The world has always been a troubled and troubling place. However, in light of many recent tragic events, both here at home and abroad, it seems that our world is spinning ever more out of moral and spiritual control with each passing day. An enduring sense of peace and safety is something that most people are increasingly finding to be a rare commodity.
Oddly, in light of all of this moral and political and social turmoil, I often find myself noticing automobile bumper stickers. In the past few weeks, for example, I’ve observed a variety of bumper stickers proclaiming all sorts of odd things about happiness. One I saw stated that “Happiness is Being Married” while another one I read only a few moments later countered that “Happiness is Being Single.” One proclaimed that everyone should just “Choose Happiness,” while another simply stated that “Happiness Happens!” And it is all but impossible to drive about doing the day’s appointed errands and not encounter the always reliable bumper sticker advice to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy!” Other clever bits of bumper sticker advice that I’ve encountered lately have informed me that true happiness in life is to be found in everything from crisp bacon to a warm puppy to a warm gun.
Given the plethora of such pithy adages, one might begin to suspect that happiness is in pretty short supply. It almost seems as though the more tenderhearted among us have undertaken to remind the rest of us that happiness is possible and an easy means of securing it readily at hand. However, social scientists attest that for most people happiness is not only possible, it is fairly common. The trouble seems to be is that it is also fickle, shallow, and fleeting. As the word itself implies, happiness is associated with happenings, happenstance, luck, and fortune. If circumstances are favorable, you are happy; if not, then you’re unhappy. One of the great misunderstandings we sometimes have is the belief that we are supposed to be happy all the time. I often wonder if this misunderstanding stems from confusion about the meaning of the words happiness and joy, particularly as those terms are found in scripture. They have become confused and conflated in our contemporary usage such that they have come to be thought of as synonyms, and their profoundly important differences are seldom distinguished.
I recently had an older, returning student in one of my classes who shared with me that while she did her best to be faithful in her religious life and active in her congregation, as well as being unfailingly polite to other people and conscientiously involved in her community, she seldom felt that she was truly happy. With one son serving a prison term, another son going through a messy divorce because of infidelity and pornography problems, and a husband succumbing to a serious and irreversible illness in the hospital, she found herself often very depressed and fearful. My heart ached for her as she told me of her circumstances and her difficulties. Interestingly, she had never told anyone in her circle of friends or among those in her congregation about how she felt, instead expending much of her energy putting on a cheery front because she thought that were she to reveal her sadness and worries it would only lead others to believe she lacked faith. Christians, she believed, aren’t supposed to be depressed, aren’t supposed to be sad, or question God. They’re just supposed to be happy and cheerful and optimistic. Unfortunately, her “fake it ‘til you make it” approach was just not working.
This fine woman’s mindset – a mindset that is far too commonly embraced by far too many men and women – is simply not scriptural. The scriptures do not advise, in the words of that catchy tune whose title was on one of those bumper stickers I saw, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy!” Rather, in scripture we find assurances, such as this from Isaiah: “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness” (Isa. 41:10). Perhaps a bumper sticker inspired by scripture might read: “Don’t Worry, Be Joyful!” At first glance, the differences may not be obvious, but there is in fact a world of difference between being happy and being joyful.
The Greek term most frequently translated into English as “happiness” – especially in the New Testament – is makarios, a word that refers to that freedom the wealthy and powerful enjoy from many of the normal cares and worries of daily life. It is a word used to describe the lucky soul who receives some measure of good fortune – money, health, good looks, perfectly obedient and highly intelligent children, and that sort of thing. This is, of course, exactly what our modern English word “happiness” is all about as well. In other words, if you are happy, it is because things are going well for you – your outward circumstances are good, and they are good by virtue of happenstance, happenings, chance, or luck. When there are no crises in life, we feel happy. Happiness occurs when you find a little extra cash in your wallet, when work is going well, you get surprised with some freshly baked cookies, your favorite team wins a close game, and so on. All of these sorts of things can create moments of happiness.
When those things start to change, however, we find it hard to remain happy. When the IRS comes around for an audit, or the roof starts leaking, or the car gets totaled, or you learn that a dearly loved one has cancer, or you lose out on a well-deserved promotion, or your team gives up a last minute goal and loses the game . . . well, then, happiness flies right out the window and, more often than not, is replaced with anger, sadness, disappointment, frustration, or resentment.
It is important to note that, despite what we sometimes think there is no direct commandment in scripture for us to always be happy. We are, of course, told on many occasions to be of good cheer. For example, Jesus taught his apostles they ought to “be of good cheer; for I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). However, the Greek word used here does not mean for us to be “cheery” or “peppy” or to put on some sort of show of “not worrying and being happy.” Rather, the Greek word is tharseo and means “to take courage.” The Lord was in fact letting his apostles know that very shortly a great many trials and tribulations would be coming their way following his crucifixion and death, but they should take courage because he had overcome the world for them, and in him they would find the hope necessary to endure to the end, to persevere in the face of tremendous adversity.
A careful reading of scripture, particular the New Testament, shows that even Jesus himself was not always happy. For example, we read of his indignation at the behavior of the money changers in the temple, and of his weeping at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. We also learn in scripture of his repeated lamentations over the inhabitants of Jerusalem. In the Book of Mormon, we read that the Savior “groaned within himself” as he prayed to the Father, “troubled because of the wickedness of the people of the house of Israel” (3 Ne. 17:14). In Gethsemane, his agony was so great the he sweated great drops of blood and pled of the Father that, if it were possible, the bitter cup might be taken from him.
No, we do not have an example of an always happy, always perky or cheery Jesus. What we do have in Jesus, however, is the promise of joy. The Greek word most often translated as “joy” is chairo, a term perhaps best defined as the “contentment or comfort that comes from deep understanding” and the “good mood of a soul at peace.” Chairo is best understood as a comforting peace that is found in trusting relationship with God. Joy is the peace promised by Jesus to his apostles when he said to them at the Last Supper: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27).
So, while happiness is clearly that wonderfully pleasant feeling we get when things are going our way and we are getting what we want out of life, joy is a gift of comfort and assurance that a loving Heavenly Father gives his children in the midst of their pain and suffering and challenges – insofar as they choose to put that pain and suffering and those challenges into his hands, trusting that he will know what to do for them in every instance. Happiness is congenitally haunted by fear; for even in our moments of greatest happiness, deep down we know that happiness is always fleeting, always contingent. We know that Lady Luck is going to spin the wheel again soon, and the next time we might not come up as winners. Joy, however, drives out fear because joy is born of the confidence we have in God’s assurance that our lives have meaning, that our challenges serve a purpose, and that we are never truly alone. So, while it is the nature of happiness that fear, loss, and destruction are always creeping at the edges, in joy we find that fear loses its sting, swallowed up in loving, capable, and comforting hands of a God who is always there, always with us, even when happiness is elusive.
Ultimately, joy arises from the knowledge that everything we do has a purpose and is part of the divine plan for the world. It also means that we won’t really know joy until we really trust God, and seek to abide in His will rather than our own. Happiness often happens quickly, as our luck turns from moment to moment, but joy usually awaits us some ways down the spiritual path of genuine relationship with God. The fountain of joy is the promise of peace. We need not be afraid, even in the face of an increasingly turbulent and violent world – not because God won’t allow bad things to happen to us if we just pray a little more often, but because we know that whatever bad things do happen will be made to serve the purposes of God if we are will to give them over into God’s loving, knowing hands. Joy comes from trusting that God is good and loving and is always there seeking to bless and comfort us, even in our utmost extremity. It is who he is; it is what he does.