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One warm spring afternoon a few years into my first pastorate, I got word that one of our church members had died. I called the local funeral director, a good friend, and we decided to go out to the house together. Good thing we did, because while we were there we got word another church member had died. This was proving to be a memorable afternoon.

The two men who died and their families could not have been more different. The first was the closest to a “captain of industry” a small Ohio town could tolerate. He was a gruff plant manager of one of the oldest and best-known manufacturers in the region. He loved the good life and had the financial wherewithal to guarantee that he and his wife could live very well. They attended church largely because, in those days, most people at his level did. The second man was the unassuming patriarch of a large family. He and his wife lived modestly and raised several children in a comfortable little house. Their kids and grandkids all stayed in the area and had established families of their own. In their lives, and in their family, Jesus and our congregation were central.

We arrived at the first house and encountered what can only be described as the Midwest equivalent of a wailing wall. The widow was totally submerged in grief and was surrounded by many of her close friends and golfing buddies, none of whom had much of anything to offer except increasingly loud sobbing and the occasional tongue click. We did what we could and moved on. The second house was filled with singing, laughter, and prayer. Four generations had gotten the word that Grandpa had died, and it was all hands on deck. Nearly 30 people of all ages were crammed into a bright, cheery living room. We were warmly welcomed and then told, “Paul, Ed, find a seat if you can find one. We’re not ready for you quite yet. We still have more singing to do!”

The difference? Joy. The first couple bought wholesale into the world’s understanding of happiness: “Work hard and you too will be able to create for yourself the life you’ve always wanted!” That life brought them lots of happiness—until it didn’t. The second family had a deep spiritual grounding and industrial-strength faith. After years of practice and one generation nurturing the next in the reality of God and the truth of Jesus, even the sudden death of someone so deeply loved could not shake their joy or silence their hymns.

What Is This Joy You Speak Of?

Joy (chara) is delight in God for the sheer beauty and worth of who God is. Its opposite is hopelessness or despair, and its counterfeit is an elation that is experiencing blessings, not the Blesser, causing mood swings based on circumstances. —Tim Keller

When we hear the word “joy,” our first instinct might be to make a mental jump to its counterfeit: happiness. After all, in their purest form, joy and happiness each originate with God—but that’s pretty much where the similarity ends. Biblically defined happiness is the experience of God’s blessings—“Blessed are they who ...” (Matt. 5). The smallest blessing can be a source of happiness, but isn’t it interesting that we feel increasingly happy when God’s blessings seem to line up with our personal hopes and dreams? Problems begin when we start to see happiness as an entitlement, or worse, as something we ourselves have created, or worse yet, as an end in itself. Without even knowing it we can make the gift far more important than the Giver.

Joy is not a gift given by God, but the result of our relationship with God. Joy doesn’t depend on our circumstances. It is a spiritual reality that becomes more real as we grow closer to God. In that relationship, we change and are changed by the Holy Spirit, coming closer to being the people we were designed by God to be—the people our Spirit-renewed hearts want us to be. Because joy in no way depends on us or on our context, there is nothing counterfeit or fleeting about it. It’s as trustworthy as God.

That’s Very Interesting, but ...

As I write this during the season of Easter in 2021, it can seem like a one-way ticket to paradox. On one hand, Easter is the season of joy for followers of Jesus—the proof of the Jesus pudding. God in Jesus Christ invaded the world in flesh and bone—not just as a teacher, healer, or human-shaped moral compass, but as our Savior. The resurrection is the core truth of our faith. It marks the triumph of Jesus over sin and death, the divine checkmate to all that is not of God. The message of Easter for those who believe is that our past is forgiven and our future is secured. That alone you’d think would produce enough joy in each of us for several lifetimes.

But we’re human, and it’s 2021. The pandemic rages. New COVID variants are popping up. This past year, cancellation of graduations, weddings, and funerals became completely normal. The ability to sit with sick or dying friends and relatives vanished. Simple family gatherings became unthinkable. Long-anticipated travel plans had to be canceled. Then there was the collapse of businesses, skyrocketing unemployment, and governmental mismanagement. There have been heightened cases of domestic violence and a dramatic increase in substance abuse and suicides. And there might be longer-term socioeconomic and physiological damage we have yet to imagine. We can also add racial tensions, political polarization, increasing impatience, intolerance, and bitterness, social media-induced snark and meanness—the list goes on. In this past year, I’ve heard more and more people ask, “How are we supposed to have joy when we’re dealing with all this?”

