What is Joy (Really)?

My last post was a quest to understand the difference between happiness and joy. When I finished, I had an answer, but it felt a bit theoretical. It was a good first step, but what I really wanted was something extremely practical. A “boots on the ground” kind of understanding of joy. Today we’ll dig in to—on a practical level—what is joy? And what implications does that have for my life and faith?

What does happiness feel like? Sometimes it feels thrilling and emotional, like when your football team wins its first post-season bowl game in years (hello, Tennessee). Or, exciting, like setting off on an adventure with your family, like when we went to Guatemala last summer on a mission trip. Sometimes it feels quiet and sweet, like watching your children sleep. Sometimes it feels public and loud, like old friends laughing over past shenanigans at the local pizza joint. Sometimes it feels like a whisper and a soul caress that if you’re not paying attention, you miss. We experience happiness in a variety of ways.

In writing about the difference between happiness and joy, I argued that, despite most of the world believing otherwise, happiness and joy are essentially the same thing (for the full details about what IS different, check out this link). As happiness can be experienced in different ways, so too can joy.

When we experience any of the happinesses I mentioned above, the effect doesn’t last very long. After the trip’s over, the child wakes up, or the party breaks up, the feeling runs away like an 8-year-old with a room to clean. But, for the Christian, our greatest happiness, our primary joy, is found in Christ. And that means it lasts forever. Let’s look at what this really means for us on a day to day basis.

What is Joy?

Joy in Christ might look like profound worship. It might look like being curled up on a big chair reading scripture. It might look like listening to an aging parent telling the same story you’ve heard a gazillion times. It might look like answering your toddler’s gazillionth question. It might mean telling your hairstylist what you heard from God that afternoon. It might mean bringing a foster child into your home. It might mean depending on God through a long season of unemployment. It might mean marveling at a mountain vista. It might mean accepting every day with hope and love through cancer treatments. It might mean humble submission to God in prayer. It might look like repentance, letting a friend cry on your shoulder, thinking about scripture at a stoplight, helping your child’s second-grade teacher run copies, being the taxi driver for your family, or working with excellence at a job you love…or one you don’t love.

Practically speaking, joy might look like any given moment in your life. Because of what Christ has done for you, the peace he’s made possible between you and God changes every moment after you accept his sacrifice on your behalf. It changes everything.

While doing research for Who God Says I Am, I listened to a conversation between John Piper and Tim Keller about sanctification. Sounds pretty nerdy, right? One of the stories Mr. Keller told has stuck with me ever since. It was about a woman describing the difference between being saved by her own actions and being saved by grace. She said that the idea of being saved by grace

“is scary. If you’re saved by works, there’s a limit to what God can ask of you. You’re like a taxpayer. You’ve paid your taxes, paid your dues, and he can ask certain things of you but not anything. But, if I’m really saved by grace, because of what Jesus has done, there’s no limit to what he could ask of me and my obedience would have to be unconditional.…if you realize you’ve been saved by grace, that means I owe him everything.”

While they carried on with the conversation about what that didn’t mean, I stayed stuck on the magnitude of that mental and emotional shift. The recognition that this woman had–that there can be no other response fitting than to live a life of worship to the one who has lavished me with grace. Because he has done everything for me and because he is worthy.

I tell you that story because it gives us a perspective on how that shift affects our joy as well.

Though you have not seen him, you love him; though not seeing him now, you believe in him, and you rejoice with inexpressible and glorious joy, because you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8-9)

Because of Jesus’ payment for my debt granting me righteousness before God, each moment of my life is being stitched with “inexpressible and glorious joy”. Every moment, from the most mundane dishwashing, diaper changing, tax preparing moments to the mountaintop experiences. From the promotions, graduations, children-birthing, big raise circumstances to the moments of cancer diagnoses, miscarriages, betrayals, and deaths. Every moment is stitched with the same thread of joy. But the expression, the color, the sense of that joy may feel different.

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. (Hebrews 13:8)

The source of our joy in all circumstances is the same. Our reason for joy is unchanging. Because of this, we can experience suffering, hardship, pain, and grief alongside joy. Infused with joy. Comforted and strengthened by joy.

What is joy?This is so different from how the world experiences joy that Christian culture often only talks about joy in response to suffering. Joy in hard things is often what sets us apart from the world. My best friend is walking through stage four cancer with joy and it’s evident to all–and confusing to non-believers. Paul’s message is clear that he finds joy in suffering. I think we as believers understand that. 

But, the opposite is true as well. We should be a happy people. We should be brimming over with joy. I’m definitely not saying that we won’t experience the full gamut of human emotion. We’ll feel sad, angry, and confused. We’ll be apprehensive, nervous, and dejected at times. But friends, we have the source of joy living inside of us. The fruit, or natural outcome of our relationship with the Holy Spirit includes joy!

That means it’s ok to be happy! It doesn’t mean that you don’t feel deeply the pain of a hurting world. It doesn’t mean you don’t take life seriously. It doesn’t mean you don’t have problems or a sin nature. It doesn’t mean you aren’t a responsible Christian. But, friends, the gift that Christ has given us should make us happy!

In Philippians, chapter four, Paul first calls out some of the women in the church who had a disagreement and tells them, “Y’all need to settle this thing and move on. All y’all help them take care of it.” That’s quoting the SDT, Southern Dialect Translation. Then he says, in a flip of Bobby McFerrin’s famous lyrics, “Be happy! Don’t worry!”

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your graciousness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. (Philippians 4:4-6)

Usually, we think of these verses separately. But, he really is saying here, Be happy! Rejoice! Why? God is near! So…don’t worry!

One of the ten leadership principles at my church is, “Laugh loud, hard, and often.” Friends, our joy should be evident. We should be happy people, because we’re children of the living God, friends of Jesus, and home to the Holy Spirit! How can we not be happy about that?

If we’re looking for lasting happiness and joy in our lives, we’ll find it in God. So, whatever you’re reaching for right now to give your brain a shot of dopamine, a happy moment, realize that it won’t satisfy you for long. Train yourself to find that in God instead and your joy will not only be complete, but it will be lasting.

The church should be the happiest place on earth. The gospel message really is good news! The angels said in Jesus’ birth announcement to the shepherds, “Don’t be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people; (Luke 2:10) Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection is news of great joy!

Of all the people on earth, we should be known as people of joy. Are we? What’s the reputation of the church in America today? I’m willing to bet that joyful isn’t at the top of the list.

How does the church become known as a joyful people? We as individual believers need to be experiencing joy consistently in our lives. And if we’re not, we should figure out why. I’m not suggesting we won’t experience all the other emotions in life, and I’m not talking about mental health issues. But, a relationship with Christ should be generally marked by joy.

Though you have not seen him, you love him; though not seeing him now, you believe in him, and you rejoice with inexpressible and glorious joy, because you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8-9)

If Jesus is who we believe he is and the gospel is Truth, we should be visibly, ridiculously happy people!

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