Rethinking The Meaning of Joy

Great guest post today by Dave who blogs at Armchair Theology.  You can also follow him on twitter @arm_theology.  Join the discussion as he pulls apart what joy and happiness are and the all important “SO WHAT” and how that affects our lives!

Dave Moser is a US Coast Guard officer and part-time seminary student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. After military service he and his wife feel called to ministry in New England. Dave blogs about Christ-centered Bible study at Armchair Theology.

David recently asked how we should define “joy” in a biblical context.

He observed that in an effort to distinguish joy from happiness (a distinction he casts a suspicious glance at – more to follow), we often conflate joy with peace. I would like to observe that we can also conflate contentment with joy. David’s post made me want to get to the bottom of things.

First: What Isn’t Joy?

Joy is distinct from peace and contentment. In placing the two next to each other, Pauls requires us to draw a distinction between them:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
Gal 5:22–23

David’s right: Joy isn’t peace. You can argue that it proceeds from peace – and I won’t stop you there – but you can’t argue that they are the same thing.

Second: What Is Joy?

David then concludes that joy must be an emotion. I really like where he ends up: “deep, resonant happiness.”

But I think we made that jump too quickly. The biblical authors use “joy” in such varied ways that I’m not comfortable assigning it that solitary definition. Time to do a little digging…

In the body of Christian literature under consideration there are numerous Greek words or clusters of words that give color to the idea of joy:

  • agalliasis/agalliaomai (“exult,” “be glad,” “rejoice”)
  • asmenōs (“gladly”)
  • gelaō/gelōs (“laugh”/ “laughter”)
  • euphrainō/euphrosynē (“gladden,” “be glad,” “take delight in,” “joy,” “cheerfulness”)
  • eudaimoneō (“be happy,” “fortunate”)
  • hēdeōs/hēdonē/hēdomai (“gladly”/“pleasure,” “have pleasure,” “enjoyment,” “cravings”)
  • hilaros/hilarotēs (“cheerful”/“cheerfulness,” “glad”/“gladness,” “merry,” “graciousness”)
  • makarizō/makarios/makarismos (“consider blessed,” “happy,” “fortunate,” “a blessing”)
  • skirtaō (“exult,” “skip gaily about”)
  • chairō/chara (“rejoice,” “be glad”/“joy”).

– Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids, Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments [formatting added]

A quick Logos Bible Word Study shows that the ESV renders five different Greek words as “joy” and the 2011 NIV renders 9 Greek words as the single English word “joy.” That’s only the New Testament! There are also multiple Hebrew words we translate “joy” in English.

Our problem is fundamentally a language issue. If we treat nearly 10 related words as the same word, we squash a huge range of meaning into a little box. Of course we’re going to have trouble defining it.

Important Note: I am not trying to say that we need new translations which uniformly distinguish between these underlying words. I am trying to demonstrate that there is a huge range of meaning in the word “joy” when used in the Bible.

Martin continues:

The very number of these words helps one to approach an understanding of the meaning of this elusive term. From the texts under study its meaning seems to range from an exuberant gaiety that expresses itself in frolic or exultant dance, to a happiness coming from a good mental outlook on life, to a feeling of well-being that is generated by confidence in the blessing of God, to a deep, quiet, settled joy that is more akin to peace than it is to happiness.

I think he’s on to something. The remaining problem is how to determine what kind of joy we’re talking about.

Third: What Type of Joy?

If “joy” can range in meaning from something very close to “peace” to “deep, resonant happiness” to “exuberant gaiety,” how do we know which is meant in any given passage?

Context

This sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how often people reach for other tools before looking to the text for clues. Often, a passage will clearly explain what is meant by a word. It does the work for us if we’d only let it.

The Counsel of Wise Saints

And by this I mean commentaries. Many commentators will take the time to observe the original languages and help us understand the intended meaning. Always be a Berean when consulting commentaries. (Acts 17:11)

Concordances

Be careful here. Don’t open up Strong’s and look at the “definition” it gives. If you don’t know how to use Stong’s as a concordance instead of a dictionary check out my posts in the How NOT to Use Strong’s Concordance series. The basic process:

    1. Determine what Greek root word underlies the text
    2. Find other occurrences of that root word
    3. Discern which other occurrences match the usage of the original passage
    4. Use the other occurrences to determine the meaning of the word in context

You can find Strong’s Concordance at InterlinearBible.org, e-Sword, theWord and plenty of other resources.

