I once heard a comedian jest about the idiomatic misuse of words by English speaking people. With tongue in cheek, he spent about fifteen minutes offering some very witty examples. For instance, he pointed out that we call goods transported on the sea CARgo, but those same goods transported on land are called a SHIPment.
He then asked the rhetoric question “why do we park in DRIVEways”? He had the audience in stitches as he ran through a list of oxymoronic terms and misplaced words. He received an avalanche of laughs and a hearty round of applause as he cleverly pinged upon how we often use words in contrasting context.
Christians are not exempt from making similar mistakes when it comes to words in the Bible. Sometimes we can inadvertently misuse words without even realizing it. For example, many use the words “soul” and “spirit” interchangeably in places where there is absolutely no similarity in their application. Others do not allow that the word “wine” is used for both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. Still others confuse the words “Nazarite” and “Nazarene” when they speak of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Admittedly, these types of “slips” are usually nothing more than innocent miscues during casual conversation and no harm is really caused to anyone. It is not necessary to champion corrections of every misuse of a Biblical word or term when we are merely conversing with other people.
There are times however, when correction is warranted and we should take a stand and speak up. Sometimes the misunderstanding of a word(s) can adversely impact upon someone’s personal Christian experience without their even knowing it.
It is the responsibility of a discerning brother or sister to help a younger Christian understand more perfectly the components and benefits of their faith. A good example of this would be the commonly accepted use of the two words “joy” and “happiness”. We use them interchangeably without giving it much thought.
Admittedly, since both words represent a positive state of mind, it is easy to assume that both are similar in meaning. Who hasn’t used the term “I jumped for joy” to express their happiness? Moreover, who has not understood what the person making that declaration meant?
On a practical level, use of either word to describe positive emotions is acceptable. Communication is effected when both parties understand and there is no misunderstanding when we use those words on a practical level. However, a closer examination of the use of these words in scripture gives us a better understanding of their intended meaning, particularly for the Christian.
For the born again believer, these words can never mean the same thing. We may still use both with impunity to express how we feel, but when it comes to expressing our faith and understanding what we have in Christ Jesus, the two should never be confused.
Happiness is an emotion. It is reactive. When good things happen to us we are happy. Conversely, when bad things happen, we are not happy. Consequently, happiness is fleeting. It comes and goes depending upon the circumstances in our lives. It is a reaction to those circumstances.
Joy can be labeled an emotion as well, but it is not reactive, at least not according to scripture. Joy is lasting and immutable in the Christian’s life, not fleeting like happiness. In addition to being the second attribute of the fruit of the Spirit revealed in Galatians chapter 5, we are told in James 1:2 (kjv):
“My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations”.
If you put two Christians together, they can usually find some minuscule issue to argue about, but when it comes to the subject of temptations or testing, I think all agree that this aspect of the Christian experience is not at all pleasant. I have never heard any of my fellow believers say “I am so glad that God allowed this adversity to come into my life”.
The truth is that times of testing are not happy times. We accept them without complaint, because we know that the Lord is working in our lives and only good can come from it. Despite that assurance, the fact remains, we are not happy during times of testing. Happiness goes on hiatus, but joy remains.
Is this verse in James telling us to be happy during our testing? No, it is not. In fact, by encouraging us to be joyful through the testing, the verse actually acknowledges that testing makes us unhappy. The real message is that while we are unhappy due to the circumstances we find ourselves in, we can still have joy.
Happiness is dependent upon the circumstances of our lives. Joy is not. Joy is something we have irrespective of what happens in our life, good or bad. Happiness is something we project when we feel good. Joy comes from our relationship with Jesus Christ.
We have joy because of our reconciliation with God through his Son the Lord Jesus Christ. We have joy because of all the promises of God in Christ Jesus. We have joy because nothing can ever change our new relationship with God. Consequently, our joy is constant and unchanging.
We can be happy and joyful at the same time, but more importantly, when life’s circumstances deal us a hard blow, we can be joyful though unhappy.