Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. Nehemiah 8:10

What is joy? In Christian circles, we tend to do one of several things to joy: we throw the word around loosely, exhorting others to have the “joy of the Lord”; we teach that there is a distinction between joy and happiness, without bothering to define either or mention exactly what that distinction is; we turn joy into a neat little acronym- Jesus first, Others second, Yourself last- that tells a Christian how to find joy, but still neglects to define joy.

Merriam Webster provides several definitions: 1 a : the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires : DELIGHT b : the expression or exhibition of such emotion: GAIETY 2 : a state of happiness or felicity : BLISS 3 : a source or cause of delight. Joy is an emotion, an exhibition, and a state of being. Biblically, do all these definitions stand? Or is defining joy as difficult, is the definition as slippery, as joy itself sometimes seems to be?

Using my Bible software, I found all the occurrences of the word “joy” in the Old and New Testaments. What I read there supported our definition, but expanded it, widened the scope. Joy has a depth and a certain shallowness, and most people tend to see only one of those two sides.

Joy is a mature Christian emotion; it is deep and profound. It is inspired by all the things that are part of being rightly related to God; for example, the Lord’s judgment (1 Chron 16:33), observing others’ obedience to the Lord (1 Chron 29:17, Rom 16:19, Phil 4:1), faithfulness to God through trouble (Job 6:10), and God’s commands (Ps 19:8) all cause joy. As a Christian matures, so will his joy, and his capacity for joy will expand. According to the Scriptures, then, Oswald Chambers’ definition of joy is fitting. “Joy means the perfect fulfillment of that for which I was created and regenerated.”

Joy is based on being rightly related to God, surrendering to his will as Jesus did; it is not based on transient life circumstances. “Where do the saints get their joy from? If we did not know some saints, we would say — ‘Oh, he, or she, has nothing to bear.’ Lift the veil. The fact that the peace and the light and the joy of God are there is proof that the burden is there too.” Joy is not found in the absence of trial, but in the faithfulness of God through trials.

However, we must be wary of making joy a profound super-spiritual experience. Scripture simply doesn’t support such a narrow definition. Consider some of the Hebrew words that we translate “joy”: salad literally means to skip for joy, and balag means to flash a smile. Joy is caused by personal victory (Ps 21:1), the ability to give an apt reply (Prov 15:23), a cheerful look (Prov 15:30), perfume and incense (Prov 27:9), eating and drinking (Ecc. 8:15), material blessings (Jer 31:12), the birth of a baby (Jn 16:21), physical healing (Acts 8:8), and the company of those we love (Phil 1:26, 2 Tim 1:4, 2 Jn 1:12).

Clearly, joy is wrapped up in the everyday concerns of human life, and we must be careful to remember that such “shallow” things are just as much from God as “deeper” Christian experiences. “Beware of allowing yourself to think that the shallow concerns of life are not ordained of God; they are as much of God as the profound. It is not your devotion to God that makes you refuse to be shallow, but your wish to impress other people with the fact that you are a spiritual prig…The shallow amenities of life, eating and drinking, walking and talking, are all ordained by God” (Chambers).

Joy is bound up in and caused by both common everyday life and the maturest of spiritual experiences, but in both of those it has the same goal: the glory of God. We are commanded to serve the Lord with gladness because we have seen the difference between serving him and serving earthly masters. John Piper points out that when the Israelites forsook the Lord in 2 Chronicles 12, he punished them by making them slaves of another country “so that they may learn the difference between my service and the service of the kingdoms of other countries.” As Piper writes, “There it is. God’s zeal that we know the difference between serving him and serving anyone else. The lesson they had to learn was that serving God is a glad service, or as Jesus said, a light burden and an easy yoke.” God is most glorified when his people recognize his goodness and rejoice in it.

Finally, true joy is founded on truth. It is based on our knowledge of God’s goodness to us as revealed in both shallow and deep experiences, and as revealed in his Word. Piper writes that doctrine is the new “foundation of exuberance” that catches us when the childish naiveté that we had based our exuberance on gives way to real life. “This is the whole counsel of God. If you intend to dance in the April sun”- and surely this is what we were intended for, rejoicing in the physical and spiritual blessings God has given us – “just remember, either you do it with your eyes closed or you do it on the great granite tableland of the whole counsel of God, also known as doctrine.”

Joy. It is from God, who can also take it away. It is caused by a score of things, things that we call both shallow and deep. It is based on the truth of God’s word and his character. Most importantly, it is for the all-surpassing glory of God.

“Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then is was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.” Psalms 126:2-3

Copyright © 2001 by Amy Lepine. All rights reserved. Used with permission.