Spiritual Joy: What is it and How do we Get it?

Christian Joy: The Secret Revealed

Seeking a Deeper Understanding of Christian Joy

By Grantley Morris

This webpage is being continually revised. Last revision July 14, 2015.

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Understanding Christian Joy

Biblical Joy

Joy, Joy, Joy

Before reading this webpage is recommended that you read Need More Joy: How to Find Christian Joy

We pine for joy that is not only endless but effortless. It’s the shiny mirage that entices but never delivers. Real joy is what this webpage is about; not the false hopes raised by dangling a couple of Bible verses divorced from the rest of biblical revelation; not tinsel the wind blows away, but the genuine, heavy-duty article that withstands all that life can hurl at it.

We crave joy as our spiritual birthright and we bask in God’s approving smile when we seek to learn how to increase our joy. As vital as this quest is, however, we face a dilemma. Most of us – even experienced, devoted leaders – stumble through life blindly unaware that even the sincerest attempt to discuss thrilling, fulfilling spiritual truths is a terrifyingly dangerous task. Christian joy is no exception. I have encountered tragic numbers of people whose lives have been devastated by sincerely trying to apply a significant part of biblical truth about joy, without realizing they had overlooked other aspects of biblical revelation.

How would you like to have spent years smugly believing you have helped people find joy, only to discover in the next life that your efforts had caused someone to suffer year upon year of emotional agony, or even burdened someone so greatly that he/she abandoned God?

Is it really that complicated? One does not have to know much about quantum physics (subatomic particles) and astrophysics (dark matter etc.) to know that the make up of the physical world is so mind-bogglingly complex that it is still far from being understood by the combined intellectual efforts of countless generations of geniuses. That’s disturbing, given that the workings of the human mind and emotions must surely be exceedingly more complex than mere physics. And understanding humans should be a breeze compared with understanding the infinite divine mind behind biblical revelation. It would be sheer arrogance for any of us to imagine we have a grasp of the full truth.

James 3:1-2 haunts me:

    Not many of you should presume to be teachers “. . .  We all stumble in many ways.

Recognizing some of the dangers can never make me all-knowing. Neither can it make readers immune from unintentionally taking to dangerous extremes something I write. Like crossing a minefield, us becoming aware of the danger might induce life-saving caution but it by no means eliminates all danger. We must keep looking heavenward for divine help and never become overconfident.

The dilemma is that no matter how limited one’s understanding might be of emotions, joy and God, no one can live without dealing with these matters every moment of every day. And my quandary is that leaving people to fend for themselves is no guarantee that they will discover even the little I know, let alone more.

Since avoiding the issue is impossible let’s breathe a deep prayer and plunge into a deliberate quest for increased understanding. Here’s a suggested prayer. You need it because if you suppose you can slip into the back seat and let me take you on this journey, you will be left behind. It must be your adventure with God and if, with him, you end up leaving me behind, I’m excited for you.

    Lord, I’m out of my depth. It’s wild. It’s confusing. It’s scary. But I’m with you. I’m in over my head but that’s where I belong – not childishly paddling in the shallows of half-truths but immersed in the divine. I dare not attempt it without you but I want to release my white-knuckled grip on the humanly possible and slip into the impossible.

    I want to make Paul’s prayer for the Colossians my own:

      Colossians 1:9-12  . . . we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father . . .

    I look to you for divine revelation and a massive, never-ending increase in my spiritual understanding. Moreover, as Paul’s prayer suggests, I seek this not for a bit of excitement nor as an opportunity to boast but so that I might put into practice what you reveal and in doing so honor you by being more Christlike.

You will need to read quite a lot of the following to gain even a brief overview of the few complexities I am aware of.

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There are several secrets to endless joy but the one that all the others are based on is to be head-over-heels in love with God.

Many people imagine they have fallen in love with someone when they are simply in love with themselves. They want their fill of such things as sexual thrills, ego-boosts, feeling secure, financial prosperity, and/or physical help, and they are over the moon with excitement because they think they have found someone who can give them all they crave. Often new Christians’ excitement about God is like this.

Real love, however, is very different. It is losing oneself so completely that one cares little about anything other than the other’s happiness and simply being with the person, even if one’s beloved were to lose his or her looks, reputation and earning capacity and became too ill for sex, talking or lifting a finger.

Being in love with God means that his happiness means so much to you that in a heartbeat you would sacrifice anything to bring a smile to his face. It means that when he gives you gifts – such as health, status, material possessions, marriage, family or a good job – you delight in them as momentary tokens of his never-ending love. Nevertheless, you love the giver, not the gifts. Whenever the gifts wear out it matters little to you because even those gifts that are most precious to you are insignificant relative to having God in your life and you know that nothing can “separate us from the love of Christ” – not “trouble or hardship or persecution or famine [losing one’s source of income] or nakedness [extreme poverty] or danger or sword” (Romans 8:35).

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The Word of God insists that next in importance to loving God is loving what God loves – the sin-stained people Christ died for. Our divine Role Model is continually driven by love, even to the extreme of sacrificing everything for the sake of people who continually break his heart and keep on spurning him. No one knows the pain of rejection like God does. His agony is multiplied beyond comprehension by all the pain and suffering his loved ones feel and all the heartache they cause him by the way they treat him and treat others whom he loves equally passionately. Why does God endure it? Why doesn’t he close his heart?

