Aspects of Joy
So what is Joy?
"Joy - a vivid emotion of pleasure, gladness" (dictionary). Joy is listed by Paul as the second fruit of the Spirit, next to love and peace. Joy can be a sustained condition (we may know persons who seem to be continually joyful) or it may be a transitory emotion, linked to a particular cause, and fading as the reason for it ceases. Rejoicing and praise of God go together.
"O praise ye the Lord, praise Him in the height,
Rejoice in his word, ye angels of light...
O praise ye the Lord, thanksgiving and song
To Him be outpoured all ages along.
For love in creation, for heaven restored,
For grace of salvation, O praise ye the Lord!"
Joy results from God's action. There is the famous passage in Job (38.7) describing poetically the laying of the foundations of the earth - when "the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy." Creation is an expression of His love, and He has joy in creating. In our humble way we experience something of the same emotion when our plans succeed - the artist who completes a picture, the engineer whose machine works, the lover whose attention wins a response, the evangelist whose words bring a new person into the family of God. Indeed, we feel joy whenever we are fulfilling the purposes for which God made us, and He shares our joy (or we share His!)
Mary the mother of Jesus fulfilled the purpose of her existence. At the biological level she shared the human experience of pregnancy, but far over and above this it was the manner of her pregnancy and the identity of her child that inspired her. "My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things, and holy is his name" (Luke 1.47). It was an experience to awe and chasten her, but she was joyful. She sensed that in using her, God was showing His acceptance of people like her who had faith, and was putting on one side the dictator and the multi-millionaire.
A little later the angel was speaking to the shepherds: "Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy." This great experience for them gleamed and was gone: one night of glory, and then an infant in a feeding trough. Yet the joy they felt must have lingered. The fact which provoked this joy continued to bring real joy to many people for many years - a person had arrived who would save mankind. If we can grasp what happened in the world at that time, we shall rejoice.. The better we understand the purpose and effects of Jesus' life, the greater our joy will be.
Jesus was aware of the pains women experience in childbirth; also of a mother's joy when her child is born. He used this sequence from distress to delight to encourage his disciples on the last night before Calvary (John 16.20). He gave a picture of future joy. His disciples were going through the pain of saying goodbye to Him, of realising that they had to say goodbye. Jesus pointed out to them that they would see Him again. He may have been referring to his resurrection, when they had the joy of meeting Him alive after losing Him in death. But after a few weeks they would be saying goodbye again, more happily, but still goodbye. So they must anticipate the joy of His return. It is like the joy of being reunited with a loved friend. It is the joy of being part of a team that ministers salvation.
Paul too used the picture of childbirth, of pain leading to joy. In Romans 8 he speaks of the problems of our world: the futility, the sense of mankind not going anywhere, 'when will we ever learn'; our slavery to the tyranny of change and decay. This condition though painful and long drawn out is essentially temporary. Paul looks for a time when "the sons of God are revealed", when the magnificent liberty of the children of God characterises a new era, when love's work in the planet is purposeful and permanent. This means great joy.
But joy is not only to be found 'in the morning', we can experience it now, 'tonight'. There are many delights in trusting our Lord, in fellowship, in all the blessings of today. Sometimes these joys require effort to find them and appreciate them. Mental effort, perhaps, to keep life in perspective. "J stands for Jesus, Y stands for yourself, O stands for nothing" - so we must let nothing come between us and the love of Christ. Or discipline, perhaps: "Jesus first, Others next, Yourself last" - a rule for living which may be hard to keep, but brings its own satisfaction. Joy is like a fruit which needs to be cultivated, all the intrusive cares and emotions being weeded out of our lives so that the true fruit can grow. Even beyond this self discipline, the trials and problems which come into our lives unannounced and unwanted can be regarded as a source of joy. That is, if we follow James' way of thinking (1.2). "Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials." The theory is that trials which test our faith produce endurance, with the consequence that we become more complete as Christians. Of course, if we do not respond appropriately, this will not happen.
It is all part of joy-cultivation: to impress on ourselves the thought, 'I will enjoy life's medicine. It tastes awful, but it is doing me good.' We can even thank our 'Doctor'.
It may be possible to psyche oneself into a state of being joyful. What is more real and permanent is to relax and 'Rejoice in the Lord'. Paul's advice to the Philippian Christians (4.4,ff) will help in this. To dwell on what is right and pure and lovely. To trust our concerns as a request to God before they become worries. And to be aware of God's power available to meet our needs now and in eternity. The joy of the Lord is an emotion, but is based on a great reality - His love.
The Israelites of Ezra and Nehemiah's time had the book of God's law read aloud to them, and were dismayed that they had not been keeping it. Their leaders told them to cheer up. "The joy of the Lord is your strength." The point for them to remember was not that they had failed God: it was that God would never fail them. So they should rejoice, have a party, give gifts to those in need. Their joy was to be not only private and personal, but tangibly expressed with happiness and love shared among them all.
Joy is not simply a private matter. Like the other fruit of the Spirit, love, patience, faithfulness and the rest, it applies as we move among our friends and all those we contact in our lives. We have love, which wells out towards others. We are patient... with others; faithful... towards others. So with joy. Others cause us joy: our joy infects others. And joy is part of the character of God! The fruits of His Spirit express what He himself is like. So as we trust in Him, may we, as Paul prayed, have joy and peace in believing. (Rom 15.13)