In Galatians 5, the second “fruit of the Spirit” is joy. Joy is a hallmark of the Christian life.
At Christmas, we sing about “Joy to the World,” and the kids sing about the “joy, joy, joy, joy down in” our hearts. At the last supper, Jesus talked about joy.
In our gospel, in verse 20, Jesus tells his disciples that their “grief will turn to joy.” Like a woman in labor, the pains of the moment will give way to something greater. It’s a joy, verse 22 says, that can never be taken away; a joy, verse 24 says, that “will be complete.”
In John, this passage comes as part of a much longer scene–five chapters, 13 through 17. In much of it, Jesus is trying to explain things to the disciples, and, frankly, they don’t get most of it. But he never explains “joy.” He never defines it, and they don’t ask him to. When it came to joy, they knew what he meant.
Well, big deal! Everyone knows what “joy” means. We know it’s a feeling–happiness, but more so. Happiness doesn’t have to mean more than being content. If somebody asks you if you like your car, you might say, “oh, I’m happy enough with it. But “joy” is more than that—more ecstatic, more emotional. We know what “joy” is.
But is that what Jesus meant? The word “joy” is used over 200 times in the Bible, and most of those are found in the Old Testament. So this week, let’s see what the Bible says about it. Then we can see if we have the complete joy Jesus promised.
(1) First, “Joy” begins with contentment. We’ve already said that contentment is a part of happiness. We can’t be joyful if we’re restless and dissatisfied with the life God has put around us. This is the central theme of the book of Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes can be hard to understand. Parts of it seem so gloomy, so joy-less. It talks a lot about the stupid, absurd things of life—like the way rotten people seem to get away with it, while decent people get dumped on. It talks about how time keeps pressing on; how one minute you’re young, and the next you’re old.
But in the middle of all the gloom, Ecclesiastes has some very solid, practical advice for leading a joyful life. Ecclesiastes 8:15 says, “So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work on the days of the life god has given him under the sun.”
In our time, we’ve boiled that down to clichés, like “Stop and smell the roses.” But you get the idea: Joy comes from finding contentment and satisfaction in the simple stuff of everyday life—being able to eat, drink and be merry.
Now some will take that to mean that happiness is about pigging-out, overindulging, and over-doing– literally overeating or drinking too much. For others, it may mean gambling or over-spending. That’s not what Ecclesiastes meant! He’s talking about being satisfied with the normal routines of daily life.
By that standard, a lot of people don’t seem very joyful. Many people spend too much time being negative. They whine and complain, criticize and gripe. Nothing’s ever quite right; nothing’s ever quite good enough.
That power of negative thinking is incredible. Think of any get-together – a meeting, or family activity, or just some friends shooting the breeze.
One negative person can sour the whole bunch. They may goad others into being negative. They turn the whole thing into a giant complaining session, and no one walks away in a happy, joyful mood.
And nothing gets done. Have you ever noticed that those who complain the most are the ones who accomplish the least? That’s because when you’re complaining, it’s hard to move on. If you’re griping about the past, the present is going to be left hanging.
It’s easy to be negative and complainsive. If we’re tired or don’t feel well, it’s easy to slip into it. And again, the negativity of others can infect us. Some have grown up around overly critical, fault-finding, nit-picking people, and so they think its normal to complain and gripe and focus on the negative.
Part of faith is to be thankful for what God has given us in this present moment. In fact, in the Old Testament, the one time that we find the phrase “complete joy” that Jesus used, it’s in connection with the Harvest Thanksgiving feast.
Deuteronomy 16:15 says, “Be joyful at your feast…For the Lord your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete.”
Be joyful for what you have…and for what others are doing. Focus on that, and let the negativity fade away.
(2) The second part of Biblical joy is freedom from worry. The last verse of our reading from Psalm 94 says: ”When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul.”
That’s pretty simple: It’s hard to be joyful if you’re anxious or worried. There was a song that said, “Don’t worry, be happy.” But how do we conquer worry? Some psychologists and philosophers have said that anxiety is the most fundamental fact of life. Anxiety is the opposite of joy. Our worries and cares become a permanent fixture of our personality. We no longer worry about one thing at a time. We worry about everything, all the time.
And it kills us. There’s some medical truth in the phrase, “worried to death.” Our bodies crank out stress hormones that exhaust us. How do we shut it off? How do we go from anxiety to joy? Psalm 94:18 says, “When I said, My foot is slipping, your love, Lord, supported me.”
We worry about all the things that could happen, but the plain fact is staring us in the face: God has already taken remarkable care of us. You’re still here! How unlikely is that? Think of all the times you could have gotten knocked off in a car accident. In Bible times, the leading cause of death was starvation. Do you think that’s ever going to happen to you?
Jesus said, Look at the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. They do ok. So it stands to reason that God is also going to take care of you. And if that’s true, then what do you really have to worry about? Instead of worrying, we should lay each worry under the light of Jesus Christ and ask, Is this really worth worrying about?
And then let it go. Let it go, so that you can be joyful instead of anxious.
(3) Third, in the Old Testament, the word “joy” is most often connected with knowing God; knowing his will and trusting in his care. Psalm 16:11 says, “You have made known to me the path of life; you fill me with joy in your presence.”
We can also kill our joy by being self-obsessed. Do you know a killjoy, someone who’s unhappy if the sun isn’t rising and setting on them? Some crave attention. They have to be the center of every conversation. If you say somebody else looks good or did something well, they’re hurt, because you were supposed to say that they look good or they did something great. If you say you don’t feel well, they need an ambulance. If you say you work hard, they’ve been turned into slaves. Whether it’s good or bad, they have more of it.
Now when others act that way, it’s obnoxious. But we should feel sorry for them, because, behind all the huffing and puffing and egomania is real unhappiness and a lack of joy. The world can never satisfy them. They’re always feeling ignored or short-changed. They’re never getting what they think will make them happy. Good hearted people try to make them happy, and then walk away exhausted, because it’s never enough.
When you find yourself acting that way, what can you do? You’ve got to change your focus. Stop looking in the mirror and start looking up. Stop thinking about yourself and start thinking about God instead.
Several Psalms talk about the joy of the righteous, the joy that comes from following God’s way. Psalm 19:8 says, “The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart.”
If you’re focused on what God wants, you’ll spend less obsessing over your wants. And since God’s will is done on earth as it is in Heaven, you’ll find that instead of being unhappy with the raw deal you think you’re getting, you can rejoice in seeing God’s will coming to pass.
On that last night, the disciples were confused about a lot of things, but they knew what joy was. They knew from their Bibles that it was the opposite of negativity, the opposite of anxiety, and the opposite of ego-mania.
Jesus gives us is the power to gain the positive;
to find contentment and satisfaction in life, and be thankful for what God has given;
to find peace of mind in the present and hopefulness for the future;
to find our happiness in knowing God
and to follow his fool-proof agenda for successful living.
In short, what Jesus gives us is the power to latch onto full joy, complete joy. Pray for it today. As Jesus says in the last verse of the gospel: “Ask… Ask, and your joy will be complete.” Ask–through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.