As far as I can tell, there is no significant difference between joy and happiness in Scripture. Both the studies I’ve read and have done indicate joy and happiness are synonyms in Scripture. I know most of us have heard something like, “Happiness depends on circumstances; joy does not”; but you won’t find the Bible using these terms this way.
- Job 5:17 — “Behold, happy is the man whom God corrects; Therefore do not despise the chastening of the Almighty.”
- Psalm 146:5 — “Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help, Whose hope is in the LORD his God.”
- Proverbs 3:13 — “Happy is the man who finds wisdom, And the man who gains understanding.”
- Proverbs 14:21 — “He who despises his neighbor sins; But he who has mercy on the poor, happy is he.”
- Romans 14:22 — “Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.”
Neither will you find great Christians of the past saying that. John Wesley preached the following:
[God] made all things to be happy. He made man to be happy in Himself…. Should not every parent, as soon as a child begins to talk, say… ‘[God] made you; and He made you to be happy in Him; and nothing else can make you happy.’ We cannot press this too soon…. Indeed, this should be pressed on every human creature, young and old, the more earnestly and diligently, because so exceeding few… seem to know anything about it. Many indeed think of being happy with God in heaven; but being happy in God on earth never entered into their thoughts. The less so, because from the time they come into the world, they are surrounded with idols. Such…are all the things that…promise a happiness independent of God…. We know that…all religion and all happiness, depend on Him; and whoever teaches to seek happiness without Him are monsters, and the pests of society.
This emphasis on happiness was not unique to Wesley. It can be found in Christians of all stripes, including Puritans (e.g., Thomas Boston, Richard Baxter, William Law) and Roman Catholics (e.g., Blaise Pascal).
Biblical happiness is the satisfaction that comes from attaining what is good from God’s perspective.
My study of the biblical words translated “happy” (Hebrew:’ashrey; Greek: makarios) has led me to conclude that biblical happiness is the satisfaction that comes from attaining what is good from God’s perspective. When Wesley said God made us to be happy, he meant God made us to experience the satisfaction or contentment that comes from attaining what God considers good.
Biblical joy is similar. It is also at its root satisfaction or contentment. Paul connects joy and faith in Romans 15:13: “May the God of peace fill you with all joy and peace in believing.” It is as we focus our minds in trusting faith on who God is and what God promises that we experience the satisfaction we know as joy. We might even say that “peace” is joy at rest and “exultation” is joy excited. Sometimes we experience heightened emotions as we focus on God’s person and promises, but the emotions themselves aren’t the essence of biblical joy or happiness.
Originally published in the March 2019 edition of the God’s Revivalist.