What Is Joy?
by Melissa B. Kruger
What brings you joy? Perhaps it’s the warmth of a campfire, the smell of fresh cut grass, the softness of a baby’s skin, the kindness of a stranger, the first day of vacation, the beauty of a sunset, or the refreshment of ice cream on a hot day. We know joy when we experience it, but we often struggle to put into words the emotions we’re feeling. We experience delight, satisfaction and contentment all mixed together in a feeling we call joy.
As Christians, we experience a different type of joy. It’s a joy that flows from the work of the Holy Spirit within us—it endures in hardship, radiates hope in the darkness, and transcends circumstances. I describe Christian joy in this way:
Christian joy is a Spirit-filled assurance of God’s grace and goodness that produces a feeling of pleasure, satisfaction, or delight.
You may read this definition and wonder: Does this mean we never suffer sorrow, hardships or trials? Can my tears coexist with the experience of joy? What does it mean to be joyful in all things? How do we get this type of joy?
What Joy Isn’t
Sometimes, the most helpful way to understand what something is, is to clarify what it is not. Christian joy isn’t a Pollyanna smile masking a discontented heart. It’s not something we put on outwardly in an attempt to appear happy. Galatians 5:22 explains that joy flows from the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work in our hearts. Joy isn’t the result of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, it’s the work of God’s transformation within you.
Christian joy is also not a life free of tears, struggles and hardships. Paul described his time in Macedonia in stark detail: “our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn—fighting without and fear within” (2 Cor. 7:5). Paul also explained that he suffered beatings, shipwrecks, and “danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure” (2 Cor. 11:24-27).
Paul’s life wasn’t a pleasure cruise, and he didn’t hide the hardships he faced. He shared honestly, and at the exact same time he shared his abundance of joy. He explained this paradoxical reality: “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything” (2 Cor. 6:8-10, italics added).
Paul’s tears mingled freely with unshakeable joy. He was sorrowful and yet always rejoicing. What allowed him to face such difficulties and still experience joy?
What Joy Is
Paul’s joy flowed from his assurance in the sufficiency of God’s grace in all things. God’s grace worked powerfully in Paul’s weakness. God faithfully supplied all Paul needed. God will do the same for you and me. As he reminded the Philippians, “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19).
Second, Paul’s ability to rejoice in all things was rooted in the assurance of God’s will in every circumstance he encountered. He wrote, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16-18). He wasn’t commanding the Thessalonians to rejoice in the goodness of their day, but the goodness of their God. Paul’s joy flowed from the depth of his assurance that God works all things for good (Romans 8:28).
This assurance is our joy in the midst of sorrow—nothing we face is in vain. God has a purpose for every tear we shed and every struggle we face. In His goodness to us, pain is purposeful. He redeems and restores our trials by increasingly transforming us into the image of His Son. Everything we face works toward that good end.
Third, Paul’s joy is anchored in his salvation. No matter what happens, whether he lives or dies, his life is eternally safe. His redemption is secure. Nothing can separate Paul from the love of Christ. And, nothing can separate us. This is the joy David desired when he prayed, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (Psalm 51:12). Our salvation is secure. One day we will be home, with every tear wiped away and every sorrow ceased. Something better is coming and that hope gives us joy.
The joy Paul experienced is available to us. Paul wrote, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Phil. 4:11). Contentment didn’t descend on Paul the moment he came to faith. He learned it! That’s good news for you and me. Just like Paul, we can learn to experience joy in both plenty and in want.
There’s only one way to bear this type of fruit. We abide in the vine. Jesus taught, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing . . . These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15: 5,11).
As we spend time with Jesus, speaking to Him in prayer and listening to Him in His Word, He changes us. He is the satisfaction we long for, the sustenance we need. No other person, place or thing can offer the joy we desire. Jesus, and Jesus alone, can satisfy our thirst. Go to Him. Drink from Him. Experience the fullness of joy that knows no limit and has no fear. Join the eternal chorus and sing with David: “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).
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