The Empowering Emotion of Joy
By Charles F. Stanley
Is your life an exciting, cheerful journey, or has it become more drudgery than delight? Have your expectations of pleasure, peace, and contentment been dashed by disappointment and difficulties? Maybe you have seasons of happiness when everything is going well, but trouble inevitably returns, bringing stress and discouragement. For a believer, such experiences are deeply troubling because this doesn’t seem like the abundant life Christ promised (John 10:10).
Most of us must admit that we don’t know very many people who are truly full of joy, yet God calls believers to be joyous people. Throughout the Old Testament, the Lord commanded the Israelites to rejoice; He even instituted feasts—some of which lasted seven days—for celebrating before Him. These were times for praising, dancing, and singing to God with thanksgiving for His provision and deliverance.
We find that the same attitude carries over into the New Testament. In Philippians 4:4, Paul issues this instruction to believers: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” Obviously, God’s will is for us to be joyful people. In fact, that attitude should be the natural and normal way of life for Christians.
Biblical joy. In order to understand the lifestyle God desires for us, we need to know the difference between joy and happiness. Both can be defined as gladness, delight, and pleasure in something, but happiness has an external cause. When circumstances are favorable and delightful, we are naturally happy, but when events take a downward turn, so do our spirits.
Joy, on the other hand, has an internal cause and is not dependent upon outside conditions. As believers, we can keep our contentment in good times and bad because our delight is in the Lord, not in our fluctuating circumstances. Since its source is our relationship with Christ, the joy that the Bible describes is available only to Christians.
The indwelling Holy Spirit produces this fruit of the Spirit in all Christians who allow Him to control and guide their lives (Gal. 5:22). Although every believer has access to joy, only those who are actively living in obedience to the principles of God’s Word will consistently experience it. That is not to say we have to be perfect, but if our hearts are yielded to the Lord, we will be quick to confess and repent after a fall.
Contagious joy. A cheerful heart not only lifts our spirits; it also influences others. A pessimistic attitude ruins a Christian’s testimony. If unbelievers see us anxious and grumbling, why would they want to follow our God? In contrast, a display of peaceful contentment when there’s no circumstantial reason for it is like a magnet to a lost world.
Our attitude is likewise contagious to fellow believers. We can encourage one another with our confidence that God is sufficient and there for us, no matter what. Even in the midst of heartbreak, our deep, abiding pleasure in the Lord can strengthen both ourselves and others.
Rejoice always. Paul told the Philippians specifically when to rejoice—always! It’s easy to be cheerful when every-thing is going our way, but how can we possibly do this in times of suffering and pain? In our seasons of difficulty, does God really expect this of us? Yes, He does.
Everybody has times of hardship and suffering; that’s just part of living in this fallen world (John 16:33). But believers don’t have to be despondent when life is hard. In fact, James 1:2 tells us, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials.” Some people become indignant when they hear this verse, because they think God is telling them to rejoice in the event that’s causing their pain. But by reading a little further, we will see this is not the case.
Our rejoicing is based on the promised outcome—“knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect [or mature] and complete, lacking in nothing” (vv. 3-4). Trials challenge our faith in God’s wisdom, goodness, or power. But these verses reassure us that His purposes are good, and if we endure with trust and joy, we will lack nothing.
By now you may be wondering how practical all this is. We’re talking not about some idealistic philosophy but about reality—where you and I live, in a world of pain and suffering. When Paul told the Philippians to rejoice, he was declaring a deep conviction of his soul because he had repeatedly tested its validity. He wrote that letter while sitting in a Roman prison. According to his circumstances, he had no reason to rejoice. But because of his relationship with Christ, he could.
It wasn’t the only time the apostle had practiced what he preached. During his first visit to Philippi, he and Silas were beaten and thrown into the local jail (Acts 16:23-34). That night, while sitting in stocks, they began singing and praising God. Paul and Silas didn’t wait for conditions to improve; rather, they demonstrated love and faith in the Lord by offering a sacrifice of praise. As a result, the other prisoners heard, and eventually, the jailer and his entire family were saved.
I still recall how God gave me an interesting “opportunity” to put this principle into action. After baptizing 45 people one week, I had a mild backache. A few days later, while writing a sermon about this topic, I reached down for something I had dropped—and pulled a muscle. Now I was really in pain. My first response was, “Now wait a minute, Lord. You know what this message is about.” Initially, I felt unhappy and complained about my situation, but then I chose to rejoice in the Lord.
During that backache, I lived the truth of Nehemiah 8:10: “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” Joy is an empowering emotion that build us up and gives us the ability to endure hardship. By choosing to rejoice when I didn’t feel like it, I noticed something happening inside me. The moaning and complaining stopped as my focus shifted to the Lord. I began to delight in Him and remember all His blessings, even though I was hurting.
