Note: This article is adapted from Denk’s book An Invitation to Joy: The Divine Journey to Human Flourishing, published in April 2023.
My journey with joy began when my oldest daughter was visiting—my Reformed charismatic daughter, my missionary midwife daughter who delivers babies for fun. She is one of the gentlest people I know. As we sat around the breakfast table, just the two of us, she said, “Dad, you seem to have lost some of your joy lately.” It was an understatement. And God gave me the grace to hear it and to say, “OK, tell me more.”
Some of you are no doubt more naturally joyful than I am. I am skeptical by nature, blessed (and sometimes afflicted) with an analytical mind. True, I am not easily depressed or discouraged, but I am not easily impressed either. And