I like to feel good. It’s a basic urge within me to chase happiness wherever I think it can be found. My country’s Declaration of Independence affirms the pursuit of it to be an inalienable right. When I imagine myself in a happy state, I see a hammock swaying between two Ponderosa pine trees overlooking a secluded mountain lake as the sun gently warms my face. There’s a good book lying open on my chest and a bowl of ice cream in one hand. Of course to complete the scene, I just inherited a million dollars, and everyone likes me. Oh, and people in the world have stopped fighting each other.
This may not be your picture of happiness, but it’s the first one that comes to my mind. The problem, however, is that there are too many circumstantial pieces outside my control. I may find the actual setting in some mountainous region, but it could also be raining that day. I might then discover the hammock has a rip in it; the book is boring; the ice cream is freezer-burnt; an email concerning an overdrawn checking account is in my inbox, and someone has left an angry rant on one of my blog posts. And what chance is there of everybody in the world showing kindness to each other? Ugh.
Happiness can be so elusive.
Is There Another Way?
In the Bible, happiness is often associated with blessings. I feel so blessed when circumstances line up with my ideals and personal comfort. I like God’s blessings of provision and favor. It’s not too hard then to have a good attitude, say a few more kind words to those around me and feel like a good Christian. But what do I do when I don’t see or feel the blessings? Sometimes life just looks and feels bad, and all the factors for happiness seem outside my control.
The Bible also speaks of something called joy. For most my life, I collapsed these two words together, happiness and joy, into one meaning: being in control and feeling good. Yet, I am now perceiving some important distinctions.
I recently spent several weeks on a tropical island with a ministry outreach team. While for many the words “tropical island” conjure scenes of ideal vacations and images of “the good life”, I struggled with feeling miserable. The heat and humidity were like nothing I experience in Minnesota. There was no air conditioning, and frequent power outages made fans unpredictable. Add in mosquitos, sleeping on wooden floors, long walks to pungent outhouses in the dark, and you can get a sense of how my happiness buttons were not being pushed. I needed something outside my circumstances.
Then one afternoon a young man shared stories of growing up without a father. In the blazing sun, my clothing drenched in sweat, I listened. At first it was a struggle to concentrate on his words, but then a tear rolled down one cheek. I saw the deep part of his soul he was baring and how much God wanted to communicate His love to this man.
A whisper that I knew was the Holy Spirit sounded in my ear, “This is where you’ll find your strength.” As I continued to listen and interact with my new friend, something happened. A refreshment welled up and spread throughout my body. My skin remained hot and sweaty, and body odor permeated the air, but it now seemed far away. I longed for him to know the Heavenly Father’s acceptance, love and destiny for his life. Joy bubbled up and changed everything for me, giving new energy to love this man.
It’s Not Something I Can Possess
I confess that I don’t fully understand joy. We’re told in Galatians 5:22 that it’s one of the fruits of the Spirit. It’s a by-product of the Holy Spirit’s residence in a life. I don’t produce it, the Spirit does. I just have to learn how to not resist it. Scripture is permeated with calls for us to rejoice in the Lord (Psalm 97:12, Isaiah 61:10, Philippians 3:1 to mention a few). It’s meant to be the engine that carries us into God’s presence. It lifts us from the mundane into the awareness that there is so much more going on within and around that our physical senses cannot always perceive. It’s an other-worldly type of energy. Or perhaps it’s more like a flowing river. Either way, words fail to explain it.
In his book Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis wrote: “All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be.’” In other words, Lewis saw joy as a signpost pointing to something beyond itself; it is not the longed-for substance itself. While happiness is found in pleasurable circumstances that I try to dwell in as long as possible, joy feels as if it’s stumbled upon along the journey, never found in a particular location or with specific material support. It’s like a mysterious passageway between my spirit and heaven, allowing wind and fragrance from on high to pass into my soul. I don’t find it; it finds me.
If joy is more a means to a higher goal rather than the goal itself, there must be someway we can learn to access this channel. We’re told to rejoice in the Lord always (Philippians 4:4). I therefore believe that the goal is intimacy with God Himself, and we can choose to place ourselves in positions where the fragrant winds of joy can blow (or its waters flow) over us regardless the circumstances we find ourselves in.
Thus I see joy as a relational quality. Whereas happiness is typically experienced with the favorable alliance of circumstances, joy touches us through personal connections. As we make room for the Spirit of God to take up residence within, a passage opens for joy (or perhaps joy is the passage itself). Our part is then to choose relationship with God whether we’re feeling happy or not. We rejoice in the Lord by focusing our attention on Him and what He desires through prayer, through worship and praise, through the digesting of His word, through quiet meditation.
But there’s more. The relational nature of joy, I believe, means that we can experience it through human interaction as well. Just like our relationship with God, we must open our hearts to a deeper level of vulnerability with another, looking and listening beyond the surface where we typically find happiness. This is how we access life in the way God intended.
Of course, when we open ourselves up in this way with others, we also expose ourselves to the possibility of pain, grief and suffering. Relationships make us vulnerable to all these. And no one knows this better than Jesus. Yet even suffering and grief, in God’s economy, can pave the way for joy. We’re told in Hebrews 12:2 that Jesus endured the cross to access the joy that He knew was on the other side—the joy of having a relationship with each one of us. Joy comes through enduring the rough spots of relational connections. And that’s our hope too as followers of Jesus. “Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalms 30:5b NLT). In Jesus, joy can always be expected.
It’s an investment
So which goal is more worthy of our energy and time? The pursuit of happiness? Or the choice for joy? From my perspective, they need not be mutually exclusive. Many times as we invest in our relationship with God, with family, with friends and even with strangers, happy circumstances join with joy, providing a foretaste of heaven. But I find that when my pursuit is solely about aligning circumstances and material treasures so I can feel good joy is elusive, as well as the happiness I’m seeking. On their own, hammocks, ice cream and more money offer only extra pounds and stress.
Choose joy. “. . .[F]or the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10b ESV). Start with asking God for it. He wants you to experience it as you rely on Him for everything you need. Make relational connection with God your priority. And then follow that with giving time to serve others through listening, giving and embracing—especially when circumstances aren’t going so well and you’re a sweaty mess. Joy is promised, as you make Him your goal.