A Christian writer says, “We don’t get joy by seeking a better emotional life, because joy is not an emotion. It is a settled certainty that God is in control.”[19] Another says, “Joy is not an emotion. It is a choice.”[20]

The idea that “joy is not an emotion” (a statement that appears online more than 17,000 times) promotes an unbiblical myth.

A Bible study says, “Spiritual joy is not an emotion. It’s a response to a Spirit-filled life.”[21] But if this response doesn’t involve emotions of happiness or gladness, what makes it joy?

Some claim that joy is a fruit of the Spirit, not an emotion. But in Galatians 5:22, love and peace surround the word joy. If you love someone, don’t you feel something? What is peace if not something you feel?

Hannah Whitall Smith gave her son this advice:

Say night and morning, and whenever through the day you think of it, “Dear Lord make me happy in you,” and leave it there. All the rest will come out right when once you are happy in Him. And this happiness will be the beginning; remember; “love, joy and peace” are the first fruits mentioned.

A hundred years ago, every Christian knew the meaning of joy. Today, if you ask a group of Christians, “What does joy mean?” most will grope for words, with only one emphatic opinion: that joy is different from happiness. This is like saying that rain isn’t wet or ice isn’t cold. Scripture, dictionaries, and common language don’t support this separation.

I googled “define joy,” and the first result was this dictionary definition: “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness.” This definition harmonizes with other dictionaries and ordinary conversations, yet it contradicts countless Christian books and sermons. The church’s misguided distinction between joy and happiness has twisted the words. Christian psychiatrist George Vaillant says, “Happiness is secular, joy sacred.”[23] So we should be joyful but not happy when reading the Bible, praying, and worshiping? Is the Christian life really divided into the secular and sacred, or is every part of our lives, even the ordinary moments, to be centered in God?

Here’s just a tiny sampling of this misguided thinking:

  • A book on Christian ministry has a chapter called “Happiness vs. Joy.” It says, “Joy and happiness are very different.”[24]
  • In a chapter titled “Joy versus Happiness” a different Christian author states, “Happiness is a feeling, while joy is a state of being.”[25]
  • Another claims, “Joy is distinctly a Christian word and a Christian thing. It is the reverse of happiness.”[26]
  • In an article called “Jesus Doesn’t Want You to Be Happy,” the author states, “As you read through the gospels you’ll see plenty of promises of joy, but none of happiness. And they are infinitely different things.”[27]

Happiness is the reverse of joy? The two are infinitely different? Is there nothing more to joy than “a state of being”? Is emotion something we should reject, or is it a gift of God, part of being made in his likeness?

God created not only our minds but also our hearts. Sure, emotions can be manipulated, but so can intellects. God designed us to have emotions, and he doesn’t want us to shun or disregard them. It’s ill advised to redefine joy and happiness and pit them against each other rather than embracing the emotional satisfaction of knowing, loving, and following Jesus.

Alcorn, Randy. 2015. Happiness. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

Check out our Bible Study on the book of Philippians, using David’s Jeremiah’s book, Count It All Joy as a guide. It is on Amazon as well as part of the Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription service. Like Netflix for Bible Lessons, one low subscription gives you access to all our lessons–thousands of them. For a medium-sized church, lessons are as little as $10 per teacher per year.