Column: Symptoms of a major condition


Commentary by Bob Walters

“The joy of the Lord is our strength” – Chris Tomlin, Holy is the Lord

The pursuit of happiness to which our culture declares utmost, an unrelenting personal priority, truly has a rather earth-bound and second-rate quality about it.

It’s joy that we should be shooting for.

The question arose in Bible study a couple years ago about the difference between joy and happiness. I honestly can’t remember if I came up with it on my own or read it somewhere, but I said, “Happiness is a symptom, and joy is a condition.”

In modern everyday secular language, “happiness” and “joy” are not only primary synonyms for each other but pretty much interchangeable, like the words “unlawful” and “illegal.” Scripture however parses our human station of elation with utmost care. An attentive read of the Bible leads one to deduce that our mission as Christians has a lot more to do with “joy in our Lord” than “happiness in our person.”

Quantitatively, even allowing for quirks among various translations, the Bible’s sheer preponderance of the word “joy” over “happy” is staggering. In the English Standard Version (ESV) “joy” and its variations outpace “happy” and its variations 405-10. In the King James (KJV) it’s 437-25 and in the New International (NIV) it’s 396-26.

Qualitatively, the Greek words for “happy” and “joy” are entirely different from each other. “Euthymei” or “happy” expresses “being of good cheer,” as in James 5:13. “Charan” or “joy” has dozens of grammatical tenses and can imply rejoicing, gladness, delight, grace, kindness and even peace, but almost always with a divine involvement.

Luke 1:44, where John the Baptist “leaps for joy” in Elizabeth’s womb upon hearing Mary’s voice, has a special Greek word “agalliasei” to express the joy of being anointed with divine power and majesty “to which the son of God has been exalted.”

Now that’s some serious kind of joy.

We chase happiness in this life, but it’s joy that hearkens the eternal. With joy in the Lord, we possess hope, peace, strength and love that supersede the cheers and fears of earthly life. We can be happy in the moment, but not fearful at the same time.

I like “happy,” don’t get me wrong, but it connotes a comfort-focused, secular, self-indulgent, human, temporal “I got mine” tone that falls short of divine glory.

Happy isn’t a terrible symptom, but joy reeks of God’s unconditional love.

And that’s a strength.

Walters ( who is pretty sure he came up with that “symptom / condition” line on his own, appreciates the classics. Bach wrote “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” and Beethoven wrote “Ode to Joy.”Modern music includes “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Tomlin’s lyric comes from Nehemiah 8:10.  

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