Why “If You’re Happy and You Know It” Is the Wrong Song


Philippians 3:1-4

Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reasons for such confidence.


These letters of Paul instruct us on so many levels. There’s a word in the opening verse of today’s text we have seen no less than five times already. Did you catch it? The word is rejoice. An untutored reader might surmise that Paul was on the top of the world.

Paul was anywhere but on the top of the world. He was living in the pit of hell, a Roman prison cell. And he is rejoicing all over the place. Before it’s all said and done, Paul will mention “joy” or “rejoice” some sixteen times. We learn something very important about joy here. Joy is not happiness. It’s not a feeling or an emotion. Joy is not positive thinking. Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). Joy is supernatural. It is a wellness that transcends health, a state of being that eclipses emotion, and an inner realism that overwhelms apparent reality. Though it transcends the ephemeral notion of earthly emotion, we might think of joy as the primary emotion of the realm of eternal reality. Joy is that deep inner conviction that though things are not right, everything is going to be alright.

Joy is not an emotion because joy is not something that happens to us like a feeling. Joy is not happiness. Joy most typically originates from a place of suffering and sadness. Joy is an action. It’s why Paul rejoices. Joy is experienced by those who exercise their faith through rejoicing.

One of the great gifts of African American church to the body of Christ is their long-standing tradition of joy. As a race, they know suffering and sadness all too well, yet they will not be defined by it. While my church was teaching us, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands,” across town they were singing “His eye is on the sparrow.” The African American church teaches us how to rejoice.

I will never forget being in a particular worship service a few years back on a Sunday morning in a pretty much all-white church. Near the end of the service, the pastor noticed the well-known African American vocalist BeBe Winans was in attendance and invited him to bring greetings and close the service in song. We all expected (and were looking forward to) him singing one of his Grammy award-winning, multiple-platinum selling songs. He began to tell us of the really hard things he had faced in his life in recent years and how he had been in the lowest of low places. Then he started talking about Jesus, and, after a few minutes, he began rejoicing and then he broke into a song. It was a song none of us had ever heard before. It had only four words: “Everything’s gonna be alright.”

As he sang them over and over, the Spirit ushered the whole place into singing them with him. This white church began to shed its whiteness as the hospitality of the African American gospel tradition embraced us. That morning there were people with cancer, and people grieving losses, and people on the brink of ruin and in the depths of despair, and people in troubled marriages, and families with wayward children—and every last one of them were rejoicing, knowing that though they may lose the battle, Jesus had won the war. Everything’s gonna be alright.

I bet we sang that song for no less than twenty minutes and we could have gone on for twenty more. No one cared. Somehow we knew in a way we hadn’t known before that,  though weeping may endure for the night, joy would come with the morning (Psalm 30:5). We were literally being carried away on the wings rejoicing. I will never forget it. Joy invaded us as the Spirit lifted us. It wasn’t clappy happy. It wasn’t euphoric escapism. It was heaven come down—eternal life breaking in. I can still hear the tune, and, to this day, I find myself singing it just under my breath all the time. Thank you, BeBe. And thank you, Jesus.

Everything’s gonna be alright!

Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord!

That was the day I learned to rejoice in the Lord.

Can I get a witness?


Abba Father, we thank you for your Son, Jesus, who for the joy before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at your right hand where he shall reign forevermore. Teach us joy through the faith of rejoicing. Teach us to sing in a way that transcends mere song. Thank you for your ever-present willingness to make your joy our joy. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.


  1. What do you make of this depiction of joy as transcending emotion and coming as a fruit of learning to rejoice?
  2. We don’t rejoice because we have joy, we rejoice because we seek joy. What do you think of that?
  3. How do you think of the difference between joy and happiness and how have you seen those two things differently in your own experience?

For the Awakening,
J.D. Walt

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WHAT IS THIS? Wake-Up Call is a daily encouragement to shake off the slumber of our busy lives and turn our eyes toward Jesus. Each morning our community gathers around a Scripture, a reflection, a prayer, and a few short questions, inviting us to reorient our lives around the love of Jesus that transforms our hearts, homes, churches, and cities.

Comments and Discussion

3 Responses

  1. Thank you. I’m smiling as I think of all the beautiful faces I’ve seen shining through the darkness of circumstances. They’re inspiring and they fuel a hope in me like nothing else can. When I see a person pushing through, sacrificially, with a hearty laugh and a grin that could -not- have arrived by natural causes, that sets my soul aflame with joy. God abides in those people, and there’s no better company in a storm.

  2. I believe that my take-away on this lesson is that there is a profound difference between the way the world defines joy and the way the Bible defines it. One is a natural emotion, the other, a supernatural prompting. The closest I personally can relate to this is the experience I perceive when I know I’m centered in God’s will. At that time, external circumstances don’t really seem to matter. One is of the flesh, the other is of the Spirit.

  3. That is why I have developed the habit of singing a Psalm everyday. They are my best reminder that there is something bigger and better going on and has been for a very long time.

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