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.