The Difference Between Joy and Happiness

Doctrine: “… Joy is a gift for the faithful. It is the gift that comes from intentionally trying to live a righteous life, as taught by Jesus Christ” (President Russell M. Nelson, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Joy and Spiritual Survival, October 2016 Conference). Joy is not simply a brief feeling of happiness. It is not a fleeting high. It is a purity of feeling unhindered by any remorse, regret, guilt, uncertainty, or self-deceit.

As I was watching General Conference this morning (Sunday, October 2, 2016) some interesting thoughts came to my mind after hearing President Russell M. Nelson talk about Joy. He said that the unrighteous experience many feelings but that they cannot experience joy. I found this particularly profound because I think many who are quite good but who do not live up to their godly potential (or at least try) feel that they do experience joy. They would, perhaps, not agree with his statement

However, I think what they actually experience are brief and potent moments of happiness that are tinged, even if only slightly, by a feeling of sorrow—of some type. It is not the true joy spoken of by prophets or promised by God. It is incomplete. It is a feeling that is good, but not full, and devoid of peace. Let me explain.

When I was teaching early morning seminary for several years; one year in particular, I remember focusing a great deal with my students on the doctrine: sin makes you stupid. This is a sort of a colloquial way to talk about the effects of sin on our ability to recognize, discern, and avoid sin. We also talked about several specific ways that sin dulls the light of truth and joy we are capable of receiving.

First, is that sin is addictive in all its forms whether to lesser or greater degrees. This is because sin is trying to get something good in a way other than that way which God has designed for us—which is the best way and the only way that will bring us joy. So, because we are pursuing a roundabout way of getting the good we desire, we cannot get the full benefit. In consequence, we have bouts of momentary happiness, but ultimately something is missing. The addiction to the sin takes place in that because we are left psychologically, emotionally, physically, or spiritually hungry (whether to a lesser or greater extent) we have to keep returning to our sin to fill our hunger for joy. We continue to try to get a fullness of joy out of something which can only give us short bouts of happiness.

Second, is that sin is not compulsory. This means that no matter the negative we suffer or that someone threatens us with, we cannot be forced to sin. We can choose to sin in response to negative experiences or because of threats, but those experiences or threats, in and of themselves, cannot force our will. So, those that succumb to the idea that they can be forced to sin can never achieve a fullness of joy because they never accept a fullness of accountability. The power of accepting accountability is that is also gives us the power to change. So, those that are determined to blame others for their unhappiness, problems, or choices to sin, can never experience a fullness of joy because they have robbed themselves of the power to choose it.

Third, is that sin, and its effects/consequences, are often contagious, like a disease. Whether we actually choose to commit a sin or not, we cannot experience a fullness of joy if we choose, minimally, to surround ourselves to some extent with sinful environments or behavior. This is because joy is a gift of the Spirit. If we don’t willfully commit sin but we purposefully surround ourselves with sin, its ability to rob us of the Spirit, and therefore light, truth, and joy, is still something we will experience as if we too are involved in the sin. We may experience bouts of happiness, laughter, excitement, but never true joy and peace.

Fourth, is that sin invites darkness and shuns light. Darkness and light can be metaphors for knowledge, truth, reality, the Spirit, and so forth. Sin is determined to pursue its idea of happiness and good in its own way. It doesn’t want to know or be reminded that there is a better way—that its way is not God’s way. Sin also invites darkness because those who sin often seek to hide their sins (whether to a small or great extent). The effect of a loss of light is as blatant as the loss of real light. Like a forest that looks inviting and beautiful during midday looks spooky in darkness because we cannot see it as it really is. It looks threatening because its true nature is hidden from us.

Likewise, as we dim the light in a room, so as we sin our ability to see truth and to feel joy is also dimmed. The truth can be written in clear letters on the chalkboard right in front of us, but if the lights are dim we can’t see it or it is easily ignored. So also joy is unreachable for it is only available when we are willing to choose and accept light over the comfortable darkness we have chosen.

Fifth, sin makes us unsavory, in a matter of speaking. Christ compared His followers to salt. St. Matthew 5:13 says, “I give unto you to be the salt of the earth; but if the salt shall lose its savor wherewith shall the earth be salted? The salt shall thenceforth be good for nothing, but to be cast out and to be trodden under foot of men.” The only way salt loses its savor is if it gets contaminated by bad air or an ingredient with similar, powerful, properties. As we seek to pursue the good we want in a way not sanctioned by God our very natures lose their savor and our ability to feel joy and to spread joy to the rest of the world is ruined. We can still do good. But we can’t give all the joy we would normally be capable of.

Consider the Ammon in Mosiah 21:33, not the Ammon who was a counterpart of Alma the Younger and the sons of Mosiah to which we are all familiar with. But, the Ammon who was sent to seek after the wellbeing of the people of Zeniff who had long ago left Zarahemla. Ammon found the people of Zeniff led by Zeniff’s grandson, Limhi. Limhi’s people had suffered many trials which had led to their repentance and their desire to be baptized. But, Ammon had to turn down their petition to be baptized because “he considered himself unworthy.” Would not Ammon’s happiness in finding Limhi and his people and freeing them from bondage have been true joy had he been worthy to baptize them? But, it couldn’t be because in having to decline he was reminded that he himself had things to repent of and to change.

Finally, sin makes us stupid and incapable of a fullness of joy because joy comes because of peace, gratitude; and an understanding, a love of, and a preference to truth and godliness above all else. Alma 12:9-11 says: “It is given unto many to know the mysteries of God; nevertheless they are laid under a strict command that they shall not impart only according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him. And therefore, he that will harden his heart, the same receiveth the lesser portion of the word; and he that will not harden his heart, to him is given the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to now the mysteries of God until he know them in full. And they that will harden their hearts, to them is given the lesser portion of the word until they now nothing concerning his mysteries; and then they are taken captive by the devil, and led by his will down to destruction. Now this is what is meant by the chains of hell.”

We can’t expect to experience true joy if we refuse to acknowledge and accept a fullness of truth. We can pretend our way around things we know or suspect. We may experience many other positive feelings, but they will always be tinged by the knowledge that there is more available…that there is more to be had.

The king of the Lamanites, after hearing about the plan of salvation from Aaron, in the book of Alma (22:15, 18) in the Book of Mormon said: “What shall I do that I may be born of God, having this wicked spirit rooted out of my breast, and receive his Spirit, that I may be filled with joy? …Behold, said he, I will give up all that I possess, yea, I will forsake my kingdom, that I may receive this great joy…I will give away all my sins to know thee…”


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