By Mary Wenzl
“Joy unspeakable, joy unbelievable . . .”
A remnant of a song runs through my head when I think of joy, but what do those words really mean? What is the definition of joy, specifically, Christian joy or divine /spiritual joy? Last week, Katie Kafka blogged about the first characteristic of spiritual fruit mentioned by Paul in Galatians 5–love. Today we look at joy.
I found several definitions of joy in my research:
“Christian joy is a good feeling in the soul, produced by the Holy Spirit, as he causes us to see the beauty of Christ in the word and in the world.” –John Piper. (Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org)
“Joy is the settled assurance that God is in control of All the details of my life, The quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be okay, and the determined choice to praise God in all things”–Kay Warren
In Galatians 5:22-23, we learn that when God’s spirit comes to dwell in us as believers, we will manifest the fruit of the spirit–Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self-Control. The metaphor of God as a gardener is used several times in the Bible to help us understand his Word. God in spirit form (Gardener) plants in us seeds of Christian belief and understanding (His word) which grows and develops in us until those seeds produce fruit. No one can really see how we develop as Christians inside our souls until we start to manifest fruit. The fruit of the Holy Spirit serves as a visible witness to others (believers and non-believers) that we have been transformed into something beautiful.
Matthew 7:20 says “. . . you shall know them by their fruits.” Disciples of Jesus Christ are recognized by specific attributes or characteristics. (“My true disciples produce much fruit. This brings great glory to my Father.” John 15:8).
What does the attribute of joy look like in me or in another person, and how does it “feel” within the individual?
Many times in my life I’ve experienced joy and happiness.
- Joy, when as a child, I found a special doll under the Christmas tree just for me.
- Euphoria and happiness, when planning for my wedding–shopping for the wedding dress, picking out flowers, napkins, invitations . . . getting engagement presents!
- Joy, when standing before a judge in anticipation of adopting my children.
But spiritual joy is different. It’s not an act of will-power, but is a spontaneous emotional response of the heart. I may decide to do things that should bring me joy, such as take a drive in the country, visit a friend, or go shopping, but whether or not joy actually happens is not in my own power. I can feel depressed doing those same activities that sometimes bring me joy. Spiritual joy is not “superficial” and flimsy. It is deep and firm. It flourishes right in the midst of pain and suffering. (Romans 5:3, “We rejoice in our sufferings”).
Spiritual joy is not natural, but spiritual. Something is called natural if we can produce it by ourselves without the influence of the Holy Spirit. Spiritual joy is not the mere product of the human spirit in response to pleasant circumstances. It comes from the Holy Spirit and has the character of the Holy Spirit. What makes something spiritual is that it is produced under the special influences of the Spirit of God and has the character of the spirit of God.
The first time I remember experiencing spiritual joy was at a time of great distress in my life. I was separated from my husband, my kids (teenagers) were running amuck causing me constant stress, I had health problems, and financially, I was afraid I was heading towards bankruptcy. I remember wondering why I was not literally screaming and running down the street to escape my life. I feared at any moment “they” would take me away and lock me up in a mental hospital! Instead, I found that inside I had a sense of calmness. I could laugh and find joy in my daily life.
How I could experience joy at such a stressful time was incomprehensible to me. I was just beginning the season in my life where I was actively seeking God and studying His Word. I was studying God’s word daily through multiple media, desperate to find answers and relief from my mental pains.
The feeling of joy I experienced that specific day did not last as I had repeated periods of depression, anxiety, and despair from my life circumstances, but I did experience these windows, or glimpses of what life could be like as a true believer, and I desperately wanted that life. I have had many years of spiritual growth since the “nightmare” days, so my relationship with God is more solid today. I feel and experience joy in my soul every day now. As the Holy Spirit works in my life to bear more fruit, I become more confident in God’s promises found in His word and am able to rejoice in my walk with Him and with other believers. (“The fullness of joy comes to those who continue in the love of Christ and obey Him.” John 15:11).
Going through a challenging life season can lead to the discovery of spiritual joy, as it did for me. God wants us to have authentic joy in every season of our life. 2 Corinthians 4: 7-10 clearly states that God uses life’s problems as proof that our Christian joy, through trials, is a gift from God, not something we’ve discovered on our own.
How can I obtain spiritual joy? Authentic joy and true happiness is found in God’s presence.
Psalm 1:1-3 promises that if we “delight in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night,” we will be filled with joy and be prosperous because we will bear fruit in every life season. When we ask God to dwell within our souls, turn our lives and cares over to God, acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the son of God, we can receive the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit. We can experience the wonderful fullness of joy that comes from God’s presence in our lives.
Psalm 16:11 reads: “Thou wilt show me the path of life: in Thy presence is fullness of joy; at Thy right hand there are pleasures forevermore.” King David enjoyed great wealth and had an overabundance of the things we humans think will bring us happiness, yet this happiness could not compare with the spiritual joy he found while in God’s presence. In God’s presence, he experienced the fullness of joy!
Why is spiritual joy important to have in life? The joy we experience in God’s presence fulfills three important functions:
- It sustains us: Trusting God with our future brings undeniable joy and peace. God will provide joy when we trust Him even if it doesn’t seem logical given the circumstances. (Proverbs 16:20; Psalm 28:7)
- It strengthens us: Joy transforms our difficult circumstances into times of blessing. For example, Psalm 30:11 promises we can have joy even during a time of mourning, “You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy.”
- It sets us apart from nonbelievers in the world: Joy is an invaluable gift of God that radiates to others. It is joy that fully satisfies the soul! Spiritual joy is not dependent upon circumstances, like happiness. We can rejoice in the Lord in good and bad times. In Acts 16:25, Paul and Silas had been scourged with whips, thrown into a Philippians jail and put in stocks. The other prisoners were in awe when, at midnight, they heard Paul and Silas singing praise hymns to God, joyfully, in spite of their maltreatment. The joy of the Lord in their hearts set them apart from the rest of the prisoners.
Philippians 4:4 commands us “to rejoice in the Lord always.” Witnessing our “unspeakable joy” can be a strong testimony to the unsaved world. The world needs to see in us, as Christians, the spiritual joy they do not have, and that this joy can only be found in those who have received Jesus Christ into their lives and hearts.