Have you had those days where nothing seems to go right? Or worse, a stretch of days or even a season?
Like your boss or your customers keep rejecting the proposals you spent days and nights preparing. Or you misplace your phone or keys just as you are rushing for an important appointment. Or everything seems to go haywire at home. And that thing you really wanted went to someone else…again.
When any number of these things happen, it’s hard to feel happy or positive, even if you hitch a “it’s all good” smile on your face and still go round passing generous compliments to others around you. Yup – I know.
One verse that I often quote in times like these, but always had trouble wrapping my head around, is:
[Don’t be dejected and sad], for the joy of the Lord is your strength! (Nehemiah 8:10b, NLT)
When things got tough and I felt stressed out, I would tell myself, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” When the going got rough and I felt tired and frustrated, I would try to remind myself, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.”
It didn’t make me feel happier.
It remained a vain repetition and hollow encouragement I sent to others. Until one day I started asking the Lord to open up the verse to me and I began meditating on it a little more.
It was then that I realised 2 things: that joy is different from and more powerful than happiness, and that I needed to find out more about what the joy of the Lord really is.
Though I’d heard it said that joy and happiness were different, I had often used the two synonymously. A quick check of most dictionaries’ definitions didn’t make things much clearer.
But I started noticing some differences upon a deeper search into the etymology or origin of the words.
The root word of ‘happy’ (and its noun ‘happiness’) comes from the Old English word ‘hap’, which relates to the circumstances leading i.e. what “happened” to cause the happiness.
Hence, our feeling happy is typically linked to the right events happening in our lives. For instance, a happy coincidence or a happy mistake.
Most of the world – and that’s also most of us – live according to this principle. We are happy when things go well and are right, and down when things are bad. Even the World Happiness Index measures how happy people are in a particular country arising from what’s good in that country.
Getting to the root of ‘joy’ was a bit trickier, because the word simply comes from older French and Latin words meaning ‘to rejoice’.
I went on to look up both ‘joy’ and ‘happy’ in the Bible, but found that the word for ‘joy’ in the Greek still comes from a root word meaning ‘to rejoice’.
Interestingly, though, I also found that:
- The word ‘joy’ appears over 5 times more often than ‘happy’ in the Bible – 165 times as compared to 28 times in the King James Version. And the word ‘happiness’ doesn’t appear at all. It’s clear that joy is what God sees and prioritises, not happiness.
- All the Hebrew and Greek words for ‘happy’ in the Bible carry the meaning of both happy and blessed. In fact, “happy” is often translated as ‘blessed’ in the English text. And the root word in Hebrew, ashar, has a meaning of ‘to be level or right’ – inevitably reminding us of the blessedness that we experience as a result of being made forever right with God through Jesus.
- The Greek word for joy is chara, which is related to charis, the word for grace, as well as the words charizomai which means give or forgive, charitoo which means highly favoured, and charisma which refers to grace gifts.
So joy is always tied up with the grace and unmerited favour of God, the forgiveness that has been freely given to us in Christ, our position of being highly favoured in Him, and the grace gifts we enjoy through Him!
Hence joy, for the believer, is a constant, something that remains the same regardless of the circumstances. In other words, being “happy all the time” – to use an oxymoron of sorts.
But I still wanted to find out what the joy of the Lord actually was, in a way that made sense to me and that would help me practically.
I knew that the Lord Jesus must be full of joy, and He was strong when He walked on earth because of this joy, since Nehemiah 8:10 promises that His joy would be our strength.
Contrary to how most movies make Him out to be, Jesus didn’t go round looking morose or sombre-faced. Rather, He was always cheerful and full of joy. Or, happy all the time. Otherwise, He wouldn’t have talked at length about joy to His disciples and having “His (My) joy” remain in them (John 15-17).
Yet Jesus walked among pretty grim circumstances. He didn’t spend His time hanging out with the rich and powerful, or hobnobbing with the religious elders discussing the finer points of doctrine or analysing the state of the people’s beliefs; He always went straight to those with needs – the sick, maimed, and oppressed.
How did Jesus remain joyful and unfazed when ordinarily the places He kept Himself in would get anyone depressed and discouraged? The one verse that mentions joy in relation to Jesus gives us a clue:
Now stay focused on Jesus…He endured the cross and ignored the shame of that death because He focused on the joy that was set before Him; (Hebrews 12:2, VOICE)
Jesus always focused on the joy set before Him – the joy of the victory that would surely come.
It’s the joy of seeing all of us redeemed, freed from our bonds, and completely supplied by His work. The joy of triumphing over all evil, of His kingdom being established forever, of enjoying eternity in heaven with all His beloved made spotless by His blood.
And the joy of that assured victory became more real than whatever He faced.
That’s how He healed, raised the dead, and fed the hungry without fail – He saw only the supply and victory that was already there. That’s how He taught, spoke, and operated in confidence and grace without being influenced by what was around Him – in the light of the promised victory that would be.
This, then, is the joy that is our strength – not anything that we perform or encounter, but simply seeing the victory of Jesus that has become ours.
Seeing as Jesus sees – that victory is our reality – is how we stay strong in the joy of Jesus.
It’s how we stay confidently positive even when things are falling apart. It’s how we continue smiling unconsciously even when things don’t go our way. And it’s how we maintain a secure hope in chaotic times and seasons of waiting.
Because we know – victory is ours.
Things may go up and down on any given day. I may not always feel happy.
But when I rest my eyes on the victory that I’m already standing in, and the even greater victory that awaits me, I can’t help but overflow with His joy and His abundant cheer.
Because when we encounter Jesus, we encounter grace.