Enjoy God. Christians are told to rejoice, not in the event that causes their suffering, but in the Lord. This is not a denial of our pain, but an opportunity to trust and praise God in it. Instead of focusing on the situation causing our misery, we fix our eyes on Christ. Then we will see the blessings that can cheer our hearts.
First of all, we can delight in our relationship with the Lord—our sins are forgiven and our names are forever recorded in heaven (Luke 10:20). The suffering of this life is incomparable to the glory that awaits us (2 Cor. 4:17-18). Praise God, we are heaven-bound.
Second, we can exult in the presence of the Holy Spirit within us. He empowers us to walk through any difficulty or loss and produces His spiritual fruit in the lives of all who yield to His control. We can praise God for the transformation He is working in our character as He develops our faith and obedience through adversity (Rom. 5:3-5).
But the greatest focus of our rejoicing is the Lord Himself. When we consider His unconditional love, unfailing faithfulness, and compassionate understanding, how can we do anything but praise Him with gladness? He has given us amazing promises and will never fail to fulfill them. Every time His Word is spoken or read, it’s an occasion for celebration. Jesus told His disciples, “These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full” (John 15:11).
Lost joy. If our eyes are on the Lord, we will never lack reasons to rejoice, but if we lose sight of Him and begin to focus on our feelings or circumstances, our spirits will plummet. I’ve met many Christians who have lost their joy. Sadly, some never even had any, despite the fact that they are saved. Some gloomy-natured people have told me, “Well, this is just my personality. It’s the way God made me.” But knowing that Christ wants us to have fullness of joy and that Scripture commands us to rejoice, I’ve reached this conclusion: Joyless believers have chosen that lifestyle. The Lord did not make them that way. However, He can transform pessimistic attitudes and change negative dispositions.
Christians can lose their joy for a variety of reasons. Some people become downhearted because of suffering. When feelings overwhelm and cause us to focus on our pain or difficult situation, life seems hopeless. But the way out of despair is through an act of faith—choosing to praise God when it’s the last thing you feel like doing. Strength to endure comes when we find our pleasure in God instead of in good circumstances.
When a loved one is suffering, we may think it’s inappropriate to feel joyful. However, since God calls us to rejoice in Him during our own trials, we can certainly continue to delight in Him when a friend is hurting. In fact, displaying pleasure in the Lord during times of affliction can help others turn their eyes toward Jesus as we walk with them through their difficulty.
Living in the past or the future is another way to lose your joy. Some people can’t get over prior failures or mistakes, while others live with fears about the future. Both of these approaches steal contentment and peace. God calls us to live in His present grace, not to dwell on the if onlys and the what ifs of life. Recurring regrets can be silenced by accepting Christ’s forgiveness and moving on to live in His grace. Fears are conquered through faith in the Lord’s promise to take care of our tomorrows (Matt. 6:33-34).
One of the greatest inhibitors of joy is sin. A believer who lives in willful disobedience to God cannot experience the delight that obedience brings. He may encounter some periods of happiness, but peaceful contentment will be absent. The remedy for sin is always the same—sincere repentance. Joy awaits those who humble themselves and turn back to the Lord.
It is God’s will that you delight in Him. If each day has become a struggle, and your circumstances are dragging you down, by faith claim the joy of the Lord, which is available to every Christian. Begin living in His promises instead of under your circumstances. Make a decision to rejoice in Him regardless of your situation. And in time, your feelings will follow.
Questions For Further Study
It’s not the presence or absence of trouble but rather our response to it that determines whether we experience the joy of Christ.
1. How did the Israelites respond to adversity (Num. 14:1-4)? What happened as a result of their attitude and behavior (vv. 26-33)?
2. Read Romans 5:3-5, James 1:2-4, and 1 Peter 1:3-8. How are believers told to respond to trials? What benefits does God want to produce through our difficulties?
3. Read 2 Corinthians 4:7-18. What does God display in us during times of affliction (v. 7)? What eternal perspective do you see in verse 16-18? How can this knowledge shape your response to hardship?
4. Read Psalm 13:1-6. What was David thinking and feeling in verses 1-4? How did his attitude and perspective change when he focused on the Lord (vv. 5-6)?
5. Jesus is described as a man of sorrows (Isa. 53:3). What was His focus during His most severe suffering (Heb. 12:1-3)? Where did He place His trust (1 Pet. 2:20-23)? How can you follow His example?
6. Read 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. What was Paul’s source of strength for endurance through pain? What was his attitude toward weakness and difficulty?