It is the thing everyone wants, but few find. It is available to everyone, but as elusive as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. “It” is joy. Joy permeates the letters of Paul, Peter, James, John, Jude, and most of all the words of Jesus.
Joy defies pursuit. In that way, it’s not like pleasure or happiness which we can orchestrate through finding the right combination of circumstances and situations. You can buy pleasure – or rather, you can rent it for a time. And that’s the problem with pleasure – it is temporary and circumstantial.
You know what I’m talking about. Do you remember, as a kid, looking through the Sears Christmas Catalog? (Of course, that’s been replaced by online websites and catalogs that infinitely multiply our ability to desire something.) But when you were a kid, you’d look through the catalog and find the thing that you couldn’t live without. And you would circle it, and dog-ear the page and go back to the catalog and look at it again and again. For me, it was a bicycle. I was 10 years old and there in the Sears catalog was a bike unlike any bike I had ever seen. It was a Schwinn Stingray Apple Krate. The one I wanted was apple green, had a banana seat and butterfly handle bars. It had suspension springs and 5 gears on a stickshift. It was probably way more than my parents could afford for Christmas, but I begged and pleaded and hinted and bribed (the list of errands you could do on a bike like that was endless). I dreamed about riding that bike until I knew that my life would never be happy without it. Christmas morning came, and there was the bike right beside the Christmas tree, just like I had dreamed. I was, at that moment, the happiest 10 year old kid in the world. I couldn’t imagine ever needing anything else to make me happy. Two months later, I realized that little bike didn’t work very well for my paper route and while it looked cool, it didn’t ride any better than my old single speed bike with baskets. The bike that I thought I couldn’t live without sat in the back yard a lot and I was on to the next thing that would make my life happy if only I had it.
The truth is that growing up and becoming an adult doesn’t change much – except the price of buying the newest “it” that we think will finally make us happy.
The truth is that many of us think of joy in terms of what is going to happen when… When we finish school and get a job. When we marry and start a family. When we get our children grown and out of the house. When we get that promotion and raise. When we get to retirement and can relax. When we finally find the right circumstances that will make us happy. Then we think we will find joy – because something has happened to make us joyful.
True joy is neither immediate nor momentary. Joy is found, neither in a mindless escape from reality, nor a headlong pursuit of circumstances, possessions or pleasure. It is not a feeling, it is a choice. It is not based on circumstances; it is based upon attitude. It is free, but it is not cheap. It is a serendipity – the result of seeking, not joy itself, but in pursuing the most important thing. It’s what Jesus was talking about in the SoM: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”
By the same token, the greatest obstacle to true joy is our buy-in with the current cultural infatuation with instant gratification. When we do pursue those momentary and transient encounters with pleasure and happiness, we get a little taste of the possibilities of joy and we assume “this is it!” And it feels so good we assume that more of the same will produce a greater thrill. But instead, it’s like an inoculation. We get a little dose of the virus and it keeps us from getting the full-blown disease. And so we settle for the little moments of pleasure, not realizing that there is something so much fuller and richer than what we are settling for – the joy that comes from a life centered in God – what Peter called, “an inexpressible and glorious joy.”
More than that, we are told what to desire and how empty our lives are without certain commodities. Listen to John Cavanaugh from his book, Following Christ in a Consumer Society: Friendship, intimacy, love, pride, happiness, and joy are actually the objects we buy and consume, much more so than the tubes, liquor bottles, Cadillacs, and Buicks that promise them and bear their names. And since none of these deepest human hopes can be fulfilled in any product, the mere consumption of them is never enough; “more” of the product, or a “new improved” product, is the only relief offered to our human longings. Thus the seller drives us to greater purchasing with even more extravagantly concocted promises: more commodities are the solution to anxiety stimulated by media manipulation. Consumption, consequently, is not just an economic factor. It emerges as a “way of life.” It is an addiction.
Now, understand, there is nothing inherently wrong with momentary happiness and pleasure – provided they are found in things which God blesses. But joy is as different from happiness as a mud hut is to a mansion. And if we settle for happiness, we have settled for the mud hut, when God has designed us for life in the mansion. You see joy is not just a human virtue, joy is a defining characteristic of the life of God. Think of how many times God takes joy in his creation and rejoices when his children find their way back to him – from the parable of the prodigal son, when the lost son returned home, the father said, “we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found.” Joy is God’s fundamental nature.