Great Question, Wrong Word

A more legitimate, psychologically relevant question might be, “How are we supposed to have happiness when we’re dealing with all this?”—especially if we forgot to thank God for all the other blessings (happiness) he gives each day. When we are successful, or safe, or lucky, we feel happy; our wants are fulfilled as well as our needs. However, this past year has pushed most of us right up to the edge of the happiness cliff, and many have fallen over into deep despair. That’s what can happen when we rely on ourselves and on the world we think we’ve had a hand in creating to keep us going through a season of crises.

Joy, on the other hand, has nothing to do with global, local, or personal challenges. Joy is as much God’s intervention in this world as was the Incarnation itself, only this time it’s the Holy Spirit who’s “moving into the neighborhood” (Eugene Peterson). If we want to understand biblical joy, the best place to go is the apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Paul lists nine virtues that together are the gift of the Holy Spirit and the “fruit” of life in the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Paul’s list comes at the end of his teaching on the freedom we can only find in Christ and about what it means to live “in the Spirit.” The followers of Jesus in Galatia were a squirrelly bunch, not all that different from a lot of us in the 21st century. Paul’s letter was a combination of Christ-centered hope and tough love. At one point he wrote, “O you dear idiots of Galatia, who saw Jesus Christ the crucified so plainly, who has been casting a spell over you? … Has all your painful experience brought you nowhere?” (Gal. 3, PHILLIPS).

Some Bible scholars believe the Galatian Christians were, in fact, on the brink of civil war. False teachers among them had focused on what they must do to be acceptable to God. But the gospel is clear: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:19, emphasis added).

But What About Today?

What does all this have to do with joy now? Just about everything. Then, as now, the battle between our sinful nature and a life formed and led by the Holy Spirit is no small matter. It’s a battle in each human heart, pitting faith in God against faith in the world—growth against decay. Our sinful nature wants us to be our own savior and lord. Although it is not specifically listed in Galatians, the quest for contextual happiness is certainly part of that desire. By contrast, Paul named those nine virtues not as nine steps to personal fulfillment, but as an inseparable, interdependent whole—as the “fruit” of a life centered in God’s Spirit.

The lure of our sinful nature is powerful. In our increasingly secular, self-help-obsessed culture, the very concept of biblical joy through a close relationship with a distant deity has undergone extensive scrutiny and remodeling—so much so that many people, even committed followers of Jesus, don’t recognize the difference between joy and counterfeit happiness anymore, nor do we even know what we’re missing. We’ve learned to just deal with life as it comes and, when our do-it-yourself happiness collapses under the weight of reality, all we can do is wonder what just happened and try harder.

It Comes Down to the Verbs

The challenge for followers of Jesus in any circumstance is not how you have joy. We’ve seen that joy is part of the reality of life in God’s Spirit. The real question is, how does the fruit of the Spirit, including joy, take root in your heart? How does God produce joy in our lives? The apostle Paul supplies the answers:

  • Focus: We are not our own savior and lord. We belong to Christ. Our relationship with God does not depend on us, but on Jesus and what Jesus has done for us. Not only do we find our joy in Jesus but, because of Jesus, we are free to be honest about the places where, when, and how we are still living in our sinful nature. We can admit when we still confuse God’s gift of joy with our own attempts at counterfeit happiness.
  • Patience: Growth in the fruit of the Spirit is gradual and might not always be easy to see, especially in ourselves. That doesn’t mean growth isn’t happening. Our deepening spiritual joy might reveal itself the next time we face a significant challenge. Then we might think, “A year ago I would have been far more hopeless than I am today.” There it is!
  • Keeping in step with the Spirit: The Holy Spirit is the advocatory person of the triune God. The Spirit rejoices in and shows off the work of Jesus in our lives. The more we can fix our mind and heart on Jesus, worshiping him with the help of the Spirit, the more we will see the difference between counterfeit, context-defined happiness and God’s gift of joy. We will more readily realize that the happiness we try to create for ourselves is really only an imitation of what our heart truly desires.

I’ll never forget how, on that afternoon years ago, two families so differently faced the reality of death. Nor will I forget the early morning not long after when the widow of the first man met me in the church parking lot asking where she could find a Bible. She was thinking there might be something in there for her. I gave her the one I was carrying and some ideas of where to begin. That right there? That was joy!

Discussion Questions

  1. Prior to reading this article, what was your definition of joy?
  2. What are some ways we might have confused our pursuit of happiness with God’s gift of joy?
  3. Have you seen growth in the spiritual fruit of joy in your life? What are some ways we can foster growth in joy?
  4. How do we best keep in step with the Holy Spirit? What might hinder us from doing so?


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