“Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines;
the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat;
the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls:
yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation” (Habakkuk 3:17-18).
You know the usual rubric: “Joy is an attitude; happiness is a feeling.” In other words, happiness depends on happenings, and thus goes up and down; in contrast, joy is something deeper and more steady. Is this true?
Several years ago, in teaching through Philippians–the epistle on joy–it struck me that joy is actually circumstantial, that is, based on circumstances. Just read the epistle. Paul rejoiced because of things that were happening, just as if he were happy. True, he rejoiced in the Lord, but only because the Lord was behind all the happenings. Does this not seem odd? It is as if Paul is simply happy.
True, Paul was in prison, and rival preachers sought to add pain to his chains; yet in all this Paul kept his eye on the good that the Lord was doing in the midst of the pain: guards came to saving faith, brothers still free were emboldened to preach the Gospel, and even the rival preachers preached Christ–a point on which Paul resolved, “I rejoice, yea, and will rejoice” (Philippians 1:18).
Only the eye of faith could spot the goodness amid the badness. Perhaps we dismiss happiness in favor of some supposed “joy” because we are weak in faith and fail to spot the grace in every place. Only Spirit-empowered faith spots grace and holds it firm as if already possessing it (Hebrews 11:1).
When Paul blessed the Roman Christians, he prayed, “Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost” (Romans 15:13). The words “fill” and “all” and “abound” remind us that God desires to maximize our joy and peace, which are the feelings of hope; but these feelings come to us by means of believing. Often we must believe in the reality of something future, which we will someday receive, and thus rejoice now in hope (Romans 12:12; e.g. Matthew 5:12; Hebrews 10:34). Either way, whether we already have the grace, and need only to spot it amid the pain, or whether we will certainly have the grace, and need to rejoice in hope of receiving it, it is still true that circumstances provoke the joy. Yes, we rejoice “in the Lord,” but we do so because we experience Him through the circumstances of life (e.g. Philippians 4:10).
But what about the extreme circumstances, when, for example, a man loses both wife and mother in almost a day (as Teddy Roosevelt experienced early in life)? How can a man rejoice then? Is there no place for grief and a deeper attitude of joy? Who could feel simply “happy” then?
To answer such questions quickly would seem insensitive and presumptuous, as if one were himself exempt from the crucible of life. Moreover, such questions are certainly valid given Jesus’ title as “Man of Sorrows” (Isaiah 53:3) and even the apostle Paul’s own admission that he was once depressed (“cast down”) and often felt “great heaviness and continual sorrow” for his perishing countrymen (2 Corinthians 7:5-6; Romans 9:1-3). From such references it appears that a life of joy is not one-dimensional, excluding all other emotions due to simultaneous thoughts in two or more real directions. In that sense, joy is not simply happiness. Jesus did have joy set before Him, but the nails bore deep (Hebrews 12:2). We do not grieve as those without hope, but our Lord Himself did weep near a grave (1 Thessalonians 4:13; John 11:35). Life is complex. Joy and hope; pain and grief. Thankfully, life is never just unmitigated grief, for “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).
In the text given above, we have an extreme condition–no blooms, no fruit, no olives, no meat, no flocks, no herds, and all due to the impending invasion of a ruthless foe. If anyone had just cause for lacking happiness, it was the prophet Habakkuk; and yet, he choose to rejoice in the Lord (just as Paul would later say) and to encapsulate his joy in a song, which is the substance of chapter three. But why did Habakkuk rejoice? What made him joyful enough to sing? Was it just the thought of an abstract God, a God with whom He had nothing to do, but yet in whom he needed to rejoice despite all circumstances? Not exactly. Habakkuk took joy in “the God of my salvation”–in other words, in the God who will save me. Joy is circumstantial, even if the circumstances are still in the future, guaranteed by the grace of God. Believer, believe and rejoice in Lord always (Philippians 4:4)!