…for the joy of the LORD is your strength. – Nehemiah 8:10b (NIV)
It’s hard for us sometimes to grasp the difference between joy and happiness. We know that joy does not equal happiness but the difference can be fuzzy in our thinking. Happiness is a feeling, but joy can also be a feeling. Happiness is an emotional state marked by positive or pleasant feelings, but it is typically based on our circumstances. Joy is somewhat different.
Rick Warren defines joy as, “the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of my life, the quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be alright, and the determined choice to praise God in every situation.” So, we can be joyful in the absence of happiness because joy is not based on our circumstances but on the assurance and confidence we have in God. This is made evident in James 1:2 where it says, Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds. Evidently, we can be joyful in the midst of trials. Even when bad things happen, we can still be joyful. You can’t say the same about happiness.
Joy is an attitude of the heart that springs from a place of deep abiding with God where we discover and are convinced that He is good, He is for me and not against me, and He is in control. This is what allows us to praise God and sing for joy in spite of our circumstances. And this is why it was said of Jesus that for the joy set before Him, He endured the cross (Hebrews 12:2). I’m sure Jesus wasn’t happy about enduring the cross, but He was convinced that God is good, God had made a plan of salvation that He was carrying out, and that He was surely about to defeat the plan of Satan and redeem His people once and for all.
When my third son was born 3 weeks early everything seemed fine during the delivery but shortly afterward he began to have trouble breathing. I had been trying to nurse him but he wouldn’t latch on and then started turning blue. It was evident that he was struggling to breathe. The nurses quickly whisked him away without telling me anything. I was left by myself in the delivery room while everyone rushed out with Joshua. I cried out to God wondering if I would see my child alive again. I remember being so afraid but quietly whispering a prayer for my son and remembering that God was with Joshua even if I wasn’t. In that moment I had no more happiness left. It had all rushed out the door with my baby. But I had the quiet confidence that God is good, God is for me, and He is in control. I could have that kind of joy despite the circumstances.
To make a long story short, Joshua had experienced what they called transient tachypnea and ended up staying in the NICU for a week on oxygen. I still remember how long that week was while I watched my baby hooked up to monitors in his head, an oxygen tube in his nose, and a feeding tube in his mouth, wondering if he would be okay. Praise God, we took Joshua home after that week and he experienced no other ill effects. By the way, he is now a healthy, tall and handsome 21-year-old man! Because joy and suffering are not mutually exclusive, I could still have joy in the middle of that scary situation because of a choice to remember that God is good, God is for me, and He is in control.