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!
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.
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.
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?
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)
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:
- Determine what Greek root word underlies the text
- Find other occurrences of that root word
- Discern which other occurrences match the usage of the original passage
- Use the other occurrences to determine the meaning of the word in context
“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?