(First appeared at SI in May of 2011.)
Paul lists three great virtues, “faith, hope and love” in 1 Corinthians 13:13, yet he informs us that “love” is the greatest of the three. Two books of the Bible are devoted to the virtue of wisdom: Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. How can anyone underestimate the importance of wisdom in light of this? But the fruit of the Spirit (Gal.5:22-23) and the armor of God (Eph. 6:14-18) are two more examples of “virtue lists” found in God’s Word—and there are many more.
With all these virtue lists floating around, we can end up dizzy. What do I pursue: love, faith, holiness, graciousness, zeal, knowledge, joy, peace, goodness, gentleness, or self-control? The answer is “yes.” These attributes are complementary, but they can be examined individually. After examining them, we need to integrate them into the whole package of who we are. In a sense, being a balanced Christian means being a complete Christian; we attain balance by including all these virtues and excluding none. None of us attains this perfect balance; indeed, we probably cannot even agree as to what that perfect balance should be.
Jesus and joy
Jesus obviously lived out the perfect mixture of attributes for His calling as Messiah, but even that is not enough information for our lives. Jesus never addressed pesky salesmen on the phone, nor did He decide what options we should expect on our cell phones. Still, His character gives us the supreme example and starting point. One attribute Jesus cherished and repeatedly discussed is joy.
Although Jesus was a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (KJV, Isa. 53:3), He was also a man of joy. Solomon tells us in Ecclesiastes 3:4, there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” (NIV 2011). Sorrowful people can experience joy, and joyful people can experience sorrow.
It would take more than a book to do justice to the biblical theme of joy. The English word “joy” appears 218 times in the New International Version of the Bible. The verb forms (rejoice, rejoiced, rejoices, and rejoicing) are used 191 times. Adding them together, we come up with a whopping 409 occurrences. Joy is a major player in the Christian life.
Obedience, love and joy
John 15:10-12 demonstrates how obeying the Lord and loving others is inseparably connected to the Bible’s version of joy: “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.”
It is God’s will for us to experience the joy of Jesus, and this happens when we know and obey the Father’s commands, when we bask in Jesus’ love and when we love people. If we isolate ourselves from people and only selectively obey God’s commands, we should not be surprised that we do not experience His joy.
Take loving others. Most of us know unhappy people who expect others to reach out to them but who fail to reach out to others. The other day I was chatting with a pastor friend who relayed a familiar story. A woman was in the habit of escaping from church as soon as the service was over; she did not attend the Bible studies, Sunday School, nor any other church activities. She announced to the pastor that she was leaving the church because the people were unfriendly. I told my pastor buddy if all these “victims” would get together and befriend each other, our churches would double in size. When you love, you do not wait for others to reach out to you, you reach out to them.
Joyless, halfway Christians
The above verse also suggests that it is fully obeying God and deepening our walk with Christ that contributes to our joy. In my view, the most miserable Christians are those who go halfway with God. Perhaps most Christians go halfway: they attend church sometimes or even faithfully. They live decently, but their spiritual fervor is weak. They believe in the Lord, but there is no fire, no zeal, and no pursuit of God through His Word, prayer, witnessing, and fellowship. Their faith is an addition to life, not its center.
When people have hearts for God, worship is not something you have to work at. When you are praising God in song, do you rejoice? Psalm 33:3 reads, “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy.” Do you sing, or do you mutter? Do you sometimes “let her rip” when we sing “shout to the Lord all the earth”? However, the main arena for displaying God’s joy is not the church meeting but the arena of life.
Lost people have the joy of this world. They don’t worry about ethics or what God expects of them. Godly people know the joy of the Lord, the joy of people, the joy of a life filled with purpose and direction. But massive numbers of in-between Christians live a bland, undefined life that reaches neither the intensity of joyful moments the world offers nor the frequent joyful satisfaction that comes from walking with God. They care enough to avoid the gross sins of the world but not enough to resist the pressures to conform to popular culture. They will not jump in with both feet. Those of us who believe we have jumped in must admit that we crawl back out sometimes. We must jump back in time and time again as we remind ourselves to seek the kingdom of God first.
Faithfully seeking joy
Paul commands us to “rejoice always” (Phil. 4:4, for example). We should understand “always” to mean “frequently,” and learn to find wisps of joy even in the midst of difficult circumstances.
Our joy varies in intensity and pitch. This was true even in the life of Jesus. In Luke 10:21 we read, “At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.’” Here we note that the Holy Spirit can create special times of joy in our soul. We also learn that He is not always obligated to do so.
I have personally found much strength in joy. In Nehemiah 8:10, the godly leader Nehemiah admonished his people, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
When I feel depleted and even emergency battery power is failing, I have learned that nothing charges me like rejoicing in the Lord. No matter what happens to me or what trials I face, I have a God I can hang on to, a God who is out for my good, a God who is pleased when I am filled with His joy. I want joy to be a significant part of who I am. When I am grouchy, negative, or feel like scolding, God’s joy can transform me if I choose to pursue Him.
Although not technically a part of the “armor of God” in Ephesians 6, joy is a great weapon to use against the enemy. The evil one is the ultimate sourpuss, for he is on the losing side of an amazing battle. Titus 2:10 says, “in every way … make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.” Joy has a way of doing just that. A joyful Christian is a testimony to this grouchy, complaining, cynical world we live in. Are you attracting others to God via the joy of the Lord?