What is joy?
When the writers of the New Testament wrote about joy, such as in Galatians 5:22-23, when Paul wrote about the Fruit of the Spirit, he used the Greek word kara. That’s right, the women’s name Kara is the Greek word for joy. The people who study words tell us this that the word kara means “to enjoy a state of happiness and well-being.”
Is that definition describing an emotion? I’m not sure. The definition doesn’t specify.
What was Paul talking about in Galatians 5 when he said that we should be growing joy in our lives? If we are to walk in step with the Spirit, it means becoming a person that is increasingly joyful. That much we know. When we are walking in the Spirit, we will be growing joy in our lives. The Spirit brings joy. Not less joy. More joy. To grow joy is to produce more of it.
Keep in mind that these qualities of love, joy, and the others in the Fruit of the Spirit, are OF the Spirit. On our own we will not have these qualities, like joy, as a regular consistent part of our lives. Also keep in mind what the metaphor fruit suggests. Fruit grows through the work of planting, watering, fertilizing, pruning. It takes effort. Likewise, growing joy in our life takes the work of staying in step with the Spirit. Spending time with the Spirit, he will grow joy in our lives.
So that is the first aspect of understanding joy. We grow it by choosing to walk in step with the Spirit.
The second aspect of understanding joy is a related question, “What is happiness?” Or put another way, “Is there any difference between joy and happiness?”
I’ve heard some people try to make a case for the difference between the two. Sometimes I think they are just two ways of describing the same thing, the emotion of gladness. Other times I think it is helpful to define who joy and happiness are different.
I would suggest to you that joy is best understood as a deep inner calm and fulfillment. This joy, this deep stability is also sustained, it endures.
Happiness, however, is a surface feeling, an emotion based on one’s current situation. Happiness is temporal, meaning that it does not endure.
Some people who make this argument about the difference between joy and happiness suggest that you can have joy deep down inside at the same time that you are feeling unhappy.
I think a woman from our church, and how her battle with cancer. This woman and her husband Lamar are long-time members of our church, and for years they have been serving as missionaries in Africa. About five years ago they were home for a few months on home assignment, and during a health check-up they learned the shocking news that our friend had cancer. She was not happy about getting cancer. It was very difficult for her, for her husband, for their family. They had to delay their return to Africa so she could start chemo and have surgery. None of this made them happy. But those of us who walked with them through her many months of treatment remember what she said about her situation from day 1:
“I choose joy.”
Her joy was a choice to trust in God, to have faith in him, no matter the outcome of her treatment, and spread the word that it is possible, and in fact it is best to have that kind of stability in God in the middle of hardships. Janice’s joy was real. Praise God, Janice is cancer free, and they have been back in Kenya for a number of years.
What was so wonderful about her joy was that it was real in her life, before, during and after the cancer. Of course we were all elated when she was healed, but that is not the point. Her joy was real even in the middle of her pain and in the middle of the difficulty of her treatment, when the outcome was not sure. Her joy was not dependent on the outcome. That is important because not everyone experiences the outcome they desire, but they can still have joy, even in the pain.
When the brother of Jesus, James, wrote in James 1, “Consider it joy when you face trials of many kinds,” that’s what we are talking about. Joy in the pain. But I have to admit, I think to myself, “Really? How is this possible?”
It is okay to not feel happy about the trial. It is okay to not feel good about the trial. When we are not emotionally excited about trials, we are just being normal humans. But deep within, joy is the knowledge that the painful trial can bring us growth. That God will keep his promises to us, and so we pray that he will redeem the bad situation.
There is no doubt that it can be a battle inside us, to feel joy when we are not feeling happy. That’s why we need a consistent intentional connection with the Spirit to grow joy in our lives. Having joy in the middle of pain and loss is not natural.
It is very similar to the difference between “love and like” that we talked about last week here. Joy is a choice to be thankful despite the circumstances, despite the feelings. We are joyful when we turn our thoughts and attitudes towards the truth of who God is as we walk through the trial.
 Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 302.
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