The pain we suffer when people hurt us is our chance to enter into a deeper understanding of the most beautiful thing in the universe: God’s heart. The heart of God is so immense that even in the face of unfathomable pain he still has unbounded joy and peace because he is never self-obsessed. Despite his unfulfilled yearning for the love of individuals who break his heart, he keeps on loving and delights in the happiness of others.

To love is to live and to love immensely is to revel in all life’s richness. True love knows no bounds. It embraces everyone, including the unlovable and those who despise us. It does not seek its own comfort. Unbridled love brings pain, but with it comes joy of divine proportions.

Through all sorts of things happening to us and in us, God is working on our motives, purifying and intensifying them, or working on some other aspect of our character, making us more and more like himself. God’s passion is that we experience divine joy – eternal glories beyond our present comprehension that make what we presently call happiness seem like plain sugar compared with an exquisite banquet. But we can partake of God’s joy, only if we first partake of his nature. For a cat to appreciate human pleasures, it would have to become human. Even a human child cannot fully enter adult pleasures until losing childish tastes and irresponsibilities and becoming like an adult. Likewise, we can only truly enter the joy of the Lord (Matthew 25:23) by becoming like the Lord. And it is toward that end that God is constantly working.

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We will later expound on how to nurture this special love for God but first we need to gain a biblical understanding of faith and emotions/feelings, as this understanding is not only a critical key for releasing Christian joy, it is critical to every aspect of the Christian life, including one’s salvation and finding the very source of joy – reveling in God’s love and loving him.

I am appalled at how many Christians let feelings, such as feeling guilty or not feeling God’s love, undermine their certainty that God can be trusted to keep his word and forgive all who put their faith in the power of Jesus’ sacrifice. As I have written in webpages for people with this problem:

    The enemy of our souls is the master deceiver because that is all he can do. The devil cannot change reality. He cannot change the fact that God loves you with all of his unlimited love and that Christ died for the sins of the entire world, which has to include every sin you have ever committed. So all he can do is mess with your feelings, hoping that you will start to believe them rather than believe in the cleansing and forgiving power of Christ and the love of God.

    Even if you feel you are beyond God’s forgiveness, that feeling is a lie from hell as serious as claiming that Christ did not die for the sins of the world.

    Until you realize that false feelings will continue no matter how devoted you are to Christ, you’ll be so vulnerable to false feelings that the tempter will keep piling them on more than ever. None of us ever gets to the point where we are no longer tempted. Unwanted thoughts and feelings would only slightly taper off if the tempter has tried so often without ruffling your feathers that he begins to believe that such an attack will never succeed with you and is a complete waste of his time. If he’s God’s out of that approach in the past, he will take a lot of convincing.

    Satan is a sore loser. Once he finds something that shakes us up he keeps trying it over and over relentlessly until he is absolutely convinced that his tactics will never again work with you. When, finally, he seems to leave, it is only to bide his time for a surprise attack. His persistence is so very unpleasant. The positive side, however, is that this will make you stronger and stronger as you keep resisting his lies. (More)

Then there are those who mistakenly fear they are spiritually doomed because they know they have sinned but don’t feel enormous conviction. (They would only be in danger if they no longer knew they were sinning or intended to keep on sinning.)

And we can never move beyond faith, such as going on to spiritual maturity through works or earning spiritual gifts.

    Romans 1:17 For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last . . .

    Galatians 3:2-5  . . . Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? . . . Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?

    Hebrews 11:6 And without faith it is impossible to please God . . .

Neither is faith a guarantee that our feelings will line up with spiritual reality. You can have enormous faith and God’s approval and not feel his presence or his love (see the link at the end of this page, Feeling God’s love).

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Understanding our Creator’s view of emotions is essential for maintaining Christian joy and also for learning how to enjoy God’s love and be in love with him. So let’s take what we have so far discovered about faith and feelings and apply it to loving God.

The Word of God repeatedly commands husbands to love their wives (Ephesians 5:25,28,33; Colossians 3:19 and see Titus 2:4 for wives loving their husbands) and all of us to love our enemies. It also commands us to love our Lord with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:30). Deliberately doing all we can to stir up our emotions must be somewhere in that all-inclusive list of aspects of our inner being with which we are to love God. Clearly, however, feelings are not seen as ruling one’s love but as one’s emotions being dominated by the will (and therefore able to be commanded).

Consider the command to love one’s wife. That this could be commanded stands in direct opposition to the current worldly notion. In a survey of young people, most agreed with the statement that “love is an addiction like any drug”. People are rarely so blunt but when examined it becomes clear that what most what people today call being in love is not a virtue but is being enslaved by one’s feelings. Multitudes in other cultures would consider this madness. They would see divorcing because one no longer feels love as ludicrous. They would regard engaging in adultery because one feels overwhelmingly strong lust/infatuation – and even having the audacity to call it love – as being as depraved as thinking one should steal or kill whenever one feels the compulsion.

Our attitude toward love reveals whether we choose to act like God or like animals.

