Last week I shared some passages about the centrality that joy has in the Christian life. Today, I’d like to think more about the nature of joy so that we know precisely what it is we are to pursue in our walk with Christ.
Joy is a Duty
First, we must recognize that we are commanded to rejoice. Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Phil 4:4; cf. 1 Thess 5:16). He is not making a request, nor merely offering a suggestion as if to say, “If you’d really like to make progress in your Christian life, if you really want to be a mature Christian, you might consider diligently pursuing your joy in God.” No! He’s speaking to all the Christians at the church of Philippi (1:1), and by extension to all Christians today. He is informing us of our duty. It is a present imperative, and so even if he didn’t include the word “always,” the original language would still have the force of: “Be continually rejoicing.”
And Paul is not innovating here. There are numerous other places in Scripture where God’s people are commanded to rejoice.
- Psalm 33:1 – “Sing for joy in the LORD, O you righteous ones.”
- Psalm 37:4 – “Delight yourself in the LORD…”
- Psalm 97:12 – “Be glad in the LORD, you righteous ones, and give thanks to His holy name.”
- In Matthew 5:12, the Lord Jesus Himself commands us to “Rejoice and be glad” when we are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
- And in a very similar fashion, the Apostle Peter commands the churches under his care, “…to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing.” (1 Pet 4:13).
Scripture makes it emphatically clear that joy is a duty of the people of God. But in spite of that crystal clear emphasis, so many Christians continue to believe that joy is some sort of ancillary, incidental footnote to the Christian life. And I’m sure that response was as old as the commands themselves, because Paul feels the need to repeat himself before the end of the verse! It’s as if, as he sits there and pens this command, he can already anticipate the objections. “Well, surely he can’t mean rejoice in the Lord always! Doesn’t he know what we’re going through?!” And so he repeats himself: “Again I will say, Rejoice!”
I love the comment Spurgeon makes on this:
“Do you not think that this [repetition] was intended also to impress upon them the importance of the duty? ‘Again I say, Rejoice.’ Some of you will go and say, ‘I do not think that it matters much whether I am happy or not, I shall get to heaven, however gloomy I am, if I am sincere.’ ‘No,’ says Paul, ‘that kind of talk will not do; I cannot have you speak like that. Come, I must have you rejoice, I do really conceive it to be a Christian’s bounden duty, and so, ‘Again, I say, Rejoice!’”
Well, if Scripture is so clear that joy is a Christian duty, we need to clearly understand the nature of true, Christian joy. What is it that the Word demands from us here?
Not a Superficial Cheerfulness
The first thing to say about that is that true Christian joy is not some sort of pasted-smile, superficial cheerfulness or peppiness that is indifferent to the painful and difficult circumstances we find ourselves in. Paul is not in any way commanding Christians to always manifest an unrealistic perkiness that has no room for weeping with those who weep and mourning over sin. He’s not saying something so superficial and skin-deep as, “Don’t worry, be happy.”
Not an Emotional Response to Circumstances
Neither is joy merely a superficial emotional response to the circumstances of life—so that when things are going well we find it easy to rejoice, but when things aren’t going so well we find it difficult to rejoice. That’s the world’s definition of joy and rejoicing. It’s superficial and skin deep. But if there’s one thing Paul has taught us—as he writes a letter overflowing with talk about joy and rejoicing as he sits in prison chained 18 inches away from a Roman soldier—it’s that true Christian joy is in no way dependent on our circumstances. Joy is not merely a feeling. It’s much more than that.
More, but not Less, than an Emotion
But I also have to say: Joy is not less than a feeling either. I prefer to use the term affection rather than “feeling” or “emotion,” but the truth is just the same. So many people, when they recognize that Scripture commands us to rejoice, conclude that it must not involve the emotions at all, because, they assume, “God can’t command us to feel a certain way!” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read the assertion, “Joy is not a feeling! It’s a decision! It’s an act of the will!” Now, as I said, I understand that joy is more than a feeling, but it is not less than that.
In John 16, Jesus is preparing the disciples to live their lives in the absence of His physical presence, He makes an absolutely precious comment in verses 20 to 22. John 16 verse 20:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy. Whenever a woman is in labor she has pain, because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy that a child has been born into the world. Therefore you too have sorrow now; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.”
The key point to observe here is the contrast between (a) joy and rejoicing, and (b) grief and sorrow. Jesus is speaking of the sorrow that the disciples will feel when He goes away, but He comforts them with the joy that they will experience when they see Him again. That contrast is rendered absolutely incomprehensible if joy is not—at least in some measure—a feeling, an affection, a motion and inclination of the soul. What would you say next, that grief and sorrow are not feelings? That the joy a woman feels at the birth of her child has nothing to do with emotions?
Another way to observe the reality that joy is not less than an emotion is to see how frequently it is paired with the command to “be glad,” especially in the Psalms. In Psalm 32:11, David says,
“Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, you righteous ones; And shout for joy, all you who are upright in heart.”
