What is Joy?
James tells us to consider it pure joy when we face trials of many kinds. But what is joy? Do we have a definition for joy? And what in the world could James possibly have meant? After all, tribulations seem like anything but joyous occasions.
There is a familiar verse in James 1:2 that humanly doesn’t seem to make much sense. In this very practical New Testament letter, James begins his important teaching about facing trials by writing this, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials” (NKJV).
It’s probably true that most readers may hear that verse and respond by asking a salient follow-up question, “How can that possibly be true?” James’ teaching doesn’t quite make sense. How is it possible to have joy when we experience life’s “various trials”?
The process of learning to respond with joy during times of trials in life must begin with a conscious awareness that God is at work in our lives and that He has a tangible purpose for why we may be experiencing these trials.
In other words, if we have put our faith and trust in Jesus Christ as our own personal saviour (Romans 10:9), and if we believe that His Word teaches us that God is at work in our lives (Philippians 2:13), then we will come to the logical conclusion that trials, suffering, and difficult times in our lives are ultimately designed by God and that He has a specific purpose for us in mind.
The word joy appears over and over again in the Scriptures. For instance, the Psalms are filled with references to joy. The psalmists write, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps. 30:5b) and “Shout for joy to God, all the earth” (Ps. 66:1). Likewise, in the New Testament, we read that joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22), which means that it is a Christian virtue. Given this biblical emphasis, we need to understand what joy is and pursue it.
For example, years ago, Charles M. Schulz, in the comic strip Peanuts, coined the adage, “Happiness is a warm puppy,” and it became a maxim that articulated a sentimental, warm-and-fuzzy idea of happiness. Then there was the catchy song “Don't Worry, Be Happy,” released by Bobby McFerrin in the 1980s. It suggested a carefree, cavalier attitude of delight.
Think again about McFerrin's song. The lyrics are very odd from a contemporary perspective. When he sings, “Don't worry, be happy,” he is issuing an imperative, a command: “Do not be anxious. Rather, be happy.” He is setting forth a duty, not making a suggestion. However, we never think of happiness in this way. When we are unhappy, we think it is impossible to decide by an act of the will to change our feelings. We tend to think of happiness as something passive, something that happens to us and over which we have no control. It is involuntary. Yes, we desire it and want to experience it, but we are convinced that we cannot create it by an act of the will.
Oddly, McFerrin sounds very much like the New Testament when he commands his listeners to be happy. Over and over again in the pages of the New Testament, the idea of joy is communicated as an imperative, as an obligation. Based on the biblical teaching, I would go so far as to say that it is the Christian's duty, his moral obligation, to be joyful. That means that the failure of a Christian to be joyful is a sin, that unhappiness and a lack of joy are, in a certain way, manifestations of the flesh.
Of course, there are times when we are filled with sorrow. Jesus Himself was called “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). The Scriptures tell us, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting” (Eccl. 7:2a). Even in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). Given that the Bible tells us it is perfectly legitimate to experience mourning, sorrow, and grief, these feelings are not sinful.
However, I want you to see that Jesus’ words could be translated as “Joyful are those who mourn.” How could a person be in mourning and still be joyful? Well, I think we can unravel that knot fairly easily. The heart of the New Testament concept is this: a person can have biblical joy even when he is mourning, suffering, or undergoing difficult circumstances. This is because the person's mourning is directed toward one concern, but in that same moment, he possesses a measure of joy.
Joy doesn't mean forcing happiness during sad circumstances. We can usually tell when someone tries to fake it until they make it. But joy comes during every season. It is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Joy comes from our choices to choose joy.
In his letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul speaks about joy and about the Christian's duty to rejoice over and over again. For example, he writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4a). This is one of those biblical imperatives, and it leaves no room for not rejoicing, for Paul says Christians are to rejoice always—not sometimes, periodically, or occasionally. He then adds, “Again I will say, Rejoice” (v. 4b). Paul wrote this epistle from prison, and in it he addresses very sombre matters, such as the possibility that he will be martyred, poured out as a sacrifice (2:17). Yet he tells the Philippian believers that they should rejoice despite his circumstances.
That brings us back to this matter of how we can be joyful as a matter of discipline or of the will. How is it possible to remain joyful all the time? Paul gives us the key:” Rejoice in the Lord always” (emphasis added). The key to the Christian's joy is its source, which is the Lord. If Christ is in me and I am in Him, that relationship is not a sometimes experience. The Christian is always in the Lord and the Lord is always in the Christian, and that is always a reason for joy. Even if the Christian cannot rejoice in his circumstances, if he finds himself passing through pain, sorrow, or grief, he still can rejoice in Christ. We rejoice in the Lord, and since He never leaves us or forsakes us, we can rejoice always.
Can I Have Joy in My Life? - R.C. Sproul
Choose Joy – Kay Warren
Choosing Joy – Dan Lord
Surprised by Joy – C.S. Lewis
Finding Joy When Life Is Out Of Focus - Angela Donadio
Quest for Joy – John Piper
The joy of Encouragement – David Jeremiah