“Chara” is the most common Greek word translated “joy” in our English Bibles. I’ve done steps 1 and 2 for you: Here is a list of every occurrence of chara in the New Testament so you can get to work on steps 3 and 4.

Fourth: So what is it?

Joy, in biblical terms, is not a simple concept.

When we say joy is more than happiness we’re probably correct. David’s “deep, resonant happiness” is a great term. The phrase warrants further discussion, though:

  • Deep in what sense?
  • Resonant with what?
  • Happiness in what object?

Even with (and, perhaps, because of) this loose definition it is an acceptable starting point. I’d probably answer the questions by defining it as “a soul finding unparalleled satisfaction in Christ.” But this is just a definition of one end of the spectrum.

Let’s remember that joy has a very large range of meaning in the Bible.

 

After this post, do you think it is biblical to pursue happiness in God?  

What definition would YOU give to joy? 

Where have you seen joy used in an unusual way in the Bible?

16 thoughts on “Rethinking The Meaning of Joy

  • This is a great post on joy. I think a person who has and is walking with and toward God will be more joyful. I have seen many example between a persons joy who is walking with God and some one who is not. Great job Dave. 

  • After this post, do you think it is biblical to pursue happiness in God? Yes. Happiness can be one type of joy, but it depends on what the focus of that happiness is.

    What definition would YOU give to joy? Peace and contentment in all situations, knowing one day all will be complete joy.

    Where have you seen joy used in an unusual way in the Bible? “The joy of the Lord is my strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10). I love the idea that because God takes joy in my – namely my obedience – I get srength from that.

    I’m not sure how to put my thoughts on this today, and I almost didn’t because I’m a bit intimidated by all the biblical scholarship going on here. But, I want to learn from people who think deeply like this. I want to learn how to do this.

      • That’s harder to answer than I thought it would be. God finds joy in my obedience, and when I’m obedience, He leads me to joyous experiences. Writing is one example. I try very hard to be obedient to what He wants me to write. I believe that because that is my intention, my heart, He gives me great joy in writing/blogging, which then gives me the strength and courage to continue on even if I feel that I’m not successful in the world’s eyes. I have found this to be true with running/exercising too. Those are the two examples that jump out to me. Does it make any sense?

        • yes! Thanks Kari, and what a great cycle to continue in and hopefully get to the point that you experience joy at the moment of your obedience rather than further on in the cycle or after the fact 🙂 hope that made sense!  Thanks for checking us out Kari

  • WOW, very informative- you really did your homework! 

    It’s sad how our language takes away meaning from the Bible- this post reminds me when I studied the various types of love mentioned in the Bible. It really opens one’s eyes to see the fullness of God’s love and all the blessings that come when we devote our lives to Him.

    Serving Christ brings joy and that joy is indescribable- but you’ve done a really good job of it in this post! 

    • Don’t despair about translation issues. The reason I listed “Context” as the first tool is that it’s not only the most accessible but it’s also the most powerful. The way an author uses a word is the most important part of meaning and that is available to everyone.

      This post merely highlights the diversity of uses.

  • Great post Dave!  I love that you pulled this apart and when you see the Greek you cannot help but see how much cheer, pleasure, joy, and gladness is there!  I want to see happy Christians as a testimony for the kingdom!  Thanks for guest posting my man 🙂

  • Laughter, rejoice, be glad, so many meanings for for three letter word Joy. I am in awe of the context that you go into with this word. It just shows me that I need to study more in my bible, I feel like a babe amongst Giants. This was a great read and I find it very simple yet thorough explanation of the word. Thank you!

      •  Dave, everything I read in the bible brings me joy. Knowing that I am on the right path and I’m leading my family down that path to righteousness brings me great Joy.

        Deuteronomy 16:15 For seven days you shall keep the
        feast to the LORD your God at the place that the LORD will choose,
        because the LORD your God will bless you in all your produce and in all
        the work of your hands, so that you will be altogether joyful.

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