So, to rejoice in something is to be glad in it—to be so delighted in something that it brings about feelings of gladness and satisfaction. And then that is connected to “shouting for joy.” This simply can’t be talking something that can be reduced to a mere decision—a mere exertion of willpower (though your will and decisions will certainly be involved). When was the last time you were depressed, and you said to yourself, “I’m going to decide to shout for joy!” It doesn’t work that way! You can perform the external duty; but God is interested in our hearts as well as our lips (Matt 15:7–8). We’re speaking about an affection—an overwhelming sense of pleasure and delight that evokes happy shouting.
One more. Peter writes of the personal experience of all Christians in the opening section of his first letter. And in 1 Peter 1:8 he writes this magnificent sentence:
“And though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory.”
Just listen to that! Who can say, “OK. I’m going to bear down and exercise my willpower, irrespective of my feelings, and I’m simply going to decide to have inexpressible joy!” Again, it just doesn’t work that way! Surely we can decide to focus on the objective truths of our salvation which bring us inexpressible joy, rather than focusing on our present circumstances which may be cause for depression. But that faith-filled fight to see truth in the midst of affliction is the pre-cursor and cause of joy; it is not joy itself.
If we could tear down our prejudices regarding how we may have thought about emotions—prejudices we’ve erected because we understand the very real dangers of emotionalism, or because we know that our own affections fall far short of the biblical standard—and if we just listen to the language of this verse, it becomes plain how foolish it is to seek to kidnap joy from the realm of the affections. “You greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory!” In fact, Jonathan Edwards took this very verse as his principal text when he wrote that marvelous treatise, The Religious Affections. And the thesis of that great work—the conclusion he drew from this very text—was that “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections” (Works, 1:236).
I love what John MacArthur says about this. He says, “Christian joy is not an emotion on top of an emotion. It is not a feeling on top of a feeling. It is a feeling on top of a fact. It is an emotional response to what I know to be true about my God.” That’s so helpful. Joy is not an emotion driven by a flurry of emotions. That would be emotionalism. But joy is indeed an emotion; it is an emotion on top of a fact—an emotion experienced in response to the truth of God beheld by the eyes of faith.
God Commands us to Do and to Feel
And so we must acknowledge that God commands us, in response to the truths we know about Him, to feel. The Christian is not merely someone who has “made a decision for Jesus” and cleaned up his life a little bit via behavior modification. Becoming a Christian means spiritual heart surgery—being given a new heart: new affections and new desires—such that we not only do justly, but also love mercy (Micah 6:8); that we would not only be givers, but cheerful givers (2 Cor 9:7); such that pastors and elders would not only shepherd the flock, but shepherd the flock willingly and eagerly (1 Pet 5:2).
God’s Word contains commands that cover the full range of human emotions: We are not to covet (Exod 20:17), but to be content (Heb 13:5). We are to hope in God (Ps 42:5), to fear God (Lk 12:5), to experience peace (Col 3:15), to long for—to earnestly desire—the pure milk of the Word (1 Pet 2:2). We’re to be tenderhearted (Eph 4:32), and we are to come before God with a broken spirit and a contrite heart (Ps 51:17) (Desiring God, 300).
Joylessness is a Sin
That makes the conclusion inescapable, friends: Joylessness is just as much a sin as stealing, coveting, or lying. If we are commanded to “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil 4:4) then to be characterized by a constant gloominess, moroseness, or depression, is to disobey this divine imperative. Spurgeon said, “If any of you have taken a gloomy view of religion, I beseech you to throw that gloomy view away at once!” In Deuteronomy 28:47–48, God says to Israel, “Because you did not serve the LORD your God with joy and a glad heart, for the abundance of all things; therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the LORD will send against you….” For God’s people, those who have been united to Him by covenant, granted access to Him through the forgiveness of our sins by grace alone—for those of us who have so much to be joyful about—joylessness is surely sin.
Which means that the counsel that says, “Just do your duty, and your feelings will follow,” is a confused piece of advice. Because joy, gladness, hope, cheerfulness—all of that is our duty! If God loves a cheerful giver, and you give begrudgingly, without cheerfulness, you’ve done your duty to give, but you haven’t done your duty to give cheerfully.
Now let me be clear. I am in no way advocating any form of quietism. A lot of people hear this kind teaching and think it means, “Neglect your duty to give until you feel like doing your duty to give cheerfully.” No. It is never right to compound your disobedience because you’re in a sluggish frame of heart. Don’t add the sin of failure to give to the sin of joylessness. Do your duty to give. Do your duty to serve. But confess your lack of joy and cheerfulness as sin, and ask God to give you the heart to do all of your duty with joy.
And so a summary definition of the joy that Paul calls us to in Philippians 4:4 might be: Joy is the affection that is produced in the soul when one finds delight, pleasure, or satisfaction in God Himself or the truth about Him, and then responds in gladness.
No Distasteful Duty
And let us end on a celebratory note—of how gracious it is for our God to command us to rejoice. How gracious He is to make delight our duty! Spurgeon takes us home with these words:
“Come, brothers and sisters, I am inviting you now to no distasteful duty when, in the name of my Master, I say to you, as Paul said to the Philippians under the teaching of the Holy Spirit, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice!’”