We are living in a day in which, admittedly, it is hard not to be pessimistic about the prospects for the church.
Bad things are happening in the life of the nations. Bad things are happening in the lives of Christians and their churches. It is hard to be joyous and upbeat, isn’t it?
Perhaps it is in just such a social and church context that Christian believers need to lift their eyes from the things of this world to the things of their Saviour – to the glories of the gospel and the divine purposes of glory for the children of God.
In this article we consider several aspects of Christian joy and its reality in the experience of those whose hope and confidence is placed in Jesus.
This should also encourage any who have no such hope and confidence to go to Christ without delay. Only in him is there any abiding Christian joy here below or in heaven to come.
Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit
Much joy is associated with Christian faith. Properly understood, Christianity is a religion of pure delight. A fruit of the Holy Spirit is ‘joy’ (Galatians 5:22).
This is not at odds with seriousness or reverence, or the ongoing struggle against sin and its consequences in our lives.
It is not at odds with the fact that we are in a world of decadence and sin and disaster – a world of woe.
The beauty and glory of Christian joy is that it is the experience of a believer in all circumstances because, as a fruit of the Holy Spirit, it can never be entirely taken away.
It is so for this reason: the believer is indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
Yes, the feeling or experience of it may fluctuate and at times seem elusive. But one of the things that sustains the Christian through times of adversity is exactly this fruit of the Holy Spirit.
True Christian joy has its source in the Lord, yet it must be stirred up in us, it must be sought, and it should be expressed.
We see this notably in the Psalms; believers are constantly encouraged to rejoice in the Lord. Of all emotions and experiences and fruits it is possibly the most prominent refrain in the Psalms: rejoice! It occurs 43 times across 33 different Psalms.
This is not some fleeting or superficial earthly joy. It is joy arising from a heart directed heavenward. We must distinguish the Christian joy which is the fruit of the Holy Spirit from mere earthly joys.
This is not to say that we deny earthly joys. When we think of joy in our lives on earth, we equate it with happiness (which is right). One appreciates the temporal gifts of God in which human joy may legitimately be experienced. Good relationships within families and among church members brings joy.
We also have joy in successes in our lives or in our family or among friends (this is not necessarily the same as sinful pride).
We have legitimate joy in cultural things too: good music, recreation, even work itself.
We may feel joy in reading or cooking or handiwork or any non-sinful pursuit in which we find a degree of happiness.
We are to seek to glorify God in all things. Although all our experiences in this life are flawed by sin, there are nonetheless such happy pursuits which do not involve activities which are inherently sinful. And these are gifts of God.
We do not deny this, though great care must be taken not to place an exaggerated importance on such temporalities. But such ‘earthly joys’ which are common to man are not distinctly Christian joy. This is because it is exclusively a fruit of the Holy Spirit. As such it can only be experienced by the converted man or woman.
It is one of the most wonderful experiences in this life; it is part of the life of God in the soul. But how is it manifested? To this we turn.
Joy is experienced in obedience to God
Perhaps this seems obvious, yet it is writ large over biblical faith.
Of the Old Testament Feast of Tabernacles it is written, ‘Seven days you shall keep a sacred feast to the LORD your God in the place which the LORD chooses, because the LORD your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you surely rejoice’ (Deuteronomy 16:15).
There is a relationship between obedience and joy. We have it expressed also in the Psalms: ‘The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart’ (19:8); ‘I have rejoiced in the way of thy testimonies, as much as in all riches’ (119:14).
It is quite clear that in commitment to the Lord, joy is experienced. This is clear also in what Jesus taught: ‘If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full’ (John 15:10-11).
As a challenge from this we may ask: if there is not joy – real Christian joy in the Lord in your life – is that because there is a lack of real commitment to him and obedience to his Word?
Joy is encouraged by the remembrance of his saving acts
We find this in the Psalms again, for example in Psalm 35: ‘And my soul shall be joyful in the LORD; it shall rejoice in his salvation’ (v.9).
We find it a repeated refrain in the Psalms – rejoicing in God’s salvation (in Christ). Of course, this includes the Lord’s victories over his and our enemies. We can understand this in the New Testament era. What joy will be found in contemplating the work and ministry of Jesus! Think of his love in the incarnation and the sacrifice on Calvary. Think of his victory over Satan and death and the grave. Meditate on his saving acts and there cannot but be joy welling up in your heart.
