Time for one of those spontaneous posts, methinks!
I have just been reading a few posts on the BBC site about what happiness might be, or not be. I happen to be logged into my blog just now, so I thought I would “riff” a little about what happiness means to me.
Happiness versus Joy?
Growing up, I frequently heard Christians distinguishing between “happiness” and “joy” (joy is part of the fruit of the Spirit). So the way it was explained, “happiness” is a temporary feeling that depends on circumstances, whereas (Christian) “joy” is an ongoing feeling of positivity from God even where our personal circumstances might ebb and wane.
There’s a problem with this theory though. I have deliberately looked through the Bible on this matter, and I have not been able to see this distinction spelled out in the Bible at all. If I am wrong I am very happy to be proven wrong. However part of me suspects that this distinction was actually added by some first century Christian thinker, and it has now been “baked in” to standard understanding of Christianity. But as far as I currently understand, this distinction is not actually in the Bible. So I will continue to use the word happiness. In fact, in writing this I have just googled “the Biblical difference between happiness and joy”. Many results came up with this same distinction, but without being able to pin it back to the Bible. In fact, the very first answer states: “We experience joy when we achieve selflessness to the point of personal sacrifice”. I have to admit, on reading this, I thought: “Oh please.” I don’t agree with this definition at all. Off the top of my head, biblical references to joy do not inherently involve personal sacrifice. Not that there is anything wrong with personal sacrifice, I’m just saying that that is not what the Bible says. Furthermore our primary call as Christians is not to selflessness per se, but rather to obedience, to God – and selflessness through that obedience. In fact the Bible teaches that “obedience is better than sacrifice (or “selflessness”)” 1 Samuel 15v22. (In fact, to me “selflessness” for its own sake that does not arise out of obedience to God but rather my own determination to be “selfless” seems to be more aligned with Eastern religions – that is religions that are even more Eastern than Christianity!) This to me seems like (yet another) example of Christians over-spiritualising a Christian concept, or taking something relatively simple and trying to make it more complex.
LONG STORY SHORT: What I’m trying to say is that the distinction between happiness and joy appears to be a matter of semantics, and different words could “happily” have been translated using either “happiness” or “joy”. The one concession that I will make to this is to agree that “joy” is longterm, sustained happiness that comes from God, and obedience to God, and living in peace with all that God has called us to be, and to do, and living in peace with other people.
Now I have made that proviso, I have of course realised that my understanding of joy/happiness is of course coloured by my faith and my experience of faith, so is not necessarily available to other people in the same way outside of that faith. However I will still try to explain.
Firstly as a person, by the grace of God, on an ordinary basis, I am full of joy. But that is because I am also full of God – these two facts are very closely related! Conversely, when I am less full of God, or less close to Him, my joy/happiness levels are distinctly lower.
Something else I’ve just realised: my inevitable prescription for joy/happiness will be to embrace God and all He calls us to be in Him. I believe that God created human beings to be in relationship with Him. So part of that quest for joy (and meaning) will only be fulfilled when we are living the life that God actually created us to live; this is what makes us complete; to a certain extent seeking a feeling of completeness outside the design of our All-Powerful and All-Knowing Creator is somewhat futile!
So then these are the different facets of joy/happiness in my life:
– An ongoing sense of purpose/meaning: knowing that I am spending my life on things that truly matter, by the grace of God not just wasting my time on this Earth.
ALSO knowing that I am working on things that are bigger than me, that will make a positive impact on many people’s lives.
– An ongoing sense of gratitude: Has anyone else noticed the explosion of recommendations where people are encouraged to express gratitude, to enjoy a happier life?
Well for me this involves a number of things:
– Firstly, a sense of perspective: It can be really easy to get fixated on what has not “gone right” in my life. For instance, a few days ago, perhaps it was as recently as yesterday, I was thinking/smiling to myself “I’m X years old – and I’m still single!” And then your mind thinks of other things to list, and then you start feeling sorry for yourself or hard done by. But gratitude helps me to remember all the amazing things I do have: while my life is not necessarily what I would dream of in every way, I have been blessed with excellent health, and a warm, comfortable affordable roof over my head, and the health of my family, and delicious food, and the ability to pay my bills and general peace in my daily life and the ability to pursue my dreams. For all these things and so, so so many more, I am so grateful.
Furthermore, I am so aware of how fortunate I am relative to other people. So many people around the world lack basic needs everyday; food, shelter, sanitation. And yet, even though so many people lack seemingly everything, in photos these people will smile as if all the joy in the world resides in their hearts. And I sitting here, enjoying such a life of privilege, relatively speaking, will be complaining about my life?! No, I think I’ll leave my complaints to venting about disappointing experiences in churches!
