Can we suffer and still have joy? Can we mourn and be joyful? Can we sacrifice, lose much, be hated, and still live with joy? Can we be angry, and even then retain our joy? The answer to all these is a resounding YES! In fact, the presence of joy no matter the circumstances is one of the greatest distinctives of a true follower of Jesus.
As I sit inside the city limits of Baltimore today, not far from the center of the rioting and violence, it’s clear to me that many of my neighbors lack joy in their lives. It seems to me that on the worst end of the spectrum, there are hatred and vitriol…toward police, toward politicians, toward different ethnicities, toward the system. On the other end of the spectrum is overall indifference. I’ve seen both in the past few days, and it’s led me to ask myself, “Is my life characterized by joy, or do I allow life’s circumstances to hold an inordinate amount of sway over my life?”
Honestly, that’s a tough question, and in order to answer it, it’s worth thinking through what joy is…and isn’t. First, joy isn’t happiness. Happy is based on the root “hap”, and is closely related to happen. We’ll be happy when things we perceive as good happen in our lives. If bad things happen…oh well! Ultimately, hap means “chance”, as in happenstance. Joy is hot happiness, because it certainly isn’t ours by happenstance.
Joy is rather a deep-seated and enduring condition of the one who has set his heart on Christ. Philippians speaks over and over again of joy. We are told to “rejoice in the Lord always (Philippians 4:4)”. Joy is available to the believer, but it certainly isn’t a result of circumstances. It isn’t something we can manufacture. It isn’t a result of positive thinking, self esteem, or anything else this world can offer. Rather, it comes from God…we rejoice “in the Lord”, and we have access to this joy when our minds are completely occupied by those things which are…think about each of these…true, honorable, just, and pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8).
This doesn’t mean we are to ignore the real-world experiences by which we are currently surrounded. Rather, we are to do everything we can to see the effects of sin brought down in this temporal world, all the while with a deep awareness that our reality is an eternal one and is much deeper than what we see and hear and feel in the here and now.
Whereas happiness is based on what happens and is left to happenstance, joy is similarly a positive emotion, but is instead founded on the unchanging character of God and His commitment to work all things to the good of those He has called and who love Him.
Though I’m not rioting in the streets, looting others’ property, or hurling profanities at people, I must confess, far to often it seems I’m characterized by anger, or anxiety, lack of contentment, or unkindness…the list goes on and on. So today I’m asking you, as I’m asking myself, will you press forward in the pursuit of those things which would make you truly joyful? Joy is a great gift for the believer, characterizes every Christian, and is among the greatest testimonies to a watching world.