As you can imagine, the Bible has a lot to say about joy, and the verbal form of the word, rejoice.
As our starting point, let’s spend some time in Paul’s words in Phil. 4:4-13 – “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”
I think what Paul lays out here is a roadmap of his own personal journey to joy. Notice his waypoints on the journey:
“The Lord is near” (vs. 5) Paul recognized that real joy is only found in God. If your picture of God is far away and unconcerned, joy will always elude you. Paul could experience joy, because he saw God at work and personally involved in his life. Joy came because he could see God everywhere he looked. Do you want to experience joy? Focus on the presence of God, on the promise of his coming, on his involvement in your life. It is a shift of perspective.
“…in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (vs. 6)
There is one constant in the lives of those who experience this kind of joy – it is their dependence upon God and their constancy in prayer. Prayer is what draws us near to God, and God near to us. Prayer is also God’s most powerful tool to change our hearts and reform our attitudes, and it is in that transformation that we begin to understand the joy that comes from knowing and being known by God.
“Guarded by peace” (vs. 7) I’m not sure there is anything more closely related to joy than peace. Peace is what produces the environment for joy to flourish. When anxiety and worry fill your life, joy has a difficult time squeezing its way through the crowd. Worry literally sucks the joy out of life. Paul says this peace “transcends all understanding” – you may not understand it – it may be a mystery to you. But you can be confident that when you surrender your anxiety and worry over to God, you will experience joy.
I love how the Psalmist experiences joy when he learns to turn it over to God:
“Unless the LORD had given me help, I would soon have dwelt in the silence of death. When I said, “My foot is slipping,” your love, O LORD, supported me. When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul” (Psalm 94:17-19).
“Think about such things” (vs. 8) Where your mind is determines your attitude toward life. As Solomon wrote in the Proverbs, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” If our minds are filled with depressing, draining, negative thoughts – there’s not much room for joy. Paul says put your mind on the very best – whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy – and your life will be filled with joy and peace.
He wrote something similar to the Colossian church: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Col. 3:1-4).
“I have learned” (vs. 12)
Paul tells us something so awesomely important and you may have missed it –he says, “I have learned.”
Neither contentment nor joy come naturally - even for Paul. Our instinct is to always want more, never be satisfied – and so contentment is always beyond our reach, because we will never have enough. Happiness is always a cheap substitute for joy, because we never take the time to experience the true satisfaction that comes from only needing God.
But Paul learned to be content – even in prison, even when persecuted, even with his thorn in the flesh. He experienced that joy that comes from not being tied to things. Of the joy that overflows from gratitude by seeing everything as a gift from God.
That is why James can write, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds.” The worldly person would read that and think, “Are you out of your mind! Joy comes by avoiding and escaping trials and suffering.” But James had it right. Joy isn’t based on the absence of problems, but in finding ourselves deeply rooted in God. That’s why, when we are faced with poor health we can rejoice; with financial problems we can be at peace; with pressure at work we find our refuge in God; with family difficulties joy still surrounds us.
The Hebrews writer wrote, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Jesus could face the cross with joy, not because he enjoyed pain and suffering, but because he saw beyond the pain to the glory of God’s presence.
And for everyone who is a Christian, our joy comes because God is able to create a joy in your life that doesn’t just side step the problems, but helps you walk through them and live above them and experience in their very midst the powerful, joy-filling presence of God. Here’s how Jesus described it: “A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy” (Jn. 16:21-22).
Joy isn’t the quick fix and the easy out. Joy endures through the thick and thin of life. It is there because we have our eyes fixed on something so much more permanent and eternal than anything in this world. Joy is God’s gift to us when we finally learn to turn it all over to him.
Peter puts it terms of our salvation: “though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:8-9).
God wants us to experience joy, not just someday in heaven, when every tear is wiped away, but now – in every moment of every day, with whatever we face. And we can, as God’s Holy Spirit plants and nurtures the fruit of joy in our life.