At this time of year there’s a pressure from retailers and advertisers to persuade us that happiness can be bought. In all our frenzied gift buying and searching for the ideal thing or gadget, we take delight in knowing that the faces that we see unwrapping those gifts will reflect heightened happiness – that is, if we’ve chosen well! – on Christmas morning.
But joy is something beyond happiness. It cannot be bought, it cannot be faked – it’s a deeper, richer state of being than happiness. It doesn’t depend on what we have or on our circumstances; it doesn’t depend on where we live or our status in society. This doesn’t mean that we won’t experience problems or pain – but the promise found in the Bible is that “Tears may flow in the night, but joy comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)
Even when we’re dragged to the depths of despair and everything’s going wrong, joy wins. Paradoxically, joy can be an underlying state – the default setting for the Christian life that underpins our lives – even when, at times, it seems everything’s against us.
Westerners are often astounded by the joy on little kids’ faces on dusty village streets in poorer parts of Africa. They have so little, but their community and sense of fun reflects their inner joy.
Unlike happiness, which is often fickle or eludes us, joy keeps bouncing back. Much like oil which can’t be whisked or stirred away in water – joy can’t help but rise to the surface. At Christmastime we sing ‘Joy to the World’ because Christ has given us hope and given us meaning.
If Christ is in us and we have hope of his promises – joy bubbles to the surface, sending its rippling effects into the mundane or hopeless parts or life. It may not deplete all the bad stuff, but its presence is a tangible and noticeable force in the murky water of life.
The band Pentatonix, featured in the video below, have produced a brilliant, a capella rendition of that famous carol and enthused it with their own passion and energy. And joy is etched on their faces as they sing, even though they may not believe in the God who created them with smiles and shiny eyes to reflect His image and His glory. I’m sure that God who gave them lungs to breathe and voices to sing loves to hear everyone sing his praise, even if they don’t believe the words they’re singing.
While happiness is at the mercy of circumstances and dependent on feelings, joy is eternal. Even in the wealthy West, with all that we have and all the opportunities afforded us, we can still find ourselves unhappy.
The wonderful thing about joy is that it’s not about us; it’s about the person of Christ and it’s about our hope and our future – things that can never be taken away from us. Happiness is about me and how I feel, or whether others are making me happy; joy is found in Someone else whose feelings towards me don’t fluctuate.
This Christmas, Christians everywhere pause from all their shopping, parties and rushing about to focus on the One who came to bring peace, hope and joy. And that makes the greatest difference throughout the year, not just during the festive season.