“My siblings, whenever you face trials of any kind, count it all as joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”
“Joy is that kind of happiness that doesn’t depend upon what happens.”
The distinction between happiness and joy is something humans have been wrestling with for ages and people have come to express the distinction in different ways:
Happiness is on the face, but joy is a disposition of the heart…
Happiness comes and goes, but joy can last…
Happiness happens to you, but joy is a choice…
Happiness is about external circumstances that you can’t control, but joy takes practice…
All of these are helpful.
They get at the idea that our attitude on life does not need to be defined or imprisoned by the external things that happen to us. Even in difficult situations, satisfaction and gratitude for life and the things in it can be found and sustained.
They also remind us that as human beings, each of us will experience our fair share of pain. Our lives are a great paradox – a mash-up of the beautiful and the broken, the painful and the wonderful – and the purpose of ‘spiritual living’ is not necessarily to figure out the perfect algorithm of how to think and act in order to make our lives happier. It is to help us find God’s love and purpose for us even in the great complexity of them.
And that is really what James is getting at. While happiness is a momentary and often fleeting feeling that is entirely dependent upon what has happened to you, joy is anticipatory. Joy believes – even in trials, painful life experiences, and challenges we can’t see our way around – that something good and holy and purposeful still exists. In front of us, around us, and within us. It believes that none of what happens to us goes in vain because we have been given life by a God who chooses to see us through our days and make good out of them, even the worst of them.
In this season when we are invited to Deck the Halls of our lives with joy, let us not confuse it with momentary happiness. From year to year, the Christmas season may hold more or less happiness for each of us. If your circumstances haven’t been so good this year – there is a good chance it’s less.
But joy runs deeper.
Momentary happiness is not what the Christmas story has ever been about. The story of Christmas is about learning to wait with anticipatory hope – believing that through life’s challenges, the best is yet to come. And that the God who created our lives sustains them and works good from them all along the way.
Peace & Joy to you this Christmas season,