One of the greatest gifts of God to all of creation is joy. It is the proper underpinning of anything in life that is worth doing, worth thinking, and worth our attention. Joy is one of the most important motivations for our living in unity with God, with our fellow Christians, and with all of creation.

What is joy?

It is more than happiness. Happiness is an effect linked to an earthly cause. And earthly causes are, by nature, transient. They come and go. Joy is a powerful uplifting of all that we are by the fullness of the Divine. The cause of joy is God’s love. That joy is the empowering and uplifting radiance of being connected to God’s love, God’s life, and God’s power within and all around us.

I remember my mentor in seminary, the Reverend Doctor . . . I’ll just call him by his first name — Tony. He was a large, African American man of the same generation as my parents. He was our professor of preaching; and he often seemed to us to be a larger-than-life character. He knew how to make an impression. I loved him in this life and love him still — over a decade after his walk in this world came to an end.

One day, Tony came into our classroom. It must have been one of those times when we were distracted by midterms and essays in other classes. Students were fidgeting with papers and books at their seats. Many never noticed when our teacher entered the room. He stood there looking at us. Only a few focused their attention on him. There were a few conversations being had at a low volume. Then his strong voice rang out across the room.

“Sister,” he said to one of my classmates seated in the first row, “what is the difference between happiness and joy?”

She looked up at the professor and stammered. But she did not know how to answer.

Looking to the far corner of the room, he said, “Brother, perhaps you know the difference between the two?” He did not.

“Let’s say I came into this room and started passing around piles of money . . . or, right now, perhaps better yet — good grades for all your classes. That would make you happy, right?” There were sounds of approval popping up in various parts of the room. Tony smiled and nodded his head. “Now, let’s say I took those piles of money away — and took back those good grades and gave you some not-so-good-grades instead. Would you still be happy?”

“No!” exclaimed one woman at the back of the room.

“Of course not. You would be unhappy now.”

Heads nodded all around the room.

“Happiness is something that exists in a particular moment and has a recognizable cause. It is dependent upon a time and an action of some sort. Am I right?” He waited. “Where are the philosophers in the room? Does anyone disagree?” No one did; although some of us had never given the matter much thought.

“Joy doesn’t have a particular moment; and often times we cannot identify a specific cause. It stampedes into our lives and demands notice. It is the thing we feel that lifts our spirits, fills us with energy, and makes everything in us alright. It’s the thing that makes us shout whoo-hoo!” He jumped in the air (which was no small miracle of physics, since he was, as you recall, a large man). “Have you ever felt that way?” he asked us.

Some heads nodded. Some faces showed uncertainty about his distinction.

“I’ve felt that way before, professor,” said a man in his early twenties. “I have never jumped and said ‘whoo-hoo!’ because of it, though”

Tony jumped again and said, “Whoo hoo!” He focused a laser-sharp gaze on the man. “You haven’t jumped for joy?” our professor asked him.

“No, I haven’t jumped. But I have felt it.” Then the young man looked serious. “But when I’ve felt it the emotion has been on account of a specific cause and it has belonged to a specific moment. Most recently, I felt it because of my girlfriend and the relationship I have with her.”

Tony nodded. “Maybe that is happiness or maybe it is joy — you will be the only one to tell the difference. Let me add a little more to my definition and see if the distinction comes clearer. Then you can tell me which you were feeling.” The young man looked doubtful.

“Happiness is delicate. Joy is strong. Happiness is like a cut flower that can only fade with time. Joy is like a great oak that is rooted in the ground and grows magnificently — over time we feel it more, not less. Happiness can be broken so easily that we often hesitate to do anything while we feel it. Joy is so powerful that we often cannot help but do something on its account. Happiness comes from temporary arrangements of circumstances and happenings in our favor. Joy comes from connecting with the Divine — it is always there (although we may not be aware of it all the time).”

The student was visibly thoughtful. Like me, he may still be sorting out the distinction in his mind. But, perhaps also like me, he knew that somehow Tony was right.

“Let me put it another way . . . With happiness, you can always describe the reason for the feeling. With joy, the explanation is always beyond the power of words,” added our professor. “With joy you can sing when you are with your mate, you can sing when you are walking down a street, and you can sing when you are dying on a cross. I am doubtful that most of us would be happy with nails driven into our hands and feet, though.”

In the years since Tony raised the distinction between happiness and joy, I have thought of it often and I have tried to refine the definitions he gave us. Like him, I do reasonably well defining happiness; but words don’t quite capture the definition of joy. Maybe that is a clue that he was right that joy is something that emanates directly from God.

On the practical side of things, I have experimented with making a distinction between happiness and joy in my own thinking and doing. One of the things I have noticed is that joy is a motivator and happiness is a more passive emotion. As Tony noted, we often do things on account of joy.

When Christians reflect upon the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, it does not make sense that he faced the cross on account of being made happy. It makes sense, though, to say that he faced the cross because of joy. It was the joy he felt on account of the connection of his actions with the expression of the love of God in seeking to save God’s children from slavery to sin and death. Joy was both a motivation and that which stood on the other side of death and resurrection.

In some ways, the striving for unity in the love of God is a challenge filled with suffering. It is, metaphorically, one of the crosses Christians bear. Drawing closer to one another and living in unity with God, one another, and all of creation, is not easy. There is resistance from within and without. There is pain on account of violent thoughts, words, and deeds. For some, the effort to live out unity in the love of God will lead to intense suffering — even death. The effort can spark violence and hatred towards us. It can even cause us to suffer inwardly as we feel we are placing our own identity at stake. Being united in the love of God means that which pushes us apart cannot, ultimately, survive. How much of who we are is dependent upon attributes that cannot survive drawing close to one another? The truth is, there is no way for us to know ahead of time what will burn away as we are perfected in unity with God, one another, and all of creation. There is a cross between us and the realization of God’s gift of being united together.

So, what would be sufficient motivation to move ahead towards something we can barely imagine and something we know must be reached across a chasm filled with strain and suffering? For most, a philosophical proposition will not be enough. Theologies, ecclesiologies, and any other sorts of -ologies, for that matter, will do little for most people to make unity in the love of God into something for which they will strive. What will motivate (nearly?) all of us, though, is joy.

Joy also serves another purpose in our lives and in this project of unity with God, with each other, and with all creation. Joy serves as a plumb-line. It helps us to build our lives together in ways that are conformed to God’s hopes and purposes for us. It also helps us to be true to ourselves in the unique creations of God that we are.
When we think, speak, and act in life, and we have no joy, we are like women and men stumbling around ignoring our own senses. We do not have the benefit of God’s sight in us. Perhaps we will go in the right direction; or perhaps not. Odds are, not. When we think, speak, and act in life, and we have joy overflowing in us, we are connected to our spiritual senses and can maneuver towards the beacon of God’s love.

One of the striking things I have noticed in some of the most ardent among those who have dedicated their lives to Christian unity — and the unity of all God’s children and all God’s creation — is their joy. Even when they are tired, when things are seemingly not going well, when hope seems dim, they have the light of joy to guide and comfort them. It is joy that gives them the power to stand upright when circumstances press down upon them. It is joy that keeps their vision clear and helps them to move ahead towards a goal they most often can imagine only like a mountaintop veiled in mist. There is a smile of serenity I have seen on the faces of many of them. Even as they grow old and realize that the work must continue after their time in this world, they work on with confidence in God who beckons to us with joy.

For those who come after, it will be joy that motivates them towards unity in the love of God. It will be joy that makes this effort a priority in their lives. It is joy that draws us together in the One Who Loves Us First and perfects our love for God and one another.