The Lord of all wisdom sees love as a decision, not an emotion – a decision to be godly. This by no means implies that having emotions is ungodly but it means it is ungodly to let one’s emotions rule one’s life. God has emotions and created us to have emotions, but out-of-control emotions are foreign to his heart, whereas doing what is right when one’s emotions are tearing at oneself to do the opposite inspires all of heaven to applaud.

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Let’s delve a little deeper into the matter touched on earlier of loving the Giver versus loving his gifts. If, for instance, God should be the primary source of our joy, should his gifts be allowed even to contribute to our joy?

We all have weaknesses – things with the disturbing potential to enslave us and usurp God in our lives.

    Matthew 6:24  . . . You cannot serve both God and Money.

    Romans 16:18  . . . not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. . . .

    Ephesians 5:5  . . . No immoral, impure or greedy person – such a man is an idolater – has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

    Philippians 3:19  . . . their god is their stomach . . . Their mind is on earthly things.

    1 Timothy 6:9 People who want to get rich fall . . . into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.

    2 Timothy 3:4  . . . lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God

    2 Peter 2:19 They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity – for a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him.

Exactly what weaknesses we have varies from person to person. For example:

    Romans 14:2-4 One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

My personal mixture of weaknesses and strengths allows me to use the Internet without being tempted to look at porn or commit adultery or gamble or get involved in a cult or waste time. For someone else, however, the Internet is extremely dangerous and should be avoided. Our unique mix of weaknesses makes none of us worse Christians, provided we do not tempt God by exposing ourselves to spiritual danger or tempt others to do so.

We all have strengths, however – things we can rule without them ruling us. For instance, although in some eras and cultures certain people might have been tempted to worship the sun, and some people are sight-impaired, must of us are free to delight in sunsets as a precious gift from God. Indeed, where it is spiritually safe to do so, we should deliberately enjoy all the wonderful things God freely provides for us:

    1 Timothy 4:3-5 They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving . . . For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.

    1 Timothy 6:17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.

    (Emphasis mine.)

(Similar Scriptures)

We will later see how Old Testament holy feasts were to be joyful occasions and as such were associated with eating, drinking and gift-giving.

Whatever we can safely cope with without falling into addiction or turning it into our god, should not be despised but enjoyed, provided they are not allowed to distract us from God and they are “received with thanksgiving,” i.e. they are treasured because they are temporary gifts from the One we are in love with and as such they deepen our love for him.

As salt enhances the flavor of food and increases our enjoyment of it, so involving God in our enjoyment of things – by thanking him for them and regarding them as expressions of his love – will increase our enjoyment of them. For him to be our God, however, he must be by far our greatest love (Luke 14:26) which means we could lose everything but him – our health, finances, freedom, reputation, human companionship, and so on – and we will still have our primary source of joy.

How, then, can we find such joy in God’s love and in loving him? God is so wonderful that I cannot conceive of anyone truly knowing him without that knowledge causing them to fall in love with him. 1 John 4:19 says that we love because God first loved us. If we forget how much God loves us (and it is so very easy to forget, and none of us can fully grasp the magnitude of how loved of God we are) then we will find it much harder to love God and our motivation to enjoy him will wane. So the most important thing you can do is increase your awareness of God’s love. The best way I know to do this is to read several times How Much Does God Love Me? Receiving your personal Revelation of God’s Love and all the links there. Please ensure this is on your list of critically important things to do (for ease of access the link is repeated at the end of this webpage) but if you wish to learn more about joy, keep reading.

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One cannot have continual joy without learning to live by raw faith. For this, one must master the art of recognizing the existence of feelings and circumstances but continually rejecting them as indicators of spiritual reality and stubbornly refusing to be swayed by them, no matter how overpowering and contrary to Jesus’ promises they seem to get.

The extent to which we let ourselves be tossed around by how we feel and what is currently happening, is the extent to which we will fail to have continual joy. In the words of Scripture, to obey God’s directive to “be joyful always,” (1 Thessalonians 5:16) is possible only to the extent that we obey God’s other directives, such as:

    2 Corinthians 5:7 We live by faith, not by sight.

    2 Corinthians 4:18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. . . .

    Colossians 3:1-2  . . . set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

Especially for new Christians, what often seems to be faith in Jesus turns out to be primarily not faith in the love and faithfulness of the all-powerful Lord who cannot lie but faith in feelings and circumstances. It is believing that lesser things, not Jesus, are the source of truth. This is a spiritually precarious way to live and yet we will remain deluded as to where we have actually placed our faith until our current circumstances and/or feelings contradict what God declares to be true. As challenging as such times might be, we desperately need them in order to refine what is more precious than gold – our faith. The Bible is emphatic that God may choose to do this through physical suffering. For example:

    James 1:2-4 Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

    1 Peter 1:6-7  . . . you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

Faith is so precious that it is worth immense suffering, if that is what it takes – and it could – to purify and strengthen it. And if, as James says, we also need adversity to develop perseverance, do not be surprised if we need adversity to develop other spiritually important qualities, including joy.

Physically, we can grow stronger only by doing things like lifting weights that during any training session seem to drain our strength and at the time end up making us feel weaker. Likewise, we grow strong spiritually by enduring things that at the time make us feel weaker. So do not be surprised if God chooses to build joy into your life by letting you endure experiences that seem to drain you of joy.

