It’s really easy to confuse joy and happiness. But there are actually some important differences between the two. There’s really not a lot in the Bible about happiness, which is kind of surprising given how the pursuit of happiness seems to be the driving force in many people’s lives today. But the biblical writers focus more on joy.
One reason for this is because happiness is an emotion, whereas joy is an attitude or a disposition. I asked my co-worker, Doug Smith, about this since he’s a licensed marriage and family therapist. Doug gave me some great insight on the difference between happiness and joy. He said, “Happiness is an emotional response we naturally experience when things go our way. But joy is an attitude that can be placed alongside any emotional response.”
That means that happiness has more to do with our circumstances. You do well on a job interview or a chemistry test; your favorite team wins the game. These good outcomes make us happy. But joy runs deeper because it isn’t based on our circumstances. Joy is a mindset that is constant, even if you bomb the job interview or the chemistry test. Those things won’t make you happy — not at all. But we can choose to have a joyful mindset no matter what happens. That choice is ever before us.
And according to our key text for this week, that’s one of the biblical keys for overcoming anxiety.
Philippians 4 says, Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! God’s prescription for anxiety treatment begins with a double dose of choosing joy. Think about it: God wouldn’t tell us to do something if we were incapable of making the choice to obey. So this means that in any situation, we can choose the way of joy. You find this message repeated elsewhere in the scriptures:
- 1 Peter 1:6, In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.
- James 1:2, Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds…
We’re not told to be happy in these circumstances, only that we are to be joyful.
And the source of our joy is key — Paul says, Rejoice in the Lord. That’s a command that is found eleven times in the Old Testament and Paul repeats it here in Philippians. To rejoice in the Lord is to joyfully trust Him even when fear is doing its worst in us. When it feels as if anxiety is choking us to death, THAT is the moment for doubling down on the promises of God. Greek scholars note that Paul is essentially saying, “continually, habitually rejoice in the Lord.” Paul is telling us we need to make a habit of intentionally choosing joy — of rejoicing in the Lord when our anxiety peaks.
So when you feel that anxiety threatening to choke you, choose to rejoice in the Lord. If things are spinning out of control, try telling yourself, “So what; I have Jesus.” And see if that helps with your anxiety.
Paul says, Be anxious for nothing. And in the next breath, he’s talking about prayer. That tells me that prayer is one of the keys for overcoming anxiety.
According to the New International Greek Testament Commentary, this verse could literally be translated: Stop worrying and start praying. Pretty good advice. Prayer is simply another way of expressing our trust in God. I think that explains the biblical emphasis on praying in all circumstances.
In Ephesians 6:18, Paul writes, And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. This passage occurs in the context of Paul’s teaching about spiritual warfare, which is why this same verse is translated this way in The Message: Prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare. Pray hard and long. Pray for your brothers and sisters.
Here we see the wisdom of God at work. God’s prescription against anxiety includes the intentional habit of prayer.
Doug tells me that a lot of research in the counseling world is now affirming some of the same things we find throughout God’s Word: the importance of finding your meaning in a story that’s greater than yourself; the efficacy of practices like fasting and expressing gratitude — which is essentially prayer. But biblical teaching shows us that prayer is much more than simply a therapeutic remedy. In Ephesians 6, it’s an act of spiritual warfare. Prayer is a weapon God gives us battle our anxieties.
Prayer is the most reliable path to peace. In my life, that’s been true. When I feel anxiety coming on strong, nothing brings peace to my anxious heart like time spent in prayer with the Lord. As we’ve said, it’s those times when things feel as if they’re spinning out of control that our anxiety is at its worst. But that time in prayer helps remind me that God is in control. You know, God is great at crisis management. He’s far better at it than I am. And prayer is just a simple reminder of that.
Our passage today stresses the link between prayer and peace. When we stop worrying and start praying, it says that the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds in Christ.
I want you to picture yourself when anxiety is doing its worst in you. Maybe you have a short fuse when this happens or you tend to medicate your stress with overeating or TV binges or something else. Your mind is always divided between what you’re supposed to be doing and the worry that overwhelms you. Your thoughts are constantly fixated on the “What if” scenarios that enslave you to fear. You’re fidgety, you’re exhausted, you’re not sleeping well — whatever that looks like for you, picture it. Hold that image in your mind for a moment.
And then I want you to try and picture a different version of yourself — one that is completely at peace. Instead of expending so much energy worrying about everything, this version of yourself is the most secure person in the room because the peace of God has flooded your heart and your soul. You can breathe deeply; you rest at night in the trusting knowledge that God is in control. You no longer feel the need to be in control all the time. When you feel anxiety bubbling up, you pause and you pray and you experience true joy — because you know that God is truly sovereign.
Doesn’t that sound like a better way to live?
Is it possible that God could transform you into this more peaceful version of yourself by setting you free from the bondage of anxiety?
Could it be that at least some of your anxiety is rooted in something that you need to turn over to the Lord? Are you tired of trying to be in control all the time? Doesn’t it sound liberating to think about turning those concerns and worries over to the One who can truly manage them all?
The way of King Jesus is truly the good life. That’s what it means to be anxious for nothing.