My wife, Kasi, and I became fully involved in counseling a couple whose marriage was breaking down; we spent hours praying for them. We tried everything we knew to help save their marriage. I talked and cried with the husband, and Kasi talked and cried with the wife, who wanted to leave. Kasi would plead, “Think of your family. Think of your baby. And, most importantly, think of your relationship with your heavenly Father.” I’ll never forget the night Kasi came home after spending a couple of hours with the wife. My beautiful, normally glowing bride looked completely dejected and exhausted; she said, “Shane, it’s over. She is leaving him.” I was confused and heartbroken for our friends. I had believed there was hope. I replied, “Kasi, what do you mean it’s over? Are you certain? How do you know?” I’ll never forget Kasi’s reply: “I know because of what she said" . . . she said, "I know that God just wants me to be happy!" And there it was. The statement that is always the card people play when they want to justify their actions. The statement that is always the excuse people give for ignoring what the Scriptures have to say about their particular breach of ethics: “God just wants me to be happy.”
Here are some questions that we all must settle for ourselves - Is our happiness really the determining factor for everything? Is happiness really the greatest good in the world? Statements like “Happy wife, happy life” and “The ultimate goal of life is the pursuit of happiness” have been staples in our society for as long as I can remember. But is that what God’s main priority for our lives is—to just be happy?
God Is Not a Genie
It’s a common belief that God exists to be our “personal genie,” waiting to give us our every wish, desire or validation for our feelings. It’s amazing how we will wear ourselves to exhaustion or destroy the world around us by trying to pursue an elusive state of happiness. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-happy. I’m a big fan of healthy happiness. What I’m talking about is the world’s definition of happiness, or even more relevant to each of us, our own view of happiness. The world’s idea of happiness is directly tied to circumstances. If our circumstances are favorable, then we’re happy. If not, then we’re not.
But here’s the deal. Our circumstances change all the time. Many of us allow these vacillating circumstances to dictate our happiness. It’s an extremely dangerous scenario when outward forces control our inward feelings. If we’re pursuing that kind of happiness, we’ll end up in a ditch of resentment and regret. It’s this elusive lie, like greener pastures or plastic frogs, that lure us away from God’s best, eventually hooking us into a fight for our very lives. And we find ourselves stuck or hooked just steps before becoming miserable and depressed (not happy).
What if God desires more for us than happiness? Is it possible that in the pursuit of happiness, we’re completely missing God Himself? After all, He is the only One who can truly make us happy. Does God have something more in store for you and me than just happiness? Okay, here’s the answer to those questions. Three little letters: J-O-Y. God desires that you and I experience joy, that settled state of contentment, confidence, and hope that comes only from trusting Him. Sadly though, we often miss it because we’re too busy chasing happiness. Here are three definitive biblical truths that explain why joy is greater than happiness.
Joy Is a Fruit of the Holy Spirit
Joy is the second fruit of the Holy Spirit listed in Galatians 5: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy . . .” (verse 22). In the Bible, fruit is a symbol of character. The list of the fruit of the Holy Spirit in Galatians 5 is a list of characteristics that should naturally flow out of Christians’ lives when they have God inside them. One of the most distinct markers that the Spirit of God dwells in you is the presence of joy in your life. If you have the Spirit, you will have joy! This is one of the fundamental differences between biblical joy and worldly happiness. We attempt to find happiness from favorable circumstances, but we receive joy only as a gift from the favorable God. Happiness comes and goes as circumstances and feelings change. Joy, however, is here to stay.
Joy is Not Based on Circumstances, It's Based on Jesus
Joy will always be wherever Jesus and His Spirit are. Incredible promises are given to the children of God: “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). These beautiful truths are yet another indication of why joy is truly greater than happiness. Joy is not built on outward circumstances but on Christ dwelling inside believers. If the Spirit of Christ is always inside me and will never leave me, then my joy will never leave me. No matter what I go through, I can have joy because my God is with me. Good days— joy. Bad days—joy. Suffering—joy. When everything goes my way—joy. When nothing goes my way—joy. My joy remains because my Christ remains.
Now, just so we’re clear, joy is not always laughing, smiling, and being silly. Don’t confuse joy promised in the Bible with upbeat feelings. Remember, feelings come and go, but genuine Christian joy remains. Joy is also not the power of positive thinking or a bubbly, optimistic personality. Suffering and difficulty are very real scenarios that every person must face. Jesus knew suffering all too well. While He was doing good—causing the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and the lame to walk—religious people were conspiring to kill Him. Though He was completely innocent of sin, He took our place on the cross and endured unimaginable suffering and injustice. Yet all the while, He walked, lived, and showed joy. Jesus was joy personified. He was the epitome of contentment, confidence, and hope in who He was and what His heavenly Father had called Him to do. Even in the midst of extreme suffering and injustice, Jesus had—and was—joy!
Joy is a Command
Isn’t it sad that Christians are often the most miserable people around? Do you know people who walk into the church building on Sundays looking as though they’ve been sucking on a sour pickle all morning? With a scrunched-up face and a condemning brow, they say, “God is good. All the time. All the time. God is good.” To which it takes everything within you not to reply, “Well, would you tell your face that? Because you look absolutely miserable!”
Nothing is more confusing to the world than for God’s people to say they have joy in their hearts while they have misery on their faces. The Holy Spirit of God gives all believers this incredible fruit called joy, deep in our souls. Again, this may not cause us to grin from ear to ear, but I do believe it means our countenance should reflect a trust in God’s goodness. I love the command from Holy Scripture that specifies when we are to rejoice—always. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). Notice that the verse does not say, “Rejoice when everything is going your way. Rejoice when everything makes sense. Rejoice if you feel like it.” But rather, the command is to “rejoice in the Lord always.” It’s almost as if the writer, the apostle Paul, was saying, “In case you missed it the first time, let me say it one more time— rejoice!” It’s not a suggestion. It’s not even something to do in response to some good fortune in your life. Rather, this is a command to rejoice at all times, no matter what is going on in your life.
You see, God is pretty serious about joy. The truth is, we’re not told to always be happy, but we are commanded to rejoice always. Maybe you find yourself in a circumstance that doesn’t always make you have happy feelings. Remember, God is with you. If He is with you, then joy is with you too.
Shane Pruitt, Director of Evangelism for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, is the author of 9 Common Lies Christians Believe: And Why God’s Truth is Infinitely Better. Pruitt has been in ministry for more than 17 years as a denominational leader, church planter, and traveling communicator. He holds a B.S. in biblical studies and a PhD in Christian counseling. Shane A popular blogger, Pruitt has written for Christianity Today, the Christian Post, Relevant, ChurchLeaders.com and other online journals. He and his wife, Kasi, live near Dallas, Texas, with their five children. For more information, visit shanepruitt.com.
Photo credit: ©Thinkstock/Molchanovdmitry