What is Christian joy? It is difficult to put emotional experiences into words. But let me try to at least point in the right direction and show how we can have more of it in our lives.
Christian Joy Is Not an Act of Willpower
Christian joy is a spontaneous, emotional response of the heart. This is true of all joy, whether Christian or not. When Peter speaks in 1 Peter 1:8 of rejoicing with “joy unspeakable” in anticipation of our final salvation, he is not describing a decision; he is describing an explosion. You can decide to brush your teeth, but you cannot, in the same way, decide to rejoice.
You can decide to do things that may bring you joy—drive to the country, visit a friend, read a psalm—but whether joy actually happens is not in your own power. That is what I mean when I call it spontaneous. You can prepare for it—like lifting your sail on a still ocean. But you cannot make the wind blow. The Spirit blows where it wills, and Christian joy is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).
Christian Joy Is Not Superficial and Flimsy
This is why people like to distinguish it from happiness and pleasure, which seem too superficial. Of course we must be very careful here. The Bible also speaks of “pleasures for evermore” (Psalm 16:11), and it says: “happy is that people … whose God is the Lord” (Psalm 144:15). So the words happiness and pleasure don’t have to be superficial. They can mean the very same thing joy does.
But it is true to say that Christian joy is deep and firm rather than superficial and flimsy. The reason we know this is that the Bible describes Christian joy as flourishing right in the midst of pain and suffering. 1 Peter 1:6 says, “Ye greatly rejoice … through manifold temptations.” 1 Thessalonians 1:6 says, “Ye … received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost.”
In 2 Corinthians 6:10 Paul describes himself as “sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.” Christian joy is clearly a very peculiar emotion that not only endures, but seems to even flourish in affliction.
Christian Joy Is Not Natural
Christian joy is spiritual. This distinguishes it from all other joys. When something is called spiritual in Scripture, it means that it comes from the Holy Spirit and has the character of the Holy Spirit. Don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that something is “spiritual” simply because it has to do with the human spirit, or that something is natural simply because it has to do with the body or with material things.
Pride is natural, but resides in the spirit of man. Envy is natural, but resides in the spirit of man. So it is with jealousy and anger and strife and self-pity and resentment and bitterness and covetousness and hatred and selfishness. These all come from the inner spirit of a person, but they are called natural in the Bible, because we produce them by our own nature.
Galatians 5:22 says, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace,” and so on.
Romans 14:17 says that “the kingdom of God is … righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.” Christian joy is not the mere product of the human spirit in response to pleasant circumstances. It is the product, or fruit, of God’s Spirit. And it is not just a human joy; it is the very joy of Christ fulfilled in us.
A Warning Against False Joy
This is important to know because there can be natural joy even in spiritual things. For example, from the parable of the four soils Jesus gave this interpretation of the seed sown on rocky ground: “he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it; Yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended” (Matthew 13:20-21).
Here is a joy in the word of God that is not a spiritual joy or evidence that a true conversion has taken place. It is not the work of the indwelling Spirit of God. It does not have the character of Christ’s joy. False joy vanishes like the dew when the hot sun of affliction rises in the sky.
God Commands Us To Rejoice
Philippians 4:4 says, “Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice.” Even though joy is not controlled by our willpower, and even though it is a fruit of God’s Spirit and beyond our natural resources, nevertheless we are commanded to have this experience! How do we obey God’s command to rejoice? How do we fight for joy in the ups and downs of everyday life?
First, let us acknowledge that by nature we are sinners and helpless to become the kind of people who rejoice in the glory of God rather than our own glory. Second, let us cry out to God that He would send His Holy Spirit and pour the love of God into our hearts. Third, let us set our minds on the biblical expressions and evidences of God’s love for us.
Now we can put the pieces together: the love of God chooses us and calls us and justifies us and guarantees for us a share in the glory of God. Then, the Holy Spirit pours the love of God into our hearts so that we recognize it and cherish it. Then, out of this deep experience of the love of God grows an unshakable hope even in the midst of suffering. And finally, in this hope we rejoice.
—Condensed from “The Fruit of Hope: Joy” by John Piper.