Unless we understand the basic principle of physical training, we could be given the best possible training session and make utter fools of ourselves by slanderously accusing our personal trainer of all manner of things. So it is when God is lovingly putting us through the best spiritual training by not babying us but trusting us enough not to instantly intervene when evil forces attack us. Better than the world’s greatest trainer, our loving Lord knows precisely our limits and potential. It will often feel unbearable or counterproductive, but it never will be:

    1 Corinthians 10:13 No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

Note the promise is not that the temptation or trial (the word in the original text can mean either) will vanish. The promise that you will be able to “stand up under it” or, as the King James Version puts it, “bear it”.

If physical suffering (circumstances that superficially seem to clash with God’s love for us) can end up doing us immense spiritual good, the same is true when our feelings clash with spiritual reality and we find ourselves having to exercise more faith than usual in order to stay on track spiritually. And part of our spiritual duty is to be joyful.

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To maintain joy no matter what hits us, it would surely be helpful to understand the things that could threaten joy and to know how to conquer them.

It hardly takes a genius to know that a whole range of negative attitudes can cause depression, such as defeatism, repeatedly dwelling on past hurts or failures, continually telling oneself that life is not worth living, being devoid of hope, an atrocious self-image, such as thinking oneself useless, repeatedly believing one is spiritually damned or unforgivable or unlovable or cursed, and so on. A link near the end of this page takes you to a list of links about how to overcome each of these issues.

But does all depression boil down to beliefs and attitude?

Doctors know that medical factors such things as hormones, mental disorders, anxiety disorders – even our genes – can profoundly affect one’s emotions. Unfortunately, many people suffer needless confusion because this is poorly understood by the general public. Still more tragic is that many Christians actually choose to be ignorant about this and arrogantly think that they are somehow exempt from these medical findings. What makes this so unbiblical is that not only does Scripture not imply that Christians are immune from adversity, it keeps saying that they will suffer and that spiritual good will flow from it. (This truth is expounded in the link at the end of this page The Surprising Joy of Trials.)

Almost everyone will agree that an iron deficiency can cause people to feel physically weak and that having such weakness in no way suggests they are bad Christians. An iron deficiency can sometimes produce other symptoms, including depression. In fact, just as there are many medical disorders that can cause one to feel tired and weak, so there are many deficiencies and illnesses that can cause depression. I am not referring to being depressed because one is in pain or suffers physical limitations or is worried about one’s health, but depression as a direct symptom of the illness.

If, without your awareness, someone slipped a mood-altering drug into your food or drink, it would profoundly affect your feelings, regardless of how spiritual or mentally stable you are. As illicit drugs are substances that change one’s mood by changing one’s body chemistry, so certain medical conditions such as a thyroid disorder can change one’s mood (usually negatively) by changing one’s body chemistry.

Some people experiencing medically-caused depression will be quite mystified as to why they feel down since their external circumstances are fine, some will know they feel peculiar and will not even realize it is depression, and some will happen to have some unpleasant circumstances in their lives and mistakenly presume that these circumstances are the main reason for them feeling badly. Even reduced exposure to sunlight can affect one’s body chemistry (such as Vitamin D levels) and one’s body clock and can cause depression (Seasonal Affective Disorder). Some medications have depression as a possible side-effect. As with Seasonal Affective Disorder and so many other things, the same exposure will affect people differently, just as only some people have food allergies.

So there is such a thing as medically-induced depression – depression caused not by external circumstances or attitude to life but because one’s body chemistry is not as it should be. Since the cause is physical, it will continue until the physical problem is corrected, regardless of how positive one’s attitude is – just as a car with fuel that is not the correct chemical mix will not run as the manufacturer intended, no matter how positive the driver’s attitude is.

Some might think that a person can continue to eat unwisely, or whatever, and God will simply heal the faith-filled person anyhow. That’s quite possible. God can, and sometimes does, miraculously heal us, just as he miraculously released Peter from prison (Acts 12:6-10). Nevertheless, if faith-filled Christians will always be miraculously and instantly freed from medically-induced depression (a bodily affliction) why was not even Paul, the great apostle of faith and joy, instantly delivered from the extreme bodily affliction of being repeatedly flogged, stoned and so on? If the Lord promises to bring good out of the evil of physical suffering, he can also bring good out of physical ailments that, by causing our feelings to go haywire, can refine our faith through forcing us to keep believing Jesus rather than our feelings.

Just as keeping us in a wheel chair would render us physically weak, our wise and loving Lord does not continually cause our feelings and circumstances to line up with spiritual reality because it would keep us spiritually weak.

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No matter how deep our sorrow, we can still praise God. We can be depressed and still be genuinely thankful and make ourselves sing joyful songs. Most of us would also consider it possible, even if unusual, for someone to be joyful despite being seriously ill. But here’s a question we need to grapple with: Is it possible to be joyful – at least in the biblical sense of the word – while continuing to suffer from clinical depression?

Much of Christianity is about doing what we might be tempted to regard as humanly impossible, such as loving one’s enemies. Is it impossible for joy and depression to co-exist? Or does being joyful while still suffering from depression fall into the same category of the seemingly impossible becoming possible through Christ?

