By Ann O’Malley
“Are you happy?” asked my friend.
It seemed like an odd question coming from a Christian, so I hesitated before answering it.
I was going through a difficult trial at the time. Shouldn’t she be asking me, instead, if I was experiencing the joy of the Spirit? Wasn’t that more important? I’ve struggled to understand the biblical teaching about happiness versus joy (and gotten conflicting answers, none of which really satisfied me) for most of my Christian life.
What I heard from my Bible teachers as a baby Christian in the early 1970s: Happiness is just a brief response to worldly circumstances. Since eternal spiritual things are so much more important than temporary physical ones, God isn’t concerned about my happiness, and I shouldn’t be either. What He really wants is for me to have a deep joy in Him.
Okay, so maybe I’m overstating their point. Maybe they didn’t intend to totally deny God’s concern for our happiness. I was just a teenager. I could’ve been filtering their comments through my own immature lenses.
Maybe they were actually trying to help us young people to reject the growing American philosophy that we should selfishly seek our own happiness above all else. Maybe they wanted us to follow Jesus’ example and put others’ needs ahead of our own. Maybe they knew that that lifestyle would be a source of lasting joy, and they had a deep desire for us to find that joy.
But at the same time as I was soaking up this message about the triviality of happiness in God’s eyes, the believers I knew best seemed to imply that a Christian should always be happy. If I expressed any unhappiness, I’d be rebuked for grumbling like Israel in the wilderness.
Even though it sounded biblical, as I looked around, it wasn’t hard to see the problem this attitude created. It led to lies (which are definitely not biblical). It resulted in the denial of very real pain. Smiling faces were hiding hurting hearts.
Of course I was confused.
I couldn’t completely dismiss happiness as if it was too unimportant to even think about, but I didn’t give it a lot of weight, either. I had a deep suspicion of it because of our culture’s insistence on making it our number one goal in life ~ and the destruction that occurs as a result of following that philosophy. I didn’t like it when paraphrases of the Bible used the word “happy” rather than “blessed” (e.g. Matthew 5:3-12). I thought it just made those verses sound more shallow.
Almost from the moment of my conversion, though, I treasured a growing sense of joy. More and more, over time, I felt a lightness of heart, a freedom from guilt and from the worries and cares of this world, a certainty that God was watching over me every moment of every day. I saw answers to prayers and sensed the fruit of the Spirit growing inside me.
Later in my life, sorrow struck. I went through a period of suicidal depression for about five years, beginning when I was in college. I lost the very best friend I’d ever had when we were both in our late forties.
But even during those times when happiness eluded me, the joy of the Spirit could be there. (In the case of my depression, months passed before I experienced it for the first time. It became more frequent, but remained inconsistent after that.)
I gained an appreciation for Nehemiah 8:10: “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” I knew I was stronger because of the joy inside.
From 2019 to 2021, there was a death in my family, my mother’s health took a sudden turn for the worse, the COVID pandemic hit, racial relations turned violent, wildfires and other natural disasters made headlines every week or two, and I developed a nasty case of gastritis that went on for several months.
Like many other people in this country, my stress level went through the roof. I’d put aside thoughts about happiness versus joy for a while, but circumstances brought them to mind again.
We all know what happiness is, but what exactly is this thing called joy? Over the years, I’d heard a variety of descriptions of it from different Christian sources. I had a hard time grasping C. S. Lewis’ perspective. I couldn’t agree with those at my church who said joy was nothing more than contentment. Other attempts to define it also left me wanting more.
Maybe the only statements about happiness and joy that most believers can agree on are:
Happiness is more surface-level and dependent on circumstances.
Joy is deeper and can continue even when bad things happen.
We can be happy without being Christians, but we can’t have the joy of the Spirit until He comes to live within us.
My mind turned back to this issue because, during those difficult years, I noticed a sort of surprising sense of happiness. Life was hard, and yet I was happy much of the time. I had a happiness on the surface in addition to the deeper joy within.
So I began to wonder: Is God only concerned about our joy, as I tended to think, or does He actually want us to be happy? Does He intentionally bring us happiness, in addition to joy? Then a Bible teacher made a comment that caught my attention. I’d heard it before, but I was ready to really hear it this time.
We were studying the book of Psalms. Psalm 1 begins, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.” The teacher pointed out that the word translated as “blessed” could also be translated as “happy.” Those paraphrasers that I’d disdained in the past weren’t twisting God’s Word. They were translating it accurately.
And something clicked in my mind. After all these years, I finally realized that God demonstrates that He wants us to be happy. Not only joyful (which is a great enough blessing in and of itself) but also happy. He created a world where happiness exists, and He tells us how to find it. As Psalm 19 says His laws, statutes, precepts, commands, and ordinances revive the soul and bring wisdom, joy, and light. They’re more precious than gold and sweeter than honey.
The natural results of obedience to His commands are better health, better relationships, and greater financial security. Greater happiness. (Just imagine how many of those benefits you’d forfeit if you continually broke the Ten Commandments.) We know that this is happiness rather than joy because even those who don’t believe in the God of the Bible receive the perks of following His laws.
And yet there was a certain wisdom in the teaching that I’d heard as a young Christian, with its emphasis on the ongoing joy of the Spirit rather than a temporary happiness based on our circumstances. God doesn’t want my life to be a roller coaster of ups and downs triggered by whatever happens to me each day. He wants me to stand firm and trust Him, rather than being controlled by my emotions.
And He doesn’t want happiness to be my ultimate goal. C. S. Lewis wrote: “If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end: if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth ~ only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.” (from Mere Christianity) Jesus said, “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things [material needs] will be given to you as well.” ~ Matthew 6:33
There seems to be a law of seeking and finding. If I only look for the fun (or necessary) physical stuff and the fleeting feel-good emotional stuff, they won’t satisfy me, and I’ll miss out on the more important and lasting spiritual stuff. Man does not live [experience the fullness of life] on bread alone. ~ Deuteronomy 8:3.
If I seek happiness, I’ll be disappointed ~ which often leads to despair. I won’t always get what I want. Even when I do, it won’t last. I’ll always be striving for that one more thing that will make me even happier.
I treasure the joy that comes from God, because it provides a deep and solid foundation. But I realize now that happiness is also a gift from Him, one that He delights in giving me, not just a coincidental by-product of circumstances. When I reach the end of the day with a smile on my face in spite of the stresses threatening to destroy my peace of mind, I thank Him for the happiness that He allows me to experience in the middle of it all.
About the author:
Ann O’Malley is the pseudonym of a new author seeking a publisher for her memoir of suicidal depression. Her pen name comes from “anomaly,” that feeling of being different, of not really belonging, which plagues so many of those who suffer from depression. For more of her writing, check out her blog, “Those Who Weep: Not-Quite-Evangelically-