Joy in the Lord

Some time ago, our church mini-group had a discussion on joy. What struck me about our discussions was our general inability to express exactly what joy is and where we are to find it. I suspect this inability to express our view was the result of two issues. Firstly, many verses in scripture seem to use joy and sorrow as antonyms (1). As such, we feel joy should be the antithesis of sorrow and should therefore be manifest in exuberance and outward displays of happiness just as sorrow is often manifest in outward displays of sadness. When we fail to have this exuberance in the Lord we feel we are failing to take real joy in Him. Secondly, we often derive our joy from things in the world and feel this jars with verses that suggest our joy is to be found in the Lord (2). These two ideas can lead to the creation of an odd definition of joy, in the case of our mini-group no real definition at all, and causes us to feel guilty at deriving joy from things in the world and failing to feel outwardly exuberant about spiritual things.

In one sense, we can say that sorrow and joy are diametrically opposed – sorrow being ostensibly negative, joy fundamentally positive – and this can lead to us feeling that joy ought to be manifest in exuberant happiness. However, Genesis 1:31-2:3 makes clear that the Lord took joy from his creation but this joy does not seem to be manifest as over-excited giddiness. Indeed, John 1:1-3 and Colossians 1:13-20 plainly show that the Lord did not simply finish creation and watch from a distance but took joy in it by continuing to ‘hold all things together’. The joy was not derived in the creation but in enjoying what was made. As such, these verses suggest that the Lord derives his joy by taking pleasure in his completed work. It is not an exuberant, outward happiness but rather a contentment and satisfaction.

Isaiah 9:3 states ‘You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil (ESV)’. I have known two generations of a farming family who attend the same church as my parents – a fantastic family to know around harvest-festival time! The ‘joy’ of bringing in the harvest, certainly as expressed by this family, is neither the end of their work nor is it expressed in outward exuberance. In fact, bringing in the harvest is only part of the job – one must store it appropriately and then sell it before the work can see a return and be fully enjoyed. Once the harvest is in, one is not exuberant but rather satisfied that the harvest will bring some future reward once it is sold. As such, the ‘joy at the harvest’ is less an outward happiness but rather a contentment in completed work which will bring a later reward ‘when they divide the spoil’. In the same way, our joy in the Lord is one of satisfaction and contentment in the completed work of salvation in the knowledge of certain reward to come. Joy in the Lord is therefore not necessarily manifest in outward exuberance but is rather contentment and satisfaction with his completed work of salvation.

If true joy is contentment and satisfaction in completed work, what of the idea that we should not enjoy things in the world. Our view of joy can easily become tainted by a type of Christian dualism in which the world is evil and only the spirit is good (3). Whilst we cannot, and should not, overlook verses that suggest our joy is ultimately found in the Lord we must equally not ignore verses that suggest the Lord has given us things in the world for our enjoyment. 1 Timothy 6:17 states that God ‘richly provides us with everything to enjoy (ESV)’, Jeremiah 2:7 says that God brought the Israelites ‘into a plentiful land to enjoy its good fruits and plentiful things (ESV)‘ and Psalm 104 states:

From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work. You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart. May the glory of the LORD endure forever; may the LORD rejoice in his works (104:13-15, 31).

God has clearly placed things in the world for our enjoyment. Psalm 104:31 states plainly that the Lord himself takes joy from that which he has created. The idea that we should only receive joy from overtly spiritual things, as Bill Mounce puts it ‘that Christians can enjoy a sunset and the view of the ocean, but not steak and lobster’, is clearly incorrect. In fact, denying that the things God has given us to enjoy are indeed enjoyable can cause two potential problems. On the one hand, it can lead to our suggesting that God is tempting us – something clearly taught as untrue in James 1:13. Alternatively, we may find ourselves suggesting God has misunderstood what true joy is by providing enjoyable things from which we should extract no joy – a laughably nonsensical position. Therefore, we must conclude that it is right for us to enjoy the good things that God has given for our enjoyment. Indeed, by enjoying these good things and recognising from whence they came we bring glory to God and highlight his ongoing goodness to us.

Does this mean that we should take no joy from spiritual things? Of course not. We should have a desire to know God, deepen our relationship with Him and have fellowship with other believers. If we have no desire for these things this should cause us great concern. However, this is fertile ground for legalism, judgementalism and guilt. Somebody who struggles to read their Bible doesn’t necessarily want to know nothing of God but may find reading difficult, whether the Bible or any other book. One who doesn’t enjoy ‘church fellowship days’ doesn’t necessarily want nothing to do with the people of God but may find they do not enjoy socialising in large groups or particularly like the range of activities they will no doubt be pressurised to take part in. The key here is the desire of the individual. One may desire to know more of God but find reading the Bible very hard or may desire to be with God’s people but struggle socialising in large groups. Such individuals should not be discouraged in their faith but rather encouraged. People do not seek to do difficult things if they see no value in doing them. The desire to do that which is difficult suggests one sees benefit in it and realises there is satisfaction in completing the work that is valuable. In these instances, our joy is not necessarily derived from the reading of the Bible itself or the actual act of praying but rather in the increase of our knowledge of the Lord and our deepening relationship with him and his people. Although we may get little or no joy from the acts themselves e.g. reading, thinking thoughts in our minds as prayer, etc we should derive joy, i.e. a deep sense of contentment and satisfaction, from increasing our knowledge of the Lord and growing in our faith. The joy is in the end result and not necessarily the act itself.

So, at its heart, true joy is contentment and satisfaction in completed work. In this sense, our joy in the Lord is to be found in the completed work of our salvation knowing we stand to inherit eternal life with him. Nevertheless, joy is not only to be found in the overtly spiritual. The Lord has given us things for our enjoyment and it brings glory to him when we partake of them, giving thanks for his goodness. However, we should still desire to know more of God and his people but this does not mean that associated acts will not be difficult. Our joy should come in knowing more of God and having a relationship with him not necessarily from the associated acts themselves. Whilst reading the Bible and prayer are fundamentally necessary for us to know more of God and have a relationship with him our joy should be derived in what we learn of him, the deepening of our knowledge and the furthering of our faith through these things and not necessarily from the acts of reading the Bible and prayer in and of themselves.

  1. For example, Isaiah 9:3, 35:10, 51:11, Jeremiah 31:13, John 16:20-22, etc
  2. For example, Romans 14:7, 15:13, 1 Peter 1:8, etc
  3. How dualism can impede our view of joy is explained succinctly and simply by Bill Mounce here.