For insight, let’s examine something that seems equally mindboggling:

    Philippians 4:12-13  . . . I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

The last sentence is famous among many Christians, but the context – being content while being so impoverished that one goes hungry – is not nearly as famous. Many people suppose that not having enough to eat is incompatible with faith in Jesus but that’s not what the Bible teaches. In fact, the above Scripture is but one of several times God’s Word mentions Paul going hungry (Scriptures).

I can understand people presuming it is literally impossible for joy and clinical depression to exist simultaneously in the same person but it seems no less likely than other biblical things the Bible says can co-exist, such as a faith-filled Christian being so impoverished as to go hungry. And no less likely than someone being content despite being that needy.

I find it particularly insightful that Paul says, “I have learned the secret of being content” (emphasis mine). This was achieved “through him [Christ]” and yet it was apparently not automatic, nor received as a fully formed gift, but had to be learned. This suggests to me that the equally challenging task of being “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10) is also likely to be spiritual (“through him”) and yet not be instant or effortless but, like learning to walk, require practice and determined effort.

Just moments after saying, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you,” Jesus said, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,”(John 15:11; Mark 14:34).

We find similar combinations of joy and sorrow elsewhere in Scripture. In the same letter, Paul wrote, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart,” and “For the kingdom of God is  . . . righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,” and “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him . . .” (Romans 9:2; 14:17; 15:13). In another letter Paul described himself as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10) and a chapter later wrote, “ . . . in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds. For when we came into Macedonia, this body of ours had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn – conflicts on the outside, fears within,” (2 Corinthians 7:4-5). And Peter wrote, “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1 Peter 1:6, emphasis mine).

Courage is not the absence of fear, nor is holiness the absence of temptation (more). Neither is Christian joy the absence of grief, nor the absence of depression. Instead, it is an heroic refusal to surrender, when such afflictions rage with fearsome ferocity.

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As a fruit of the Spirit, joy stands shoulder to shoulder with such virtues as patience, faithfulness and self-control (Galatians 5:22). In our fantasies, however, many of us long to degrade joy into some sort of spiritual dope – preferably a high that comes from a gloriously exciting spiritual experience and once we get our fix we are pumped for the rest of our lives.

In contrast, God’s precious Word focuses on spiritual reality. It reveals such a glaringly different view of joy that we are forced to discard our childish notions along with fairy godmothers armed with magic wands. As we grow spiritually it slowly dawns that truth is more challenging but, ultimately, more rewarding.

Paul was not only incarcerated but in dire straits when he wrote so often of joy and emphasized rejoicing always. In his commentary on this epistle (Philippians), a Bible scholar described Paul’s definition of joy as a “defiant ‘Nevertheless!’ (Source).

This is not some Pauline idiosyncrasy. Consider Peter, for example:

    1 Peter 4:13 But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.

The mere fact that Peter felt the need to write this shows he did not think believers would be so spiritually doped up that there was no need to remind them to do rejoice.

And here’s yet another New Testament writer:

    James 1:2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds

The word “consider” indicates this is not some automatic response but a conscious decision was needed to choose to regard it as “pure joy”.

This view of joy is so divine – so locked in to God’s ways – that it is not even a uniquely New Testament revelation. We see in the Old Testament this same stubborn, Spirit-inspired defiance in the face of even the most terrifying of calamities:

    Psalm 46:1-2 God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea

The psalmist was determined to maintain steadfast faith in God no matter what mind-numbing catastrophes hit him.

Nowhere is this biblical key to joy seen clearer than in this inspiring Old Testament Scripture:

    Habakkuk 3:17-18 Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.

As highlighted by this quote, the secret of Spirit-filled joy is not some one-off spiritual experience but an on-going resolve that we will never allow anything – no matter how devastating – lessen our determination to keep on rejoicing in God.

In the original language of this Scripture, “rejoice in the Lord” has connotations of triumphing, or even gloating over the defeat of one’s enemies (Source). We triumph over adversity by refusing to let it dictate what we believe. Who God is, how precious we are to him and our future because of him, are all utterly unaffected by circumstances. This being so, we should obstinately refuse to let our beliefs about these critically important matters fluctuate according to our circumstances.

We can crave something intensely and yet deny ourselves. We can be terrified and still act heroically. We can be overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and condemnation and yet choose to believe that the blood of Jesus has cleansed us from all sin. Someone can make our skin crawl, but we can still be kind to them. We can feel empty and powerless and keep believing that Almighty God dwells within us. So it is with joy: we can choose to be joyful even when suffering and feeling miserable.

And, as stressed not just in this Scripture (“rejoice in the LORD . . . be joyful in God) but throughout the Word of God, our joy needs to be in God, not in earthly things (such as, in Habakkuk’s case, an adequate harvest) that circumstances affect. We are exhorted, for example:

    Matthew 6:20-21 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Why did the apostle Paul have so much joy? Because Christ’s love meant everything to him and he was adamant that no disaster could ever take that love from him:

    Romans 8:35-39 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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We yearn for joy, yet for so many of us it remains an elusive mystery. My goal is to demystify Christian joy in a thoroughly biblical way. Like the ending of a honeymoon, the result might initially disappoint, but it is the path to lasting fulfillment.

It is easy to stray from a biblical understanding of joy if we divorce it from the Bible’s teaching about rejoicing.

