The Ask Pastor John podcast inbox now receives about sixty emails every day, so you can imagine we are grateful for the questions that are sharp and brief, like this one from podcast listener Leeza, who asks, “Pastor John, what is the difference between peace and joy?”
I love this question because it is so simple and so profound. It is the kind of question, or the kind of thinking, that is so neglected. And I mean that it is neglected by me as well as others. We use words often without pausing to give the slightest thought to the precise, deep meaning that they have, and how they are related to other similar words. So thank you for the question.
I am going to assume that what I am trying to answer here is the difference between Christian peace and Christian joy — the kind talked about in the Bible, not just any kind of peace or any kind of joy. So let’s start with one clear difference. Of course, there are ambiguities and there are overlaps; we will get to that. But there is this clear difference: Peace can be a subjective feeling in the heart or an objective state of affairs between two formerly hostile parties. Joy, on the other hand, only refers to a subjective feeling in the heart. There is no such thing as an objective joy outside of the experience of joy in the heart.
Objective Peace, Subjective Joy
So for example, Jesus talks about two armies coming against each other, and one sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace — that is, the objective state of affairs of our armies not killing each other. Those armies still may hate each other, but I have only got ten thousand people. He has got twenty thousand. I want peace. I don’t want anybody killing each other here. So it is an objective state of affairs.
Or Jesus says in Luke 12:51, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” In other words, the objective peace in home may be broken up by some who believe and some who don’t.
Or most importantly are Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:14–16:
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
So before there is any subjective feeling of peace in our hearts as Christians, God establishes an objective peace in history through the work of Christ by removing the hostility between us and him through the blood of Jesus. His wrath is satisfied. Our guilt is covered, and because of that objective peace that he has wrought through Christ, we now can be overflowing with sweet, deep, inner peace on the basis of it.
But the New Testament never talks about joy that way. To be sure, inner, sweet, subjective feelings of joy are based on objective realities of God’s work in Christ. But that work does not create an objective thing outside of us called joy. It creates peace. And that is one of the differences between joy and peace.
But now let me shift gears, because my guess is that she really wants to know: What is the difference between the two subjective experiences of joy and peace? How do they relate to each other? So first let’s be really sure that we see from the Bible that both peace and joy are, indeed, inner, subjective, happy, experiences.
- Romans 15:13: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing.” So you are the one who is filled with peace. You are the one who is filled with joy.
- Galatians 5:22: “But that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience . . .” and so on. So the fruit that the Spirit produces in the heart of the believer includes joy and peace.
Now what is the difference between those two inner subjective experiences based on external, glorious redemption in Christ? And here is the way I would put it: Christian peace — that subjective feeling of peace rooted in the objective peace of God through Christ — that peace is a good feeling in the heart, not just the body, when the heart is not tormented by anxiety and fear and conflict.
So here is the key passage: Philippians 4:6–7: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God . . . will guard your hearts and minds.” So peace happens when anxieties are removed. Peace is the condition of the heart when anxiety and fear and conflict are not troubling the heart. And, of course, this feeling is a good one — one could say, a joyful one. So here is the ambiguity, right? Here is the interlocking. Here is the interplay I was talking about at the beginning when I said there is some ambiguity in the way they relate.
Filled with Joy
Joy, however, is a much larger word, because the good feeling of joy that comes into the heart doesn’t just come from the absence of worry or conflict. It comes from other things too
- 3 John 4: “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.”
- James 1:2: “Count it all joy . . . when you meet trials of various kinds.”
- Romans 5:2: “We rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”
So joy is a good feeling in the heart that is based on a much wider range of good things than peace is. But they are so interwoven that there could be no true heart experience of Christian joy without the heart experience of Christian peace. And there could be no true heart experience of Christian peace without that being a heart experience of Christian joy.
So the best I can do is to say they are like interlocking circles, and the joy circle is much bigger than the peace circle, but never disconnected. So I say with Paul, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing” (Romans 15:13).