Preachers have made much about the difference between joy and happiness. They say that joy is a steady inner condition of the heart, whereas happiness is an up-and-down response to conditions on the ground. “Nothing can steal your joy, but happiness depends on circumstances,” sayeth the preacher. 

But what does the word of God say?

Philippians 2:19-30 “I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. 20 For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. 21 For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. 22 But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel. 23 I hope therefore to send him just as soon as I see how it will go with me, 24 and I trust in the Lord that shortly I myself will come also. 25 I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, 26 for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. 27 Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. 28 I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. 29 So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, 30 for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.”

The popular distinction between joy and happiness that many preachers emphasize just doesn’t seem to be present in Paul’s thinking. There certainly isn’t a sharp distinction between the two. It may be helpful to say that there is a certain source of joy that no outward circumstances can take from us. Even when things are going badly, we still have our salvation. Nothing can touch that, so nothing can steal our joy associated with our salvation. Granted. But notice how Paul thinks:

  1. He wants to be “cheered” by receiving good news (2:19)
  2. Anxiety over the Philippians having received bad news has caused distress (2:26)
  3. The death of a loved one would result in “sorrow upon sorrow” (2:27)
  4. There is an eagerness to send good news that will cause joy—“rejoicing” (2:28a)
  5. The author of this letter about joy is himself experiencing anxiety (2:28b)
  6. The Philippians are encouraged to have joy when they receive the messenger (2:29)
  7. A fitting sense of honor for those who work in the Lord is connected to joy (2:30)

Notice that Paul appears to be completely unfamiliar with the pietistic concept that our joy is divested from outer circumstances. In each of the seven examples above, joy is explicitly connected to circumstances. Paul feels no need to be pious about this. He is human!

So, for Paul, as it is for us, outer circumstances are connected with our joy.

Does that mean that we are destined to live as emotional yo-yos? Are we supposed to be up one moment and down the next, yanked around by the good news and bad news we receive? Of course not. We have already said that the good news of Jesus Christ—the Gospel of Jesus Christ—is a steady source of joy that cannot be taken from us. We are always those “whom [God] took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to [us], “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off” (Isaiah 41:9). We have been lifted up in the most important way, and  God will never let us down. Like Mary who chose the better part, what we have in Christ will never be taken from us (Luke 10:42). So there is a certain joy that transcends circumstances.

Still we are human. And the principle that Paul delivers in Philippians 2:19-30 is that good news and bad news actually do affect our emotions, and that being the case, we ought to labor for the things that yield joy (2:19, 28-29), not those things that result in “distress” (2:26), “sorrow upon sorrow” (2:27), or anxiety (2:28). Notice how Paul does that. 

Paul is extremely active in procuring good news. The Philippians are anxious because their beloved Epaphras might be dead, so Paul is driving hard to get Epaphras (who actually has recovered from the illness) back to them to relieve them of their anxiety. Epaphras is worried about them worrying about him, so this also increases the urgency to send him back right away (2:25). Paul is very anxious about the state of the Philippian church, so he is making all kinds of arrangements to get workers to them (first Epaphras, then Timothy, then he himself). Passive Christians rarely receive good news, but active Christians receive good news often. 

In the same way that Paul worked hard to procure good news, we can invest in our own future joy. For example, when we made strong efforts to get resources to the Cornerstone Safe House Orphanage in Malawi, or sent visitors to bring good news to them and return good news to us, then we sowed seed for our own joy. How much joy have we received from the investments we’ve made in Hamilton’s ministry? This Sunday morning, we’ll show another picture of the progress of the Safe House. How much joy did we receive from hearing Gary Camlin relate what is happening in Portugal? How much joy do we get from hearing good news from people we love?

“Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him” (Psalm 126:5-6). When we work to make disciples, to baptize new believers,  or to build space for more worshippers, we are sowing for future good news. 

Good news is what makes us humans happy. Active Christians regularly receive good news. Passive Christians not so much. When we have many logs on the fire, there is plenty of warmth in the room.