Should Our Joy Depend on Our Circumstances?

Note from Randy: I was reading, and immediately appreciating this article sentences before the author mentioned my book Happiness! I wanted to share it because Pastor Steve Bateman gives an important correction to the modern sentiment that being happy due to positive circumstances, including the welfare of loved ones, is somehow unspiritual. True, circumstances change, and our happiness should be grounded on Christ, who doesn’t change, but that doesn’t make it inappropriate to rejoice in favorable immediate circumstances.

Instead of saying, “My circumstances don’t matter; they’re not the source of my joy,” we’d be better off saying: “God uses my best circumstances to encourage me, and He can use my worst circumstances to enrich me. He will never leave me, and He has promised me eternal life with Him on a New Earth in a resurrected universe. One day He’ll welcome me into His never-ending happiness.”

As Steve reminds us, our immediate circumstances do matter. But in the scope of eternity, they’re not the main source of our joy because of our ultimate circumstances in Christ, which can never be taken away from us.

My Joy Depends on My Circumstances

By Steve Bateman

When I was a young pastor, a church elder detected my discouragement one day and gently said, “It will look better in the morning.” This simple advice has helped me countless times since. Often after I’ve experienced a good night’s sleep and a brisk run, God has felt nearer, my problems smaller, the solutions clearer, and my future brighter.

By changing my circumstances, I increased my joy.

At this point, many evangelicals will rush to correct me: “No. You increased your happiness, not your joy. Happiness depends on circumstances; joy does not. The world experiences happiness, but only Christians experience joy.”

This popular distinction between happiness and joy hasn’t always existed in the church. Randy Alcorn makes a convincing case that the two biblical terms are interchangeable, and he traces the artificial distinction at least back to Oswald Chambers in the mid-20th century. If Alcorn is right (I think he is), then either joy and happiness both depend on circumstances or both don’t. What’s true of one will be true of the other.

2 Kinds of Circumstances

“Circumstance” literally means “to stand around.” Imagine yourself at the center of a circle, and certain objective facts stand around the circumference. Four facts surround you: you got a good night’s sleep, you’ve had a strong cup of coffee, your daughter just made the dean’s list, and your boss just gave you a raise. The normal response to these objective facts is genuine joy. You’ll feel happy—whether you’re a Christian or not.

Now imagine the circumstantial facts are these: your allergies kept you up all night, you spilled your coffee while driving, your daughter is failing a class, and your boss just fired you. The normal response to these objective facts is genuine sorrow. You’ll feel sad—whether you’re a Christian or not.

Believers share these kinds of circumstances with unbelievers. Because of common guilt, children of God aren’t immune from the sorrow produced by the fall; because of common grace, children of wrath aren’t deprived of the joy preserved in the imago Dei. Unbelievers experience genuine joy as they receive the Creator’s good gifts, even if they don’t acknowledge him who satisfies their “hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17).

Beyond the facts of this immediate circle, there’s another circle with different circumstances—ultimate ones. These are the attributes, acts, and promises of God. For the unbeliever, such ultimate circumstances are bad news: God’s omniscience means every secret sin is fully known; his holiness ensures judgment is inevitable; his omnipresence renders judgment inescapable. These objective facts create a terrifying ring of circumstances for the unbeliever.

How does the unbeliever emotionally cope with these traumatic circumstances? By worshiping creation rather than the Creator and pursuing happiness in the gifts, not the Giver. Through spiritual blindness and willful denial, he cannot see beyond his immediate circumstances. Sure, replacing the living God with lifeless idols may bring joy for a season—yet with diminishing returns. His idols eventually fail him.

For the believer, the ultimate circumstances are happy facts. God’s omniscience means he knows our needs; his omnipotence ensures he can meet them; his compassion moves him to care about them; his providence confirms that every unmet need has a loving (even if hidden) purpose. Facts like the immutability of God, the substitutionary atonement and triumphant resurrection of Christ, justification by faith alone, and the promise of eternal life are firmly and forever standing their ground in a circle around me. My joy is completely dependent on these ultimate circumstances.

As Milton Vincent put it, “The gospel is one great permanent circumstance in which I live and move; and every hardship in my life is allowed by God only because it serves his gospel purposes in me.”

God of Hope

To be sure, we can often find joy in the happy facts of our immediate circumstances, since they’re kindly ordered by God. He “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17): food and drink, family and friends, houses and health, Bibles and bikes, music and sports. The believer is free to have as much fun as legally possible while cheerfully obeying the laws of God and promoting the joy of others. While unbelievers hope for happiness from the world, believers hope for happiness in the world as they enjoy God’s good gifts with grateful hearts.

The missionary David Brainerd acknowledged our “absolute dependence” on God for “every crumb of happiness” we enjoy. Acknowledge this dependence and find guilt-free happiness in deep sleepvigorous exercise, good food, close friends, public worship, meaningful work, and robust coffeecoram Deo. When we know the Lord has done great things for us, our mouth will be “filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy” (Ps. 126:2).

But when our joy is threatened by painful circumstances—when we’re shocked by sudden loss, paralyzed by gut-wrenching grief, or weakened by chronic disease—we fall back on hope. Hope is the fact-based conviction that no matter how bad things are now, they’ll get better.

Jesus prayed in Gethsemane with no outward evidence of joy. A bitter cup sat in his immediate circumstances. Why pursue this torturous path? For “the joy that was set before him” (Heb. 12:2). No matter how bad his immediate circumstances were, he knew they’d improve. For also standing beside the bleeding Son was the ultimate circumstance of an omnipotently kind Father.

As others have observed, for the unbeliever who doesn’t repent, this world’s fleeting joy is the closest he’ll get to heaven. For the believer, this world’s momentary sorrow is the closest he’ll get to hell. This is why Paul can rejoice in prison, knowing it has actually “served to advance the gospel” (Phil. 1:12). Immediate circumstance: Caesar’s prison. Ultimate circumstance: God’s purposes.

Again, Paul can say to Christians weeping over fresh graves that their grief differs from the grief of those who “have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). Immediate circumstance: the believer is dead. Ultimate circumstance: the believer will be raised.

Dynamic Partnership

Joy and hope are faithful friends. “Two are better than one,” and when our joy stumbles under the load of immediate circumstances, hope is there to “lift up his fellow” (Eccl. 4:9–10). Hope and joy cooperate for our endurance. Hope sustains us until we can feel joy again.

On the last day, the ultimate circumstances will swallow up our immediate circumstances, and every tear will be wiped away. Until then, by God’s grace, I’ll pursue joy by changing every circumstance biblical wisdom allows me to change. I’ll accept every sad circumstance I’m unable to change as the providence of the all-wise God. And I’ll remember ancient advice: “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps. 30:5).

This article originally appeared on The Gospel Coalition, and is used with the author’s permission.

Photo by Alex Radelich on Unsplash