– Secondly, I have Someone to be grateful to! “Lord I thank You so much for all that you have blessed me with; I thank You for Your generosity and kindness in my life!” I’m always so amazed when people try to thank “the Universe”; that seems to me to be just a euphemism for people who do not want to use the term “God”, also you know if you don’t believe in God the whole point of a Godless Universe and existence is that it is random, uncaring, unthinking so if anything good has happened to you it is not by any deliberate design of “the Universe” unlike God who does deliberately do kind and gracious things for everyone, not just people like me who believe in Him.
But you know what, if “the Universe” is what you’ve got, then I’m not going to take that away from you, we all need someone to thank. However I will quietly whisper that it all does make a lot more sense when you have a real Person to thank, and when you think that nothing that happens to you is merely random, but a very special Someone out there spends all His time thinking positive thoughts about you, and working to make these things come true, if you will allow Him!
– Being at peace with God, and God’s commandments:
– I have a theory which I think I’ve discussed here before, that one of the reasons why we get depressed is when we know that we are lying to ourselves; the cognitive dissonance between what we know in our hearts and what we try to convince ourselves is true causes distress.
God’s laws are all aligned with what we know to be true in our hearts. God tells us to treat other people with dignity and respect, regardless of their ethnicity or gender or anything else.
God tells us to live with integrity, to tell the truth, to do the right thing. So because these things are aligned with what our consciences tell us to be true, when you live in obedience to God’s laws, that in itself brings peace.
Some people try to chase happiness even though the way they live directly contradicts what they know in their hearts to be true. This can be why some people have all the money in the world, for instance, and yet they are not happy, because their hearts are not at peace. If they accumulated their money in an unfair way, or if they are spending it in a way that is selfish, that to me does not seem conducive to true peace.
Positivity about the future: there might yet be other facets of joy/happiness, but this is the last one I will write about just now: I guess I’m happy about the future because I look forward and I expect God to be there, and I expect Him to fully do His thing, then such as now! I guess it is a bit like having a romantic partner, and looking forward with positive expectations as you dream of all the things you hope to do together, anticipating the smiles and love that you will share in each new adventure. Except of course that God is so much bigger and better than a romantic partner. Because you know that God is never going to leave you, for any reason whatsoever. Also, you do not have to temper your positive expectations with fear, that God might suddenly turn on you, or develop harmful traits. God is perfect, He has been perfect for a long time, He is perfectly loving and gracious towards us – always! Sadly, this does not mean that our own lives are going to be perfect. It does mean that God’s character is never going to be in question. We can always trust that His love for us will be as deep and profound in the future as it is now. So we can look forward to the future and trust that no matter what challenges we might face, God’s love and care will always be there for us. Even in times as challenging as now, with the threat of Covid poised in the air.
So if you are searching desperately for happiness just now, this would be my recommendation. Seriously, please believe me that there most definitely IS a God. The single most effective thing that you can do for your own happiness is to embrace the reality of God, and surrender your heart to Him. Everything else that we could chase in life outside of this is going to be so empty, because it is out of the design that God created for us. In a way it might seem like cheating but it is inevitable!
The fact that there is a God is SUCH good news! It means that the pursuit of happiness is not inherently futile. It means that there is a very big and very powerful “Chief Happiness Officer” for the entire world! It means that there is a very real purpose and meaning available for each of our lives beyond the cold, grey emptiness of “The Universe”. And it also means that all our previous sins can be forgiven, the ones which would haunt us forever. We can consider ourselves to be washed clean. Jesus took the punishment for all of our sins, and His perfect blood is powerful enough to atone for the very worst sin that anyone could commit. We have to trust in that, and embrace the truth of that, and when we are tempted to fresh waves of guilt, we have to loudly remind ourselves: “Washed clean, by the blood of Christ!”
There is a saying that if God did not exist, then people would have had to invent Him. However I suggest that no-one could have made up a God that is as good as this. Ultimately it is not that the Christian God is too good to be true, but rather He is too good to not be true – which is why I am smiling a big fat smile even as I type this!!!
Also, did I mention food?! The Bible says “Godliness with contentment is great gain” 1 Timothy 6v6. To me, this “contentment” means being content with my everyday life, even while I am working towards my own progress. Part of this is learning to take joy from those seemingly small daily joys of life like lovely food, literally smelling the roses or otherwise appreciating nature, beautiful music, the innocence of a child’s laughter.
All of these things are what fill my life with beauty and joy
and you literally have nothing to lose by trying this! Actually what am I saying?! The Bible makes it clear that we might lose all our physical possessions, all our friends and relatives, absolutely everything, even possibly our very lives in our pursuit of Christ, but what we stand to gain is so much more! To quote from a post I wrote for my college newspaper while at University: “At the end of the day, the prize is God Himself!” (Another huge beam!!!)