Is Joy Unemotional, and Is It More Spiritual Than Happiness?

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.”[i] Another says, “Joy is not an emotion. It is a choice.”[ii]

The idea that “joy is not an emotion” promotes an unbiblical myth. Yet that statement appears online more than 17,000 times, virtually all of them by Christians. Most unbelievers rightly realize that happiness, gladness, and joy are synonyms, and they involve real emotions, which are not bad, but good.

A Bible study says, “Spiritual joy is not an emotion. It’s a response to a Spirit-filled life.”[iii] 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.[iv]

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.”[v] 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?

I share more in this video interview with Faithlife's Daniel Di Bartolo.

[i] Greg Forster, The Joy of Calvinism: Knowing God’s Personal, Unconditional, Irresistible, Unbreakable Love (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 147–48.

[ii] Ricardo Sanchez, It’s Not Over (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House Book Group, 2012), 144.

[iii] Elizabeth George, Walking with the Women of the Bible: A Devotional Journey through God’s Word (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1999), 28.

[iv] Hannah Whitall Smith, The Christian’s Secret of a Holy Life: The Unpublished Personal Writings of Hannah Whitall Smith, ed. Melvin E. Dieter (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1997).

[v] George Vaillant, “The Difference Joy Makes: Finding Contentment through Psychotherapy and Christian Faith,” Conference at the Institute of Religion, Houston, October 8–9, 1998.

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Randy Alcorn, founder of EPM

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over fifty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries

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