By Kristen Entwistle
Webster defines joy as the experience of great pleasure or delight, emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires. By that definition, what might you possess in this life that would bring you joy? What problems do you see with this definition of joy?
The Biblical definition of joy is a little bit more telling for us, as Christians. The Greek word for joy, chara, means to extend favor2; the idea is that we experience joy because of God’s grace. It is not just happiness, or contentment. Joy is gladness because of what God has done for us. He created all things. He upholds all things. He gives all things to us and wants to redeem all things. Christ became one of us, walked among us, died for us, and rose from the grave as the victor over sin and death. We are blessed! And in light of God’s many graces to us, we experience joy. This is a contagious response that can’t be kept inside. Joy must be shown. Joy is an outward emotion of our inward gratitude because of grace regardless of outward circumstances.
We all express joy differently – some of us respond with dancing, singing, crying, lifting up our hands, but joy should always be the outward emotion of an inward gratitude because of grace regardless of outward circumstances. Note, however, that joy is not the same as mere happiness. Happiness is usually a response to pleasant circumstances. Joy reminds us that God is gracious and working to redeem all things regardless of the present circumstances. This, in fact, means that joy is in some ways less an emotion than an emotional disposition. It is an attitude that looks at what God is doing, whether I am sad or angry or happy. Joy transcends the current situation by putting it into a larger context, the narrative of God’s activity in this world. Do you think that as Christians, we sometimes confuse joy with happiness?
Here’s my operational definition of joy: Joy is the outward emotion of our inward gratitude because of grace regardless of outward circumstances. I realize that this is a long, complicated definition, so let’s try to unpack it one part at a time.
Joy is an outward emotion: When joy is mentioned in the Bible, it is almost always in conjunction with an action: shouting. Psalm 47 exhorts the nations to clap their hands and shout to God with joy; in Psalm 27:6, the author says that he will “sacrifice with shouts of joy”. I’m not usually one to walk out my front door and just shout for joy. But I am prone to walking out my door and singing – Disney songs, songs from musicals I’ve been in – but mostly worship songs. I walk out my door and see the beauty God has created, the incredible blessing of having a working car, a job, and another day to breathe. That’s how I shout for joy And people see me as they walk by, or as I drive by them, and I probably look like a fool, but I’m shouting for joy in my own way.
Joy is an outward emotion of an inward gratitude: Christ died that we might have life. He bore the pain that we rightly deserve. If that doesn’t evoke gratitude, I’m not quite sure what will. In addition to the gratitude we have for what He did for us, we are commanded to joy in Philippians 3:1, 4:4, and 1 Thessalonians 5:16. I like what Evelyn Underhill says, “Joy has no name. Its very being is lost in the great tide of selfless delight – creation’s response to the infinite loving of God.”3 It is a tidal wave of gratitude that causes us to shout for joy.
Joy is an outward emotion of an inward gratitude because of grace: Paul’s words in 1 Peter 1:3-12 speak of Christ’s great mercy that gives us a living hope, and the grace that came to us. It is because of Christ’s great grace that we should have joy inexpressible and glorious.
Joy is an outward emotion of an inward gratitude because of grace regardless of outward circumstances: In James 1:2-3, the writer tells us that we should consider it joy when we face trials of many kinds, and the writer of Hebrews 12:2 tells us of Jesus’ joy in suffering: “For the joy set before Him He endured the cross”. In every circumstance, we are to be joyful because of Christ’s grace given to us. But, we need to issue an important caveat here. James does not tell us to be thankful FOR trials, but that we should consider the redemptive outworking of those trials. We are never told to be saintly masochists! But we are told to rejoice always. Always doesn’t mean when we feel like it or when things are going right or when it’s nice outside. Always means always. That doesn’t mean that we put on a happy face every time we walk out the door and pretend that we have it all together, that our hearts aren’t breaking in tough circumstances, that all we want to do is crawl into a hole and cry. Having joy regardless of outward circumstances means that we don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. It means that we are glad because of what Christ has done for us, no matter what we are facing right now. How can you experience joy even when you are not happy (e.g., when you are sad, hurt, angry, or frightened)?
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13). May you have joy – an outward emotion of an inward gratitude because of grace regardless of outward circumstance.
Read more on the fruits of the Spirit in Allowing God to Cultivate Our Character: Reflections on the Fruit of the Spirit.