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Candle of Joy

by Dr. David Hartman

Assistant Professor of Counseling

I’ve heard many Christians comment over the years about the differences between happiness and joy.  Joy is always looked on as the spiritually superior and commendable state. But if you’re like me, the practical distinctions between joy and happiness get lost in everyday living. Life can be tough, and most of us find ourselves trying to maintain positive affect (no matter what label best describes it).

Advent always brings this internal wrestling about joy vs. happiness back to my mind. The first chapter of Luke’s gospel has several mentions of the word “joy” and joyous occasions. We learn that Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth will have a child despite their advanced age, and that Elizabeth experienced joy at the birth of John the Baptist. We learn that John leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice, who was pregnant at the time with Jesus. We see years of prayers answered for Elizabeth. We see unexpected (and unsolicited) blessings bestowed on Mary.

What strikes me about the joyous events in Luke 1 is that they were out of the control of the people who experienced them. They were gifts from God. Moreover, they were received as such. Elizabeth notes, “The Lord has done this for me” (verse 25). Mary responds that God “has been mindful of the humble state of his servant” (verse 48). God sees and remembers. Mary and Elizabeth see and remember who God is and what God has done.

I think this symmetry between seeing and remembering is the seed of joy. In the case of Elizabeth, she and Zachariah had waited for a child long past Elizabeth’s childbearing years. It would have been easy for them to start to see and remember God in a distorted way based on their lived experiences of deprivation. When Mary was scared about the implications of being pregnant outside of marriage, she remembered and saw God accurately, and it buoyed her.

What I am noting is that joy is not about getting a long anticipated or an unexpected thing. It is about the everyday waiting and seeing and remembering God accurately in the midst of it. Joy anticipates, hopes, and maintains faith. Joy, then, is not happiness, because joy is not euphoria – it does not always feel good. It is remembering the nature of the Giver to be able to receive things as gifts. This enables a spontaneous grateful response and precludes entitlement, which happiness does not. You can be happy with the fruit of a process you perceive to be of your own doing, but in feeling entitled to an outcome, you lose the gift of it.