“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Word nerds everywhere are grateful to Inigo Montoya for this profound statement. People use words they don’t understand all the time. Simple words, even. Joy is one of those, I think. Christians speak, sing, and pray about joy. Good! But what is it, exactly? Is it a silly, pasted-on grin? Is it an air of bubbly invincibility in the face of tragedy that initially makes a Christian seem courageous but later starts to seem fabricated and even obnoxious? And, whatever it is, how exactly do we get joy? Fortunately, the Bible tells us plenty about joy. Rest easy, Inigo.
Christians speak, sing, and pray about joy. But what is it, exactly?
Joy is commanded by the Lord.
Scripture commands the Christian to rejoice. We see this, for example in Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” (Many of you probably just sang those words, as did I when I wrote them, followed by a mental clap! clap!) This is incredibly significant. It means that joy is something we participate in—a virtue we are to cultivate, not a feeling we are to await. This is part of our progressive sanctification, our growth in godliness. And this (unlike our justification or regeneration) is what theologians describe as synergistic. That means we work together with God for our joy. Our justification and regeneration, in contrast, were monergistic; God accomplished them by Himself. But not so our growth as Christians. We get to participate! So we’re commanded to rejoice, rather than to despair. We are to pursue it—and at times to fight for it.
Joy is produced by the Lord.
This point is a balance to the first, but not a contradiction of it. We are indeed commanded to rejoice. But it requires more than mere human effort. To return to our theological glossary, our joy isn’t monergistic—it requires more than just our effort, though not less. Specifically, joy is included in the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22-23: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy,” and so on. So we are commanded to be joyful, but that joy is produced by the indwelling Spirit, who enables us to obey… who produces the virtues which He requires. We aren’t passive. But neither are we independent. Joy is simultaneously pursued by the Christian and produced by the Spirit.
Joy is simultaneously pursued by the Christian and produced by the Spirit
Joy is absorbed from the Lord.
This may seem redundant with the previous point. There is some overlap, but this point goes further. To return to Philippians 4:4, we aren’t just to “rejoice” but to “rejoice in the Lord.” Ah, that makes all the difference. It gives us the key to finding and experiencing joy. “Rejoice in the Lord” (a phrase which appears in defiance of calamity in Habakkuk 3:17-18) gives us the ultimate secret and Source of joy. We don’t rejoice in our health, our prosperity, our family, or even our ministry. All of those things are fickle and fleeting, and seeking joy from them makes them an idol. Instead, we find our joy “in the Lord.” So even when we are ill, imprisoned (as Paul was when he wrote Philippians), or heartbroken, we can still experience a deep contentment and settledness in the Lord. Joy exists independently of our circumstances. I’ll often say that “joy is as constant as its cause.” We get it—we absorb it—from the Lord.
I chose that word on purpose: we “absorb” joy. I initially used the word “received” for this point. But that’s not quite right. Received makes it sound like a joy is a gift—an object He gives to us, independently of Himself; something He might hand to us. But that’s not the case. We absorb our joy from the Lord Himself—less like an object and more like an infusion. Joy flows to us from our connection with the Father and the Son, through the Spirit. The more we’re connected to Him, the more joy we experience.
Joy is as constant as its cause
These are hard times. Most of the world is experiencing a sense of sobriety and even depression. That’s okay. The Psalms portray believers in every possible emotional state. It’s part of being human. Don’t be a jovial Pollyanna during a time of distress. Remember, our Savior is described as “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). So grieve. Empathize. Groan. And all the while, fight for joy. God commands it and produces it as we walk closely with Him. Grace!
Note 1: I preached on Philippians 4 last Sunday, the first “remote” service for Killian Hill Baptist Church during the COVID-19 crisis. You can find the sermon here. The technology and the experience of preaching to an empty room were new to me. But the Truth shared is very old!
Note 2: I feel things very deeply—both sorrows and joys. That’s true of most hymn writers, I think. It’s a blessing and a curse, trust me. During some of my times of “brooding,” I’ve been helped by another “deep feeler.” John Piper writes with great transparency in two books intended to help us when rejoicing is a fight. I commend to you Piper’s When I Don’t Desire God and When the Darkness Will Not Lift. You’re depressed? Okay. You’re not crazy, and you’re not alone. But don’t quit! See if these books don’t help.
Note 3: “Chased by fear”? “Worn by life”? Run to Christ! We hope our new lyrics video of this encouraging hymn will be a blessing to you during these turbulent times. Find it here.