The author of this essay is no longer involved at SI, but it’s too good to let gather digital dust. First appeared at SharperIron on May 2, 2005. The original post and discussion are available here.
I was surprised the other day by a non-Christian’s complaint that a certain group of Christians was “eternally happy.” Christians often talk about how the unsaved will see their joy and want to have that same joy. This young man, however, saw something forced —something less than genuine— in the happiness of some Christians, as though they were unwilling even to acknowledge the existence of things like sorrow, anger, or fear. He commented that the human experience of joy could only be meaningful if we have experienced its opposite, and the Christians he knew seemed never to be touched by suffering. Though we can’t always be responsible for others’ misinterpretations of our actions, these comments made me start thinking more carefully about joy. Is it our duty to keep a smile plastered on our faces no matter what is going on in our lives or others’? Is that what real Christian joy looks like? What is biblical joy and how do we get it?
Joy isn’t just a good feeling. As a child, I remember singing “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart,” and cheekily inviting the devil to “sit on a tack” if he didn’t like it. I suspected that joy was somehow wrapped up with our exuberant shouts of “Where?” or our leaping up from imaginary tacks. I thought that perhaps joy had something to do with giggling and silliness. Some Christian adults still think of joy in similar terms. To them, joy is a giddiness we work up in ourselves by singing happy songs. To them, joy is laughing loudly and frequently. There isn’t anything wrong with giddiness or laughter, per se, but they aren’t synonymous with “joy.” This “feel-good joy” actually resembles the foolish joy described in Proverbs. “Folly is joy to him who lacks sense, but a man of understanding walks straight” (Prov. 15:21).
On the other hand, I’ve encountered a sort of “stoic joy” in other Christians. They have a martyr’s complex, always talking with dour face about how they’ve held onto their “joy” despite a long list of trials they’re enduring. And they’re usually eager to share that list in a manner that I might have thought was complaining, if they hadn’t already insisted that they were joyful. The flinty countenance with which these Christians face trials looks nothing to me like the countenance of the joyful person described in Proverbs. “A joyful heart makes a cheerful face, but when the heart is sad, the spirit is broken” (Prov. 15:13).
I decided to break out my concordance and lexicons to examine the meaning of joy. In the Old Testament, simchah is one of the words translated “joy.” This is the word used in Psalm 16:11, “In thy presence is fullness of joy; in thy right hand are pleasures forever.” Some define this Hebrew word as “blithesomeness” or “glee.” This particular use describes an ultimate completion of joy. The word used in Nehemiah 8:10 is chedvah. “…Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” In this passage, the word (meaning gladness) occurs along with a command to the people to “eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared,” in a holy day of celebration. Another of the Old Testament words for joy is found in Psalm 126:5, “Those who sow in tears will reap with joyful shouting.” The word is rinnah, which is a loud shout (some define it as almost a shriek) of gladness.
The word most often used for “joy” in the New Testament is chara, which can be defined as cheerfulness or delight. This is the word in Galatians 5:22, where joy is listed as one of the fruits of the Spirit. It is also found in Hebrews 12:2, where Christ “…for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Christ endured the cross for the joy of returning to God’s right hand, his purpose on earth having been accomplished. The word appears again in James 1:2, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials.” Here, the joy comes from knowing the result of the testing, which verse 3 says is endurance, or steadfastness.
In the Bible, we find joy both on celebratory occasions and as a stabilizing force in difficult trials. We see a reflection of it in simple earthly things, like eating good food. We also see it completed in the presence of God. Joy is often tied to comfort, peace, and fulfillment. But these things, though they coincide with joy, aren’t the source of joy.
So how do we obtain joy? We can’t muster up real joy with positive thoughts, rollicking music, or sheer willpower. We can’t obtain joy by forcing our circumstances into a shape that we think will satisfy us. Certainly, anything we need we can ask for from God, and joy is no exception. But we are also commanded repeatedly to “rejoice.” We must, then, be able to choose joy somehow. How do we do that? And what does real joy look like when we have it?
C.H. Spurgeon’s sermon, “Joy, a Duty,” discusses the joy of Christians on a very practical level. Here are some excerpts from that sermon, read on March 24th, 1895 (italics added).
