When I was in my mid-20s my husband and I took a trip to Europe. Flying home we were seated next to an older German lady who was going to visit her children in the U.S. She reminisced about what it was like to live in Germany after WWII. I remember asking her if she was happy during that time period. I will never forget her response, “You Americans are always so worried about being happy.”
For some reason her reply has resonated with me over the years. It came to mind again when I was considering what to blog. I was thinking that this time I needed to write something more uplifting, because I often write about sad events or difficult subjects. So I thought, I know, I will write about what makes me happy.
Things like my beautiful grandson, a good book to read, a rich piece of dark chocolate melting in my mouth, designing a well thought out college course, and of course my handsome husband (I would be in big trouble if I didn’t add him to my happy list).
But the German lady’s statement continued to surface in my thoughts raising all types of questions. Are we Americans to fixated on being happy? What does happiness mean anyway? How do we find happiness? What is the difference, if any, between happiness and joy? As a Christian woman living in this fallen world what should I be seeking?
I started to read through scripture and commentaries about joy and happiness. According to gotQuesitons?org, depending on the translation, happy or happiness occurs in the bible about 30 times, while joy or rejoicing occurs over 300 times.
The more I read, the more it seemed that the writers of scripture expressed the idea that what is sustaining or fulfilling is joy not happiness. Joy brings about contentment and peace, while happiness is fleeting. Perhaps the German lady was correct, we Americans are to worried about being happy. Instead, we should be looking for joy.
As I continued to read, the contrast between happiness and joy became more evident. One source that I read suggested that happiness is dependant upon the circumstances surrounding us such as good health, a pleasant environment or good company. The author proposed that happiness and unhappiness cannot exist together, but a person can be joyful while still experiencing sorrow (Fowler, 1973 – Pictorial Bible Dictionary). This intrigued me because I had never thought about comparing the two in this way. It was easy to find examples of this notion throughout the bible.
Isaiah 53:3 tells us that Jesus was a man of sorrows and was acquainted with grief and Hebrews 12:2 reads “…For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame… “
Jesus, the Son of God, chose to walk on this earth and experience the sorrows and grief of mankind knowing that his earthly life would end on the cross. Yet, we read he had joy. Hebrews 12:2 is beyond my depth of understanding that Jesus would love us so much he would “joyfully” endure the cross so that he could carry our sins. If you have ever read about crucifixion, it is one of the most painful and excruciating deaths that a human can experience. Yet Jesus endured it joyfully for you and me. Do I believe it – yes. Do I truly understand the depth of such love – no.
Another example of joy during difficulties is found in Apostle Paul’s writing to the Corinthians. In II Corinthians he writes of the hardships he was encountering; hardships so harsh that he even despaired of life. Yet later in the book he pens, “…in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds” (II Corinthians 7:4). He was afraid for his life, he was persecuted, and life was precarious at every turn, but because of his relationship with Christ, he experienced joy.
Adversity and joy are often contiguous themes throughout the bible. Perhaps, it is because the facing of hardships strips us of all preconceived notions of what is important and instead focuses us on relationships rather than material possessions and on the eternal rather than the temporary. As I have thought about the idea of joy and suffering, I have reflected on people that I have met around the world. I have to admit that some of the most joyful people I have had the privilege of knowing are those who have suffered the most and who have so little. And, some of the unhappiest people that I have met are those who are prospering materially yet feel happiness is based on having more.
I remember working with a woman who said, “Vicki you seem to be so content with what you have. I wish I was like that.”
Frankly, it wasn’t about me being so content, but about her discontent. Even though she had a good job, a wonderful family, and plenty of material possessions she still didn’t have enough. She kept buying more things finding fleeting happiness, but never contentment and peace.
If deeper joy comes from learning how to walk with God through sorrow and hardships perhaps the opposite is also true, only fleeting happiness can be found when a person’s priority is building a storehouse of power and material possessions. This reminds me of Solomon, a great man of wisdom who accumulated possessions and power and sought after happiness, yet he wrote.
I decided to enjoy myself and find out what happiness is. But I found that this is useless, too. I discovered that laughter is foolish, that pleasure does you no good. Driven on by my desire for wisdom, I decided to cheer myself up with wine and have a good time. I thought that this might be the best way people can spend their short lives on earth. I accomplished great things. I built myself houses and planted vineyards. I planted gardens and orchards, with all kinds of fruit trees in them; I dug ponds to irrigate them. I bought many slaves, and there were slaves born in my household. I owned more livestock than anyone else who had ever lived in Jerusalem. I also piled up silver and gold from the royal treasuries of the lands I ruled. Men and women sang to entertain me, and I had all the women a man could want. Yes, I was great, greater than anyone else who had ever lived in Jerusalem, and my wisdom never failed me. Anything I wanted, I got. I did not deny myself any pleasure. I was proud of everything I had worked for, and all this was my reward. Then I thought about all that I had done and how hard I had worked doing it, and I realized that it didn’t mean a thing. It was like chasing the wind – of no use at all. (Ecclesiastes 2: 1-12 Good News Translation).
What is a Think Through? It is an idiom that conveys the meaning of carefully considering possibilities and outcomes of a situation.
What in your life has taught you to be joyful?