That is what the Holy Spirit does. He takes the things of Christ and brings them home to our hearts (John 16:13-15). He brings thoughts of Christ and what he has done to our minds and hearts, inevitably producing joy.
The believer rejoices in the success of the gospel. See how Paul rejoices in its success among the churches: ‘For your obedience has become known to all. Therefore I am glad on your behalf’ (Romans 16:19); ‘Therefore, my beloved and longed-for brethren, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, beloved’ (Philippians 4:1). If we are lacking joy in the Lord, are we sufficiently contemplating the wonder and glory of the victory of Christ in this world? This is why it is good to read of blessed times in the past – it stirs up joy in our lives!
Joy is stirred by the promises and prospects for the believer
It is said of Jesus that ‘for the joy set before him he endured the cross, despising the shame’ (Hebrws 12:2).
As the believer contemplates and considers his or her prospects beyond this life, such contemplation must produce joy. Paul writes to the Corinthians: ‘Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal’ (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).
There is joy even in the contemplation of the Great Commission: ‘I will be with you to the end of the age… I will not leave thee nor forsake thee… I will build my church’.
The promised presence of the Lord with his believing people in all their experiences in this life is a source of great joy as they are exercised under it through the Holy Spirit.
This is how Christian joy survives adversity. Consider how Jesus intercedes for them: ‘But now I come to thee, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them thy word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world’ (John 17:13-14).
Even amid persecutions and trials there can be joy. Think, for example, of what happened to Paul and Barnabas at Antioch in Acts 13. Yet how did they react? ‘They shook off the dust from their feet against them, and came to Iconium. And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.’
Beloved, when you have the Lord as your Saviour, the indwelling Spirit works this fruit of joy, whatever adversities are faced.
James makes this clear in his letter: ‘Count it all joy when you fall into various trials.’ As for prospects, there is the question of the anticipation of heavenly glory. It is summed up in Psalm 16: ‘Thou wilt show me the path of life; in thy presence is fullness of joy; at thy right hand are pleasures forevermore.’
The Puritan Thomas Watson wrote, ‘Here [below] joy begins to enter us; there [in heaven] we enter into joy.’
The believer at death will hear these words: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant… Enter into the joy of your Lord’ (Matthew 25:21,23).
Joy is to be sought
Obviously, we do not joy in our weaknesses and failings; we do not rejoice in our sins; but rather we repent of them and return to the Lord to have joy restored. For joy must be adversely affected by our sins and faults; it must be affected by our disobedience.
But this fruit of the Spirit must be sought. Whoever is unsaved, unconverted, first needs to come to Christ and then they will begin to know the joy of the Christian. But Christians are to seek it.
In his final discourse to his disciples, Jesus encouraged them: ‘Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full’ (John 16:24).
If we would have joy, we must be obedient, and we must ask and seek and find. We will not have it without prayer.
Let us not minimise the grace of meditation upon such things as we have spoken of which will produce joy, by the blessing of the Holy Spirit. As Paul exhorts the Philippians: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I [will] say, rejoice!’ (Philippians 4:4).
A while ago the editor of the magazine of a conservative Presbyterian church stated that, ‘Religion, especially of the Scottish Presbyterian kind, is gloom, doom, blackness, depressive, and joyless.’ Well, is that fair? Did he have a point? Maybe. Yet it can be so superficial, as so much religious experience is in our present shallow age. It would be more to the point to say that there seems so little conviction of sin and repentance today!
But joy is not just a matter of having a smile on one’s face and having exuberance in worship services. Yes, the person who has Christian joy ought to show it, like Paul and Silas singing Psalms in an inner prison at Philippi.
There should also be joy at the Lord’s Table. Yes, there will be feelings of unworthiness. But also ‘joy unspeakable’ (1 Peter 1:8) at the contemplation of the worthy one and what his death accomplished for the sinner as you meditate on the wonder of it: he loved me and gave himself for me!
It is true that tears are never far away from joy, as we know from the Psalms: ‘Weeping may for a night endure, but joy cometh in the morning’ (30:5).
The joy which we should desire is the joy that arises from fellowship with the ‘Man of sorrows’ that is found in the inward work of the Spirit as he stirs our hearts in obedience and love to Christ.
For those still not confessing Christ as Saviour, they are encouraged to go to the Son of God without delay for forgiveness and with sorrow for their sin. By his grace they may come to know the peace that passes all understanding and experience that ‘joy inexpressible and full of glory’ found only in and though him for this life and that which is to come.