People who are very happy, especially those who are very happy in the Lord, are not apt either to give offence or to take offence. Their minds are so sweetly occupied with higher things, that they are not easily distracted by the little troubles which naturally arise among such imperfect creatures as we are. Joy in the Lord is the cure for all discord. Should it not be so? What is this joy but the concord of the soul, the accord of the heart, with the joy of heaven? Joy in the Lord, then, drives away the discords of the earth.
What a gracious God we serve, who makes delight to be a duty, and who commands us to rejoice! Should we not at once be obedient to such a command as this? It is intended that we should be happy. That is the meaning of the precept, that we should be cheerful; more than that, that we should be thankful; more than that, that we should rejoice.
One dolorous spirit brings a kind of plague into the house; one person who is always wretched seems to stop all the birds singing wherever he goes; but, as the birds pipe to each other, and one morning songster quickens all the rest, and sets the groves ringing with harmony, so will it be with the happy cheerful spirit of a man who obeys the command of the text. “Rejoice in the Lord always.” This grace of joy is contagious.
Rejoice in the Father, your Father who is in heaven, your loving, tender, unchangeable God. Rejoice, too, in the Son, your Redeemer, your Brother, the Husband of your soul, your Prophet, Priest, and King. Rejoice also in the Holy Ghost, your Quickener, your Comforter, in him who shall abide with you forever. Rejoice in the one God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob; in him delight yourselves, as it is written, “Delight thyself also in the Lord; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.” We cannot have too much of this joy in the Lord, for the great Jehovah is our exceeding joy.
C.S. Lewis is famous for his definition of joy as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” Joy was, in fact, the chief pursuit of his early life, a fleeting experience that he strove for years to capture. In Surprised by Joy, he describes his progress in understanding the elusive feeling that he had named “joy” (italics added).
It seemed to me self-evident that one essential property of love, hate, fear, hope, or desire was attention to their object. To cease thinking about or attending to the woman is, so far, to cease loving; to cease thinking about or attending to the dreaded thing is, so far, to cease being afraid. But to attend to your own love or fear is to cease attending to the loved or dreaded object. In other words the enjoyment and the contemplation of our inner activities are incompatible. You cannot hope and also think about hoping at the same moment; for in hope we look to hope’s object and we interrupt this by (so to speak) turning round to look at the hope itself.
There was no doubt that Joy was a desire (and, in so far as it was also simultaneously a good, it was also a kind of love). But a desire is turned not to itself but to its object. Not only that, but it owes all its character to its object.
Joy itself, considered simply as an event in my own mind, turned out to be of no value at all. All the value lay in that of which Joy was the desiring. And that object, quite clearly, was no state of my own mind or body at all. In a way, I had proved this by elimination. I had tried everything in my own mind and body; as it were, asking myself, “Is it this you want? Is it this?” Last of all I had asked if Joy itself was what I wanted; and labeling it “aesthetic experience,” had pretended I could answer Yes. But that answer too had broken down. Inexorably Joy proclaimed, “You want—I myself am your want of—something other, outside, not you nor any state of you.”
Spurgeon and Lewis both find the source, value, and very existence of joy completely contained in its object, God, “…in [whose] presence is fullness of joy…” (Psa. 16:11). As soon as we seek the joy itself, we are no longer seeking its source and object, and therefore will not be able to obtain the joy. To rejoice properly, then, we must look upon God. Lewis’ description of joy as a desire reflects the “unfulfilled” nature of our joy on earth. It is a desire for God—for the perfect completion of his plans, for the time when we will live fully in his presence with no veil between—but a desire with expectation of fulfillment! It is the looking forward to that fulfillment that gives us such gladness.
This is what makes joy possible in the midst of suffering. It isn’t that we should force ourselves and others to keep a sunny disposition, no matter what. On the contrary, we are told to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:13). We cannot pretend that suffering does not exist. This world has been cursed by our sin, and the results are death, sickness, decay, and despair. We must acknowledge this. Our joy is not in the absence of these things, but in their future end.
In a sense, the young man was right about joy being understood better by those who have experienced its opposite. Real joy isn’t a façade of happiness in pretended perfection. It is a deep satisfaction with who God is, mingled with a yearning for the day we see him face to face. It is a radiant expectation of the fulfillment of his promises to us, imperfect creatures saved by Christ, “who for the joy set before him” suffered even the shame of the cross.