Throughout Substance as whole, starting in the very first chapter, I wrote that much of the confusion in our thinking comes from the structures of our thought and life and not from the ideas themselves. This is true when we talk about worldliness; it may be even more true when we talk about joy. We don’t really talk about joy, do we? We talk about happiness. Even when we say the word “fulfillment,” we don’t mean the fulfillment of some grand philosophical purpose for our being, we just mean that we feel full inside. We just mean “I’m happy.”
However, happiness is notoriously unpredictable in the human heart. It’s a little like seeing birds in the winter. It is extraordinarily difficult to capture a bunch of songbirds so that you can see them during the winter. But it’s not that hard to put seed in a bird feeder and watch them come. Happiness is the birds. Virtue is the feeder. This is one of the differences between “joy” in its comprehensive definition, and “happiness” as we commonly mean it.
What is joy?
Joy is both a virtue and a spiritual fruit. That is, joy is something we can pursue, even something we can achieve. Yet Scripture tells us that joy is not just a virtue, but a “fruit of the Spirit,” which means that we are pursuing it graciously. All of our striving is to enter into something God freely gives as a gift. Joy is a fruit of life in the Spirit.
You can see this by noting that joy is commanded in certain biblical verses. Romans 12:9-21 is a list of summary commitments that explains what the Christian life looks like when people live it out together. In those verses, the apostle Paul gives 23 commands. They all work out a basic statement that begins verse nine: “Love must be sincere.” He then gives 23 commands to explain what sincerity of love would look like in a community of authentic believers. One of those commands is about joyfulness. Verse 12 says:
“Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.”
So we might observe three very basic points:
- Being joyful is something that we can do, not something that either happens or doesn’t outside of our control.
- Being joyful is an outworking of sincere love.
- Joyfulness functions best in the context of hope.
How reliable can we be in this joy? These three words are found in 1 Thessalonians 5:16 “Be joyful always”; this command is sandwiched between, “make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else” in verse 15 and “pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances” in verses 17 and 18. The commands in this section of verses is summed up with this: “for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Our responsibility to exhibit the virtue of joy is placed alongside many other commandments to do things, so that we would understand our active responsibilities of the virtuous life rather than passive experiences of human emotion. Paul can tell us to simply “be joyful,” and even tell us to do it “always,” just as he would tell us not to take revenge, to pray regularly, to practice hospitality, and to practice generosity.
Creating joy in ourselves
How can this be? How can one create joy inside themselves? Especially when certain verses seem to speak of joyfulness as a response to events, such as in Zechariah 10:7: “Their children will see it and be joyful; their hearts will rejoice in the Lord.” Yet the biblical authors appear to believe that joy is a virtue because it can be pursued. The disposition of joy is an expression of sincere love and is found in the company of hope. It may be that joy isn’t a virtue we can pursue directly, but that it is always achieved when we pursue its subordinate virtues: thankfulness, generosity, sincere love, hope, faith, and so on.
In fact, this appears to be the exact point of telling us to be “joyful in hope.” Hope has a somewhat more obvious basis for its existence. We hope in things. We can hope for the resurrection. We can hope for God’s work in our life. We can hope for transformations in godliness. We can hope people will believe the gospel. We all intuitively know that if hope has an object, if there is something we can hope for, then we can have hope.
It appears that Scripture is telling us that this is also true of joy. If God’s faithfulness leads us to believe that the future could be good, why would we believe that in Christ the present isn’t good? If I believe that in spite of everything I’ve faced, the future will somehow be good in Christ, is it really impossible for me not to enjoy this now?
One of the most encouraging facts about every biblical command is that it is possible. It may only be possible with God’s help. This appears to be the truth for most of them. And yet, with God’s help, there is no biblical command that cannot be fulfilled, including the commands to be joyful. God demands that we learn how to pursue happiness in him. He gets no glory from miserable disciples. He takes less pleasure in miserable disciples. And he demands that we not remain miserable disciples. He claims that we can pursue joy in every station of our lives, in every situation, and with any past or assumed future.
The journey begins with spiritual sight. The eye is the lamp of the body—and spiritual discernment is what brings light or darkness to our entire spiritual life (see Matthew 6:22-23). Jesus said the first step is rejecting having two masters and seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness first. Yet doing this is not just the way away from brittleness and brokenness. Seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness first isn’t just the way to be strong, it is also the way to pursue joy.
Pursuing joy as a community
This is what we will be pursuing as a church in 2018: the pursuit of joy. We will continue to talk about having one master and seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness first; we will continue to review the content from Substance. And we will talk about joy in the Scriptures. We will talk about pursuing joy through hope. We will talk about joy as a part of sincere love. We will look at how God gives joy through the rhythms and structures of celebration and feasting. We will consider again the practices of happiness that are often overlooked when reading the Old Testament. We will trace hope, joy, and love in the Gospel of Luke. And we will talk about how joy in the gospel, when combined with the other virtues, can change the lives of our neighbors and city.
I’m trusting it’s going to be a great year. I’m hoping that in this next year God will unleash joy in you and in us in ways we have not yet experienced, and lead us to new places we will never abandon.