What is the difference between joy and happiness?

Many distinguish between joy and happiness by saying that joy is an inner attitude whereas happiness is a fleeting emotion based on circumstance. It is common to think of happiness as being dependent upon an experience or other external stimulus. When circumstances are positive, happiness results. When circumstances change, happiness disappears. On the other hand, joy is based on internal well-being or the anticipation of well-being. Joy can be sustained in both positive and negative circumstances. The English definition of the word "joy" often includes a reference to the emotion of happiness. So despite the fact that we make distinctions, it seems joy and happiness are intricately related. What does the Bible say?

There are several different Hebrew and Greek root words translated as "happy," "joy," "rejoice," and "glad." In fact, the Hebrew esher can be translated as "happiness" or "blessedness." This word is used in passages like Deuteronomy 33:29 where Moses tells the Israelites, "Happy are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the Lord, the shield of your help, and the sword of your triumph! Your enemies shall come fawning to you, and you shall tread upon their backs." It is also used in Psalm 1:1: "Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers."

Similary, the Greek makarios can be translated as "blessed" or "happy." This is the Greek word used in the beatitudes. It is used in Luke 1:45 when Elizabeth tells Mary, "And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord." Among other places, it is also used in Luke 12 in Jesus' parable about being ready: "And the Lord said, 'Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions'" (Luke 12:42–44).

The Greek word chara is often translated as "joy" in the New Testament. It is instructive to see the different situations in which it is used. This is the joy that is produced in believers by the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23). Paul uses the word throughout the book of Philippians, a letter he wrote to them while imprisoned. He said he prayed for the Philippians with joy (Philippians 1:4) and he asked them to make his joy complete by exhibiting unity (Philippians 2:2). They were to receive Epaphroditus with joy (Philippians 2:29), and Paul referred to the Philippians as his "joy and crown" (Philippians 4:1). These all seem to be happy expressions.

In Hebrews 12:11 we read, "For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it." The word translated "pleasant" there is the Greek chara. In this verse we see that even though discipline is not an enjoyable experience, it is actually for our good. The writer of Hebrews encourages the readers that God "disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness" (Hebrews 12:10). Though the situation may not seem happy, it is not one to brood about or be discouraged by. Similarly, James 1:2–4 says, "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." Trials are certainly not a circumstance we would consider to be happy in the common sense of that word, and yet we can have joy in the midst.

It seems impossible to fully separate happiness from joy. How can one be both joyful and glum? True joy seems to result in a measure of happiness. That being said, the caricature of putting on a "happy face" or the idea that we are to "grin and bear it" is not biblical. Throughout the Bible we see genuine expressions of sadness and honest explanations of deep and painful hardships. Pretending hard things don't exist leads neither to outer happiness nor inner joy. Even though believers have the joy of the Lord, we can still feel and express sadness. The difference is that we do so with hope, knowing that the hard things of this earth are not eternal and that God is with us in the midst.

To the extent that happiness is associated with a circumstantially driven, fleeting and shallow emotion, it is different from what is meant when people refer to joy. But attempting to make a clear and hard distinction between happiness and joy is a bit pointless. Joyful people express happiness. True and lasting joy, or happiness or blessedness, results from our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Psalm 32 talks about the man whose sin is forgiven as being blessed (or happy). Psalm 84:12 says, "O Lord of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in you!" Psalm 119:1–2 talks of people being blessed (or happy) when walking in God's way and seeking Him with a whole heart. Referring to believers, John wrote, "I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth" (3 John 1:4). First Peter 1:8 says, "Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory." Our joy is dependent upon the truth of Jesus Christ and His presence in our lives. And that truth is certainly something to be happy about.


Related Truth:

What is the key to experiencing joy in the Christian life?

How can we turn worries and problems over to God?

What does it mean that God 'restores my soul'? How can God restore my soul?

What does the Bible say about things with true eternal value?

How can I seek first the kingdom of God?


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