Why Christians are Wrong about Joy (by Margaret Feinberg)

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Today I am thrilled to share a guest post from a woman of valor I have long admired—Margaret Feinberg. Margaret is a popular Bible teacher and speaker whose books, including The Organic God, The Sacred Echo, Scouting the Divine, and Wonderstruck and their corresponding Bible studies, have sold nearly one million copies. In July 2013, Margaret was diagnosed with cancer. She shares her harrowing journey in her latest book and Bible study, Fight Back With Joy: Celebrate More. Regret Less. Stare Down Your Greatest Fears.  You can learn more at www.margaretfeinberg.com. Follow Margaret on Twitter @mafeinberg.


Many Christians argue that being joyful is better than being happy—and they’re dead wrong. 

Over the years, I’ve listened to countless sermons suggesting that joy is the ultimate prize and happiness is a booby trap. Steer clear. Those cheery feelings are waiting for an opportune moment to pull a bait-and-switch on you. And you’ll be sorry. 

Perhaps the pastor never put it in those terms, but that felt like the takeaway. 

Joy rises above circumstances. Happiness will sink you. 

I spent decades giving the stink eye to happiness and waiting for joy to take up residence in my life. But I was never confident if joy was at home in me. Maybe she was napping in the guest room or hiding in a closet. 

Joy always felt elusive. 

Three years ago, I decided to reexamine all I’d be taught. I paired studying the more than 400 references to joy and happiness throughout the Scripture with recent scientific studies on the subject. My research soon confirmed what the Scriptures tell us, namely, that many of the things we think will bring us happiness don’t. Contrary to people’s most common responses, money doesn’t bring happiness. Once a person’s most basic needs, including food, water, shelter, clothing, and health, are met, additional money has little power to increase happiness.(i) 

Studies reveal that each of us is born with a set point for happiness. Though significant life events like losing a loved one or winning the lottery may result in temporary depression or elation, most people return to their happiness set point, which they oscillate around over the course of their life. 

Genetics account for approximately 50 of a person’s happiness set point, and life circumstances such as gender, ethnicity, marital status, occupation, and religious affiliation account influence another 10 percent. But the remaining is a product of the way we think and act.(ii)  

This suggests that though you and I have different natural dispositions, we can push ourselves toward the high or low end of our “set point” based on our thoughts and actions. 

Now an abusive or toxic environment will override anyone’s happiness set point. The impact of violence, injustice, malnutrition, and extreme poverty cannot be trivialized. But assuming a person’s basic needs are being met, scientists are studying what external factors can bump up a person’s happiness set point. 

They’ve discovered the things that actually bring happiness are long-term loving relationships, strong social connections, the opportunity to pursue meaningful work, a sense of optimism and openness to new experiences, as well as a spiritual belief or identification with an issue or idea larger than oneself.(iii) 

I was fascinated that very items scientists identify as increasing our level of happiness are the very things that God calls us to as followers of Christ. 

As we fulfill the great command to love God and love others, our long-term relations and connections to other will naturally grow stronger and deeper (Matthew 27:37-39). When we keep our eyes on God in our workplace, we naturally find more meaning and satisfaction in our labor (Colossians 3:24). As we walk in greater levels of faith, hope, and love, we can’t help but grow in optimism and a willingness to try new things (1 Corinthians 13:13). And those who give themselves fully to God will be filled with an inexpressible joy (1 Peter 1:8).

The research led me deeper into the Scripture where I began asking:

What if we can’t experience a fullness of joy apart from happiness? 

What if the reason we have joy is not in spite of our circumstances but because of them? 

What if the reason joy feels so elusive is because our definition of joy is too narrow? 

I’m now convinced the writers of the Bible would say we have joy because of our great circumstances. As children of God, we are drenched in the grace and mercy of God. Joy and happiness walk hand in hand. You can’t give the stink eye one—you give it to both. 

In fact, Scripture reveals joy as a spectrum of emotions, actions, and responses that includes happiness, gladness, cheer, merriment, delighting, dancing, shouting, exulting, rejoicing, laughing, playing, brightening, blessing and being blessed, taking pleasure in and being well pleased.

Discovering the fullness of joy means opening ourselves to the wide spectrum of ways God has wired us to experience it. Suddenly, joy isn’t elusive, but every day. It’s slips into our prayers when we say gracias. It tumbles in rumbles of laughter and dances when we lift our voice in praise. It curls on the couch as we embrace moments of deep shalom. 

Throughout the Old Testament, the Hebrew word ‘asher describes a person pronounced “happy” or “blessed.” This word often appears within the context of the flourishing of God’s people: “Happy is that people, that is in such a case: yea, happy is that people, whose God is the LORD” (Psalm 144:15).

Throughout the New Testament, the Greek word makarios describes someone who is “happy” or “blessed” and is used. “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven” can be understood as “Happy” are the poor in spirit. Jesus promised the makarios life when he said, “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them” (John 3:17, KJV).

But here’s the dark irony. 

I spent an entire year studying joy and happiness. With only two weeks remaining until I turned in a manuscript that included these discoveries, I felt a lump on my chest. 

I soon discovered I had breast cancer. 

The diagnosis trashed my book. I had been pursuing and activating joy in my life in the relatively good times, now I had to do it in the midst of darkness, depression, torturous pain. 

No one signs up for that assignment. No one. 

But let’s be honest. Sooner or later we all find ourselves on a battlefield of life. Sometimes you pick the fight. Sometimes the fight picks you. Mine was a diagnosis. Maybe yours is divorce, foreclosure, unemployment, or the death of someone you adored. 

In these moments, we must choose how we respond. Anger. Bitterness. Cynicism. Slipping into a funk no one can rescue us from. 

What if we chose to fight back with joy? 

Over the last 20 months, I’ve been learning through great suffering and torture that more than whimsy, joy is a weapon we use to fight life’s battles. Because sometimes you have to poke holes in the darkness until it bleeds light. 

If you like your joy sugary sweet, you’re going to hate Fight Back With Joy. 

And honestly? I’m okay with that.

If you like your joy served up gritty, honesty and real, then you just might find a new friend and kindred spirit. 

Because to lay hold of this deeper, richer joy, we’re going to have to let go of what we thought we knew to discover what God wants to give us. 

  i. http://www.earth.columbia.edu/sitefiles/file/Sachs%20Writing/2012/World%20Happiness%20Report.pdf
ii. http://health.usnews.com/health-news/family-health/brain-and-behavior/articles/2009/06/24/how-positive-psychology-can-increase-your-happiness
iii.Braun, Stephen. The Science of Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Mood. (New York: John Wiley & Sons), 2000. pp. 35-36. 


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