“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:4-7)

Paul writes these words from prison. He is unsure of his future, and he is cut off from his mission. Perhaps more than anything else this passage points out the distinction between happiness and joy.

You know one of the motivating principles of the founding of the United States was the right to pursue happiness. Which is well and good! Yet, scripture invites us to receive joy. What is the difference? William Bausch tells us that happiness generally depends on the quality and quantity of material goods; it comes from the outside. Joy can thrive even in the midst of hard times because it comes from the inside.

Yet, the notion of joy seems almost irrelevant in a world where there is so much disunity and unrest. The truth is that sometimes it is hard to be joyful … except that joy has never had much to do with what is going on in the world.

That is what makes joy different from happiness or pleasure or fun. All of the others depend on certain conditions – good health, a good job, a happy family, and perhaps lots of nice things. Yet, the only condition for joy is the presence of God. And so, joy can break forth in the middle of a pandemic, in an economy with inflation, in an intensive care waiting room or even during the Christmas season after the death of a loved one.

Even Mary found joy amidst the chaos of finding out she was pregnant with the Savior of the world. (We read about Mary in Luke 1:26-56.) After the initial shock, Mary started singing with joy. She started to praise God for turning the world upside down, for looking with favor on her – a nobody from nowhere, with no status, no privilege, no power; a minority woman in occupied territory. Just like Paul in prison, she felt in inner joy and sang of God and his abiding presence.

You see, joy doesn’t happen when we get what we want. It is much more likely to happen when we do NOT get what we want, and we find ourselves believing that God’s ideas are so much better than ours.

Usually, though, we have a hard time seeing that until our own wishes have crashed and burned. Yet, it is there in that wilderness, when we surrender to God, that joy is most likely to occur. Just like it did for Mary. Like it did for Paul. May it happen for you!

May you celebrate with joy this Christmas no matter your circumstances. May the inner sense of God’s presence through the birth of Jesus Christ bring you joy!

Rev. Dr. William Ward is the senior pastor at Providence Presbyterian Church on Hilton Head Island