We know we should be joyful. The Bible commands it, unbelievers demand it, and Christian bookstores are full of books about it. There are rare saints who seem always joyful, but most of us, most of the time, feel more like grouches or like hypocrites.
Joy is hard to define. It is commonly understood to be a synonym of happiness. The joyful Christian is the ‘happy-clappy’ Christian. But in the Bible we do not see many people whose life was lived on that cheerful plane. Joy is mentioned many times, but it is not equated with comfort or happiness or freedom from troubles. What is joy, then? Here is an incident that taught me something about joy. May it be a comfort to you who want to obey God and be a joyful witness but do not feel you measure up.
I have been a global worker in Central Asia for almost seven years. During furlough last year, I spoke to many women’s groups. They all wanted to know about my life and work overseas, and about my spiritual life. I think they presumed my spiritual life was energetic and triumphant—I was a global worker, after all!
But it was a hard time for me in many ways. Furlough always is. It is busy, the children get wild, we have to pack frequently, and we get so bored having to say the same things a hundred times! Despite the hospitality and welcome from friends, family, and church, I was tired and discouraged.
There was one more women’s group. We sat in the living room and had snacks. I was introduced, and then I spoke. Afterwards they went around the circle and shared what they thought about my message. One after another they spoke of joy. I was such a joyful person, they said.
Joyful? I know myself. I am often impatient, discontented, and critical. I am not often aware of feeling joyful.
My first reaction was, “These women either have no insight, or they are just lying to be polite.” I scorned their comments.
But as we prayed, another thought came to me. Since it was a humble thought, I am confident it came from God. Maybe they were right and I was wrong. Could it be that they saw joy, if not in me, then through me? Perhaps God was working through me in a way that others saw and I did not. They saw God’s joy, not mine.
Then joy must not be just a feeling, since I was not aware of feeling it. What was joy, anyway?
In the next few days I considered my life, to see if there was something I could claim, if not joy. Only one thing occurred to me. These years in the field, when I have felt uncomfortable, frustrated, overworked, and isolated, my goal has been obedience. It did not seem that I could rise to triumphant living, given all my sins and difficulties, but I could try every day to crucify my own will and submit to the Lord’s will instead.
This does not feel joyful to me—in fact, it feels like death!
What if obedience and joy are the same thing, but only look different from the inside out? I turned to the concordance to see if obedience and joy were related in Scripture.
“If you keep my commandments,” says Jesus in John 15:10 and 11, “you will abide in my love; just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.”
In Matthew 25:21, Jesus concludes a parable with “Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your Master.”
The writer of Hebrews exhorts us to “…run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:1b-2a).
And James says, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance” (James 1:2 and 3).
Joy, evidently, is keeping God’s commandments; it is faithfulness in discharging duties. It is the result of endurance and also the reason for it. Joy is not our own possession but rather is something that we enter into, abide in, and are a part of. Jesus also crucified his own will, and through that found joy.
I am grateful for those women who saw with the eye of faith, looking through me to the Lord Himself. And I am confident that anyone who submits to God’s will, even when it feels like death, will enter into the joy of the Lord.
“Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting. He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed, shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him” (Psalm 126:5-6).