Perhaps the connection would be harder to avoid if we still used the old English spelling reJOYce, or perhaps we get confused because joy seems abstract and rejoice more practical, but whatever the reason, many of us create a false distinction between joy and rejoicing. Just as love and loving is essentially the same thing, so it is with joy and rejoicing – both linguistically and biblically. Some Bible versions make the connection more obvious by translating the exhortation to rejoice be joyful, or be full of joy.

So understanding joy should start with examining what Scripture says about rejoicing.

The following is put in list form but it is the second half of verse 15 down to verse 22 of 1 Thessalonians 5, quoted in full:

    *  always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.
    *  Be joyful always;
    *  pray continually;
    *  give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
    *  Do not put out the Spirit’s fire;
    *  do not treat prophecies with contempt.
    *  Test everything.
    *  Hold on to the good.
    *  Avoid every kind of evil.

Nothing in this list is what God does for us. They are all things we must do. If we do not do them, they will not get done.

Sandwiched in this list is be joyful always, or in the words of the King James Bible, rejoice evermore. Likewise, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” is in a list of things that are our responsibility, not God’s (see Philippians 4:4-6). The same is true for “rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ,” (see 1 Peter 4:7-16).

Prayer and rejoicing appear in both of the lists in Paul’s letters and Peter’s list includes praise. Like prayer and praise, being joyful is not something God does for us but something we do. As we pray and praise because of God (because he is there and he invites us to pray and praise), so we have joy because of God (because of who he is to us and in us) but just as it is up to us to pray to God and praise him, so it is up to us to joy in God. Our Lord wants these things and has made them possible but it is our decision whether we pray or are prayerless and whether we manifest joy or are gloomy.

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Scripture does not allow us any wriggle room for trying to tell ourselves that when it speaks of joy it means some sort of hidden, inner joy that is buried so deep that we can have it and give every appearance of being miserable.

The driving force of Paul’s ministry was such that you could nearly put a stethoscope to his chest and with every heart throb hear the words thump, “Imitate me, as I imitate Christ” (Scriptures). So let’s stop guessing what Paul meant by “joy in the faith,” (Philippians 1:25) and “Rejoice in the Lord always,” when we can almost literally see it.

Paul had been in the very city he was now penning those words to when suddenly he was manhandled, arrested and his world collapsed around him. While still bleeding from their horrific and illegal flogging, Paul and Silas were not just incarcerated in the very depths of the prison but further confined in stocks – an instrument of torture. Despite their bodies’ every protest as they twisted in their torturous restrictions, they did not wait until their next church service or until they could find some digital praise music or even until they got some privacy. Their immediate response was to raise their voices in song; singing God’s praises throughout the black, pain-wracked night in the midst of unbelievers and vicious criminals.

Even after the earthquake freed them, they did not run for their lives but stayed behind to save the heartless jailor’s life and then dug deep to muster the strength to expound the Gospel and lead him to Jesus. Only later were their wounds finally and unexpectedly tended to (Acts 16:19-33). Long before that turn of events, their joy had not been something kept deep within. It had been so deliberately stirred up and outwardly expressed that no one around them could miss it.

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We are not to lounge around waiting for God to zap us with joy, any more than we should wait for God to give us a desire to pray. Joy is a decision, not an emotion. Like choosing to love someone who hates us and has hurt us, joy is stubbornly choosing to be like God even when every natural impulse surging within us rebels against it.

Joy has its rewards, but it costs. Like physical exercise, it strengthens us but it is hard going. It makes us feel more alive but it demands disciplined effort.

Christian joy is not because of circumstances, but in spite of them. It is such a peculiar mix that Paul described himself as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10).

Just as answered prayer depends on us praying, so joy depends on us rejoicing. And just as prayer can be so critical and yet can sometimes be the last thing we feel like doing, so it is with being joyful.

Too often we prefer to be miserable than joyful. It seems easier to give up than to keep on doing what it takes to be a spiritual hero. Seeking to justify our laziness, we try to convince ourselves that we have earned the right to wallow in defeat and despair. In fact, many of us think that, rather than have to keep pushing through, we can entice God to reward our laziness if we make ourselves sufficiently miserable. We hope that by being crybabies we can keep suckering God into babying us. Our presumption is that the glummer we make ourselves, the more likely it is that God will pity us and give us what we want without us having to put in the required effort. The problem with our scheme, however, is that to refuse to be joyful is to refuse God’s way. It is to disobey the God who declares, “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus,” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, emphasis mine). It is to think God is a fool and that by acting despondent we have found a way that is better than God’s.

Are we following our triumphant Lord? To see ourselves as losers or be as gloomy as losers, is an insult to our Leader. If we lack joy, it is because we get what we settle for. We prefer to complain than to praise God; to gripe than to thank him; to surrender than to fight.

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Scientific theories that explain much and fit so many facts perfectly become widely acclaimed. Throughout the history of science, however, great leaps forward have occurred when people are brave enough to take seriously certain occurrences that do not fit the accepted theory. It is the same with biblical revelation. What I have so far said fits so much of the Bible but we need the full truth, which means we must take seriously Scriptures that seem not to fit the above outline.

We cannot gain a biblical (and hence divine) perspective on joy without gaining a biblical understanding of feelings. And, like every biblical truth, we need to embrace the whole of biblical revelation on the subject. This is difficult because truth is complex and we all have a tendency to oversimplify and excitedly run off with half the truth without waiting to come to terms with the rest.

So far in this webpage we are beginning to see that joy is a decision, not a feeling; a virtue, not a spiritual equivalent of a drug-induced high. In Christ, we were born to rule, which includes ruling our emotions. We were not meant to be slaves of our emotions, any more than we were meant to be slaves of our lusts.

On the other hand, however, God is nothing like an unfeeling robot. He has emotions and it is biblical to get in touch with our emotions – even emotions we do not like. I suggest you don’t get sidetracked by reading it right now but at the end of this webpage is a link called Why to Truly Forgive Hinges on Getting in Touch with Your Anger. In it I explain how we can miss the depths of forgiveness and short-circuit the entire process by being so anxious to forgive and to avoid anger that we fail to acknowledge, even to ourselves, the gravity of the offense. This renders our supposed forgiveness superficial and not as Godlike as we imagine and we miss most of the benefits. (In fact, God himself gets angry. I have another link called Why God’s Wrath is Comforting.) Likewise, in Real Christians Grieve I show how we can be so keen to honor God by continually being joyful that we fear getting in touch with our real feelings. Despite us having the highest motives, this is unbiblical and can prevent us from truly healing.

It is not Godlike to be enslaved by one’s emotions but neither is it Godlike to be robotic. Like learning to walk, getting the balance right is initially very difficult but with patient practice we will improve.

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I am totally with you if you dislike what I have so far written about joy, and I expect you to join me in groaning even more about this next section. To be frank, I dislike it as much as I dislike all the scientific evidence about the importance of physical exercise. Nevertheless, I have forced myself into a corner by committing myself to making this webpage thoroughly biblical. There is another reason for going down this path, however: if we do things God’s way we can expect the very effort to increase our joy. There is indeed light at the end of the tunnel!

I have quite an interest in human psychology because I believe the God of the Bible made our minds and bodies and I am convinced that our minds and bodies were made to respond to biblical principles such that even if God were not to directly intervene (and I believe he would) the very effort involved in doing things biblically would lift our spirits. For example, I mention elsewhere scientific research suggesting that even a forced, cheesy grin makes us feel happier.

Too many of us get hung-up on feelings; giving them far more attention that God does. We worry needlessly, for instance, that it is hypocritical to act lovingly if we do not inwardly feel love. If our motives for acting in love are pure – not to boost our reputation but to honor God and help someone – there is nothing hypocritical about it. Hypocrisy is imagining we have love because of what we feel but refusing to express it by our actions.

If you were the one lying wounded in the parable of the Good Samaritan, who would you want to come your way: someone who feels deep compassion but does nothing for you, or someone who feels nothing, or is even secretly annoyed about the inconvenience, but tends to your needs?

Heaven is unimpressed by how warm and fuzzy we feel. Love that is unexpressed is useless:

    1 John 3:18 Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.

    James 2:15-16 If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?

Feelings are as fickle as indigestion. Motives and actions are what God looks at. When we do what is right because it is right, if feelings are pulling us in the opposite direction, it merely makes our actions more selfless and noble, winning us eternal praise.

No matter how frequently and emphatically we “claim by faith” such Scriptures as “the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost,” (Romans 5:5, KJV) it does no one any good unless that love is outwardly expressed.

In the same way, joy needs to be externalized. Even the Old Testament heavily emphasizes the importance of the outward expression of joy:

    Leviticus 23:40 On the first day you are to take choice fruit from the trees, and palm fronds, leafy branches and poplars, and rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days.

    Deuteronomy 12:7,18 There, in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your families shall eat and shall rejoice in everything you have put your hand to, because the LORD your God has blessed you. . . . you are to eat them in the presence of the LORD your God . . . and you are to rejoice before the LORD your God in everything you put your hand to.

    Deuteronomy 16:11-15 And rejoice before the LORD your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name . . . Be joyful at your Feast . . . For seven days celebrate the Feast to the LORD your God at the place the LORD will choose.

    Deuteronomy 27:7 Sacrifice fellowship offerings there, eating them and rejoicing in the presence of the LORD your God.

    Esther 9:19 That is why rural Jews . . . observe the fourteenth of the month of Adar as a day of joy and feasting, a day for giving presents to each other.

    Nehemiah 8:10-13 Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a sacred day. Do not grieve.” Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.

    Psalm 33:1-4 Sing joyfully to the LORD, you righteous; it is fitting for the upright to praise him. Praise the LORD with the harp; make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre. Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy. For the word of the LORD is right and true; he is faithful in all he does.

    Psalm 43:5 Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.

    Psalm 149:1-6 Praise the LORD. Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise in the assembly of the saints. Let Israel rejoice in their Maker; let the people of Zion be glad in their King. Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with tambourine and harp. For the LORD takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with salvation. Let the saints rejoice in this honor and sing for joy on their beds. May the praise of God be in their mouths . . .

One Bible Dictionary concludes, Old Testament joy “was not bottled up! This exuberance is suggested, in fact, by the very wealth of words for joy.” It says there are “twenty-seven separate words for joy or joyful participation”. It lists ones that “convey the sense of ‘expressing joy’ or ‘exultation’ and a group of words that “connotes a ‘ringing cry’”. Another “signifies ‘shouting’ or ‘cheering’”. Yet another means “‘raise a shout,’ ‘give a blast’” and can be used in battle or in distress as well as in triumph, applause and joy. Employing yet another Hebrew word, “The psalmist exhorts his fellows to ‘make a joyful noise’ . . . and again joy becomes a sound and not just a state of mind.” Another word means, “‘neigh’ or ‘cry shrilly’” and another means “‘burst forth’ . . . and is used seven times of bursting into joyful sound”.

The above-mentioned dictionary, though accurate in what it says, leaves much unsaid. For some peculiar reason, it chose to focus almost exclusively on sound. Anyone familiar with Scripture knows that biblical expressions of joy include much more than that. Another scholarly Bible Dictionary rightly adds the significance of “dancing, clapping, leaping, or stamping of feet” in Old Testament expressions of joy.

And, of course, there was the playing of musical instruments, including several types of percussion instruments. Unlike stringed instruments and flutes, trumpets in that era were not developed musically and were more noise makers but that was all it took for them to have a significant role in expressing joy.

Did you note in some of the Old Testament Scriptures quoted earlier, how eating and drinking were often part of the expression of joy in the Lord? Even the giving of presents was sometimes included (Esther 9:19; Nehemiah 8:10; Deuteronomy 26:11-12). These were all deliberate attempts to stir up joy.

Moreover, biblical joy is always associated with verbalizing to God and to people reasons for praising and thanking God (Scriptures). This refocuses our thinking, empowering us to “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things,” (Colossians 3:2) and so gain a heavenly perspective. This perspective, along with reminding ourselves of how loved of God we are, is critical for joy.

Joy is the product of a stubborn resolve to dwell in the reality that is ours in Christ, rather than being duped by current circumstances. It is taking God at his word. It is putting yourself in the enviable position of one day being able to say “I told you so” to all the skeptics. It is a refusal to miss the most honorable, most needed part of the celebrations by delaying them until the truth of God’s promises is so obvious that not even unbelievers can deny it. And joy needs to be expressed and deliberately stirred, not kept buried within. This is not hypocrisy; hypocrisy is claiming to love God and stubbornly refusing to obey his command to rejoice always.

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I have explored the hows and whys of joy in greater depth elsewhere when addressing other matters, so I will soon begin directing you to relevant links but you will find it helpful to complete this page before reading the links. I also suggest that you bookmark or record the web address of this page so that after exploring a long link you can later return here to locate other links.

It is wisely said that happiness depends on happenings; joy depends on Jesus. Joy has nothing to do with circumstances and everything to do with our relationship with Jesus. In our relationship with him, however, God yearns for partnership, not domination. Just as our hearts yearn for love, not robots, so does God’s heart.

For most of us, our biggest beef with God is that we want him to baby us and he wants us to grow up. We think that because he is omnipotent he should do everything for us; he thinks that since we are destined for such greatness that we will even judge angels (1 Corinthians 6:3), we need to learn to handle great responsibility.

As babies grow, good parents gradually cease babying their darlings and expect them to do increasingly more for themselves. It pains parents that children often whine about this, throw temper tantrums and even worry that their parents no longer love them. Nevertheless, we know it is the wisest, most loving and respectful thing parents can do.

Our divine Father faces a similar dilemma with us. Most of us keep wanting to be babied, get envious of Christians who are babied, and worry that God no longer loves us like he used to – all because our wonderful Lord believes in us so much that he is training us to mature and become Christlike.

The matter of joy is just one of many examples where the immature expect God to do everything for them but God loves them too much to keep giving into their whining, since doing so would prevent them from ever developing and reaching the heights divinely planned for them. The more we grow in Christ, the more we are expected to do things in partnership with God rather than expect him to do it all for us. In other webpages, I explain how this principle applies not just to joy but to peace, to temptation, to feeling loved by God, to suffering, to deliverance from demonic attack and to answered prayer.

We need to work at being joyful, just as we need to work at loving those who abuse us.

For valuable help with joy, please read my long webpage for people who are feeling suicidal. The entire page is relevant but this link: The Surprise Beginning of Something Beautiful will take you to the most pertinent part. From there, please keep reading.

You might not feel suicidal but you are likely to find most valuable an index of links to help with many things that can rob us of joy, such as feeling useless, unlovable, unforgivable, chronic pain, loneliness and many more, see Help on Specific Matters that Could Make Us Suicidal.

A helpful series of webpages begins at When Things Get Tough. Yet another relevant webpage is The Spiritual Value of Suffering Trials.

I also have a webpage about the fruit of Spirit but this is largely an adaptation of my webpage about peace. I suggest you read the webpage about peace because, being a fruit of the Spirit, similar principles apply to peace as to joy.

As explained early in this webpage, however, of critical importance is this link: How Much Does God Love Me? Receiving your personal Revelation of God’s Love.

Other Important Links Mentioned in the Webpage

The Surprising Joy of Trials

Feeling God’s Love for You

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Not to be sold. © Copyright, Grantley Morris, 2015. For much more by the same author, see www.net-burst.net   No part of these writings may be copied without citing this entire paragraph.



Understanding Christian Joy

Biblical Joy

Joy, Joy, Joy