Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy

My cross I bear is this: I remember sermons.

No, not just the alliteration, funny stories and heartwarming illustrations. And not just the pithy quotes that preachers once found in books but now find through internet memes. I actually remember the points of the sermon.

There is one sermon I remember well. I’ve heard it more than once. I don’t remember the Bible text— no doubt punched down, pulled stretched, rolled out and shaped to say exactly what the preacher was trying to say. But I  remember the thesis:

Jesus didn’t come to make you happy. He came to give you joy. 

The preacher would say this and pause, as though he just revealed some deep insight before moving on to articulate the technical, lexical distinction between happiness and joy:

Happiness is circumstantial and fleeting. It is a feeling based on whatever good may be happening at that moment. It is entirely external. Joy is much deeper, sustaining us through seasons of grief and suffering. It is our comfort even through anxious seasons. Joy, unlike happiness, is not based on external circumstance, but is an inner contement experienced by those who have the Grace of God, a byproduct of life lived in Him. 

That is quite the distinction and boy, does that preach! There were some good things in that sermon. We do need a thick experience of joy to sustain us in the hurley burley of life. But on the alleged distinction between happiness and joy, I call balderdash! Hogwash! Malarkey, even! When the preacher preaches the dictionary, may the congregation beware!

In reality, joy, and happiness are not all that different. In everyday speech, we use the two terms interchangeably. And while there are shallow ways to experience happiness and joy there are a great many people reaching thicker versions of both.  For example, Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project chronicled her year-long exploration on how to live a happy, more fulfilling life. And of course, people are exploring what on earth makes Denmark happier than the rest of the world when they are most famous for marzipan pigs, and that cranky philosopher whose name you always misspell. The Danes refer to happiness as hygge (pronounced something like Hoo-gah) denoting some like total well-being and living a fulfilled life. However you get there, you need lots of candles and cozy nooks.

The biblical authors also use happiness and joy interchangeably. The Psalmist exhorts us to “shout for joy,” a happy acclamation of ejaculatory praise (Psalm 95:1; 98:4). Happy is used to describe those who avoid wickedness, sin, and mocking, but delight in the Lord’s law both day and night (Psalm 1). Happy were those whose lifestyles marked by godly obedience to Torah (Psalm 119:1-2). That isn’t all that different than Jesus’ promise that our obedience to Him would bring us the fullness of joy (John 15:10-11).

So Joy and happiness are near synonyms. Why it matters is this:

Jesus came to make you happy.

Jesus first Advent was not about an inner state of serene joy. It was a real-world, circumstantial, happening. It changed the world, If you were there and sensed what God was doing, a smile would spread across your face. The way we know Mary who really did know, smiled happily as she sang her song.

When Jesus comes again and all sorrow and terror cease, it will be a real-world, circumstantial ‘happening.’ When suffering reaches its end and only Shalom, wholeness and life remain, we will be happy.  The Christian joy (or happiness) we experience in this moment, exists between these two happenings. The incarnation opened up a new way for us. And we now live in happy anticipation of New Heavens and New Earth.

And yes there is grief and pain and there is real evil in the world still. There are times we are heartbroken and hurt. We lose loved ones and feel like we’ve lost our sense of self. We feel discouraged and worried, and full of doubt. Happily, this too, shall pass. All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

 

 

 

 

A Happy Church for Grumpy Gus: a book review

Joy is an essential characteristic of the Christian life. However happy Christians are in short supply. Author and pastor Tim McConnell wrote Happy Church to call Christians to reclaim happiness as our birth right. This happiness is not dependent on ‘happenings.’ McConnell has in mind a “thicker happy than the superficial sentimentality of the moment”  (20).  The happiness he is talking about is rooted in the joy of the Lord and being glad in Christ.

9780830844562McConnell describes the radical joy available to us as the people of God. This means the joy found in Christian community, in being satisfied by the Word,  entering into worship and praise of God, having a joyful prayer life, knowing the role of laughter in the life of faith, being filled with ‘limitless hope’, participating in the mission of joy among the suffering, and anticipating the future feast that awaits us (and we taste some now!).  The theological realities that McConnell describes (i.e. our access to God in prayer and praise, our sharing in God’s life and mission, our hope amd confidence in God’s Word) are all causes for deep wells of gladness. God has given us Life abundantly and we share it with Him forever!

So this is a good book; however when I see the title ‘Happy Church,’ it makes me feel like a grumpy Gus. I have been in too many churches where in the name of Christian joy a happy face was painted on circumstances that weren’t too chipper. I say yes to joy,  but I worry about how an emphasis on happiness obscures authenticity and our willingness to enter into the pain of others; I say yes to gladness, but I also think we need to name grief and provide space for lament. I say yes to happiness and contentment if it doesn’t hide anger at injustice and a holy discontent with a world where hope is too often deferred.

Thankfully I think McConnell’s call to happiness is not a call to painted smileys and emotional dishonesty. The happiness he describes is rooted in a deep confidence in God, his word, and the hope of Christ’s coming kingdom but he never pretends pain isn’t real. In these pages he describes the experience of joy in the midst of difficult circumstances. McConnell writes:

To celebrate happiness is not to discount sadness. To take up the mission of joy is not to dismiss the reality of suffering. We need to talk about the happiness that mourns. We need to talk about the smiles and the laughter at the bedside of the dying. WE need to know the happiness we are seeking and finding in Christ doesn’t burn off like a mist when hardships come. There is a kind of happiness that mourns, but at the very same time it has the power to overcome mourning (133).

So there is no need to be a grumpy Gus. Though sorrow may last for a night, joy comes in the morning (Ps. 30:5)! I recommend this book for anyone that needs to remind their face that the gospel is good news all the way through and that Jesus desired that our joy would be complete (John 15:11). I give this four stars.

Note: I received this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review.