Striving for Joy Over Happiness

If you have been alive for longer than five minutes, you will know what I mean when I say, “Don’t Worry! Be Happy!”

Growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, that seemed to be a good motto to live by. It’s not that hard to do if you only focus on what makes you feel happy. At least that idea lasts until you get to high school, as it is then that real world stresses start to creep in, and finding what makes you happy becomes more complicated.

Happiness is a feeling. It can last for seconds, hours or even days, but rarely longer than that. It is not sustainable resource, even though it is renewable. Emotions are like that because they are driven by a physical stimulus, then break down. Like a warm summer’s day, the warmth we get from being happy eventually fades. Since feeling happy is not meant for the long haul, we have to chase hard after it, only to find it takes more and more to make it last.

Some Christians take this to heart and go the opposite route. They are never happy about anything; living a mirthless, merciless existence, turning into what St. Teresa of Avila called “sour-faced saints.” There is nothing wrong with enjoying the beautiful things of this world, but it is a delicate balance to manage. Too much or too little of the good life makes you dull to what really lasts – joy.

In seeking God only to make us happy, we miss the point of a relationship with Him. In seeking only happiness, we trade the lasting pleasure of His presence for a few moments of a high. Happiness is a human construct, whereas joy is divine. Joy is made to last. Joy is found when we are fulfilled, not merely filled up. Joy brings far more than momentary pleasure – joy comes with peace, rest, security and purpose. But joy also comes at a greater price. If happiness is cheap, joy can seem like a luxury item because we have to practice it. Joy is a discipline – a choice in the middle of a bad situation, rather than a feeling to be sought. Joy can make you feel happy, but more often than not, it manifests itself as hope.

This hit home yesterday in a conversation with a friend. She confessed she was struggling in her marriage and the more we talked, it became clear that the battle being waging wasn’t with her husband; the battle was whether she would find happiness or joy. The issue came down to seeking happiness only from her husband. She wanted him to do the things she felt would fill her heart.

I learned this lesson the hard way a few years back. I told her how I struggled because I thought my husband should meet my every need, like the culture tells me. He should complete me and be my soul mate. But one day, the Lord showed me that was a foolish idea and was not going to happen. The only person built to complete me was Christ. I only found joy when I let the Lord in and went along with His plans for my life, instead of trying to force my own.

That is the challenge for each of us. We must find God and His purposes in the middle of our circumstances. When we find Christ, we find our joy. A change of scenery might not, in the end, make us happy at all. But redemption will bring us ending joy. Happiness is a by-product of the moment but joy is eternally available when we surrender to God’s way over our own.

James Miller puts it this way: “An immortal soul, from its very nature, cannot find what it needs anywhere except in God Himself. True religion begins in the heart. It is not a mere set of rules to be obeyed–an example to be copied. It is Christ coming into the heart and dwelling there.”

Joy can be found every day. It comes from placing our trust in God’s wisdom over our own. It is a choice to live by our calling, rather than dwell in our flesh. It truly is something to work at, but when we do, we are richly rewarded. That is why it is possible to be unhappy but still have joy. God’s love makes is possible to smile with tears on our face and have hope when life seems hopeless. Because we have placed our hope in something that can never be taken away, we can be joyful in all circumstances. Joy lasts when happiness doesn’t because we have found the Lord, who completes us in ways no human or humanly construct ever could.

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