by Angela T. Khabeb—
According to Merriam-Webster, joy is “the emotion evoked by well-being, success or good fortune.” Happiness, the dictionary attests, means “to be favored by luck or fortune.” At first glance, it might appear that happiness and joy are synonymous, but our sacred texts teach us otherwise. For example, the prophet Nehemiah proclaims, “the joy of the Lord”—rather than the happiness—“is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).
Happiness is directly connected to what is happening around us. Happiness is fleeting, temporal. Have you ever seen a commercial that promises all will be well for $19.99 plus shipping and handling? Perhaps it was an advertisement for skin cream, diet pills or the perfect umbrella. Act now, and you’ll get an extra order for free!
Joy, however, is everlasting. The joy that is found in God’s presence does not fade away.
JOY AT MIDNIGHT
When I think about joy in the context of faith, I am immediately drawn to the many-layered narrative of Paul and Silas. In the book of Acts, these two men are attacked by an angry mob. They are taken before the magistrate, stripped, brutally flogged and thrown into prison—in the innermost cell.
There in the darkness, at “about midnight,” something bubbles up inside of Paul and Silas. Despite the terror of their circumstances, they begin to praise God. Everyone in the prison hears them—including the prisoners and the jailer. And God answers their midnight joy with an earthquake. The foundation of the prison begins to shake. The shackles fall from their feet, and the prison doors fling open. Paul, Silas, and all of the jail’s prisoners are liberated. The power of joy cannot be contained.
When the jailer realizes that the prison doors are open, he is overcome by fear of repercussions from his commanding officers. He grabs a sword with the intention of dying by suicide. But in an act of extreme benevolence, Paul and Silas interrupt his plans. They cry out to the jailer to let him know that the prisoners are still there, that he shouldn’t hurt himself. This midnight joy is so transformative it leads Paul and Silas to save their enemy. In the jailer’s midnight hour, Paul and Silas became light for him.
We’re fond of quoting from 1 Kings 19:12, where God speaks to the Prophet Elijah in a still, small voice. But sometimes, God does indeed answer with an earthquake—our lives are reordered, and we are never the same again. Midnight joy has the power to permanently transform us. Midnight joy is something that no one can take from us. You don’t have to pay taxes on it, and there’s no penalty for early withdrawal. It cannot be repossessed.
Happiness is like the morning dew. It’s sweet and refreshing, yet it quickly evaporates under the scorching heat of grief, betrayal and devastation. Joy remains after happiness has left the building. Happiness comes for the party. Joy stays to help you clean up the mess. Happiness resides on the mountain top and rarely forsakes its inviting vista to venture into the valley. Joy, however, will travel with you through the valley of the shadow of death and stay there with you no matter what. Joy is rooted in a “some-way-somehow-we’re-gonna-make-it” spirit.
When the three Hebrew boys, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were thrown into the fiery furnace, happiness was nowhere to be found. But joy endured the torment of the flames.
The Rev. Angela T. Khabeb is a pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. She has an amazing husband, Benhi, and three spectacular children, Konami, Khenna and Khonni
This article is excerpted from the November 2019 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.