted. The Lord has bound our wounds, and He has set us free. Let us live as free men and women and not as prisoners of despair.

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