How many times have you heard someone say, “I deserve to be happy!” or some variation of that to justify everything from buying a new 70-inch flat-screen TV to getting a divorce? The mantra tells us, “If it feels good, do it.” That will make us happy, right? And doesn’t God want us to be happy? Lots of people say He does.
I’m all for happiness, don’t get me wrong. Even the U.S. Constitution says everyone’s entitled to “the pursuit of happiness.” But I’ve learned that trying to hang onto happiness is like attempting to grasp steam rising from a hot cup of morning coffee. Now you have it – now you don’t.
Years ago a wise man made an important distinction between happiness and joy. Happiness, he explained, is determined by happenings. When something good happens, you feel happy. But when something bad happens a few minutes later, happiness is displaced by unhappiness.
Take the example of an athletic contest against your team’s dreaded rival. Near the end of the game, your team scores the go-ahead touchdown or goal. You cheer. You’re euphoric. “We’re going to win!” Happy, happy!
Then the other team gets the ball and the star player for Most-Hated University takes it the length of the field for the winning score. You frown. You feel despair. Bye-bye, happiness.
I remember going to a theatrical performance one time, a very enjoyable evening. It was late, so I looked forward to going home. Preparing to leave, I discovered someone’s vehicle has slid on the ice-crusted parking lot and dented one of my car’s fenders. Instantly my smile drooped upside-down into a frown.
Oh – the rest of the wise man’s distinction: Unlike happiness, which depends on external circumstances, joy comes from within, he said. It gives a sense of well-being, hope and peace that endures even in the most dire situations: A discouraging health diagnosis, money problems, family conflict, crumpled fenders, a ruined roast with guests expected within five minutes. Unhappy developments, but happenings can’t touch internal joy.
That’s why the Bible can make this strange declaration: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).
The apostle Paul presents a similarly curious admonition in his letter to followers of Jesus in Rome: “…but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-5).
One who had experienced his share of hardship and adversity, Paul had it right. Struggles don’t make us happy, but they can make us better, helping to transform us into people of godly character. And therein lies the joy.