We live in a society where one of the prime ambitions set before us is to be happy. Television and films aim to entertain us. When people make life choices which go against tradition, then we are told that ‘as long as they’re happy’, then that’s ok. And against this, Christians are often portrayed as killjoys. There is that oft-quoted definition of a Puritan as one who fears that somebody, somewhere is enjoying themselves.
However, when we turn to the Bible, we find that one of the characteristics of Christians is joyfulness, often even in the face of adversity. Indeed, anyone who has studied the Puritans will know that they were joyful, contented people. It is described as the second characteristic of the fruit of the Spirit, following on from love (Galatians 5:22). So, what is this joy which Christians experience, and where does it come from?
Joy is not dependent upon circumstances
Contemporary society gives us the message that the secret of true happiness lies in our outward circumstances, whether that be in our possessions, health, jobs or our popularity. However, looking at people in general and individuals in particular, we see that this is not so. Some of the most comfortably well-off people in the world do not possess this happiness. If our joy depends upon our outward circumstances, then when those change, it can be lost. On the other hand, the Christian’s joy is there through outward success and failure. The prophet Habakkuk could say,
Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation (Habakkuk 3:17-18).
Joy is not superficial
We all know that the superficiality of entertainment cannot satisfy the heart’s longing for true happiness. Christmas fun gives way to January Blues. The weekend entertainment gives way to the humdrum of Monday morning. Life has its ups and downs, and for joy to be lasting, it needs to be planted deep in our hearts. The joy which is the fruit of the Spirit can live alongside grief and through the great trials and tribulations of life.
Joy is found in our relationship with God
In Philippi, some Christians were distressed that Paul was in prison and problems were blighting the church. He response to them was, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice’ (Philippians 4:4). Whatever his and their circumstances were, and whatever challenges they faced, they had room to find joy in the Lord.
The Shorter Catechism’s well-known statement that the chief end of man is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever points us to the fact that the highest, most intense and gloriously fulfilling joy is to be found in our conscious fellowship with him. To enjoy him is pure joy.
Because it is joy in the Lord who does not change, that joy does not diminish with time and is not changed by our circumstances. Neither does it depend upon our performance, because it is founded upon the amazing fact that God has loved us with an eternal love.
We cannot have true fellowship with God in this life without becoming aware of our own falling short of God’s holiness. We are more sinful than we realise. Like Isaiah, we must say, ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips’ (Isaiah 6:5). But the wonderful news of the gospel tells us that God knows this, and yet loves us more than we can imagine. Through the death of Christ on the cross we have been brought into his family, and he treats us as beloved because we are in the Beloved, in Christ. And because of this, he draws us further and further in to see more of his grace and glory.
Joy is a gift of grace
This means that joy is an undeserved gift. It is not something we can create or win for ourselves. It comes as the Spirit works in us so that we bear his fruit. It is the Spirit who enlightens us to our need, our helplessness, and opens the path to the Saviour for us. And it is the same Spirit who moves our heart to rejoice in the beauty and wonder of our Lord.
This third Person in the Trinity also changes the way we see our circumstances. We are even able to rejoice in our sufferings, not in a masochistic way but rather as we experience the love of God with us through the dark times. This means that joy may exist alongside grief and sorrows. We cannot ignore our trials with a superficial, ‘Praise the Lord.’ We feel our sorrows, just as Jesus himself was the Man of Sorrows. But beneath it all lies our assurance that he is with us in all our sufferings. He prayed in his passion that we would share in his joy (John 17:13). He may even grant us to know something of the fellowship of his sufferings, and enable us to ‘count it all joy’ (Philippians 3:8-10 and James 1:2). Helen Roseveare’s recent book, Count It All Joy, is helpful here.
Joy is something to be cultivated
While we cannot create or work up this joy, we can cultivate it. If its source is our relationship with God, then prayerfully meditating upon him through his Word will clear our perspective and make the conditions ripe for growth. If we follow his commandments, we will not grieve the Spirit through sin. When we find that we have wandered from the paths of righteousness, then frequent returning to the cross in repentance will restore our joy.
As there is joy in heaven for every sinner who repents, then sharing the good news of Jesus is one of the surest paths to true happiness as we find that God has given us the privilege of partaking in his work. Thus, when we arrive at that place of unbounded joy we will rejoice with those who heard the good news through us, and God will receive all the glory. We know that one day he will wipe away every tear from our eyes (Revelation 21:4), and then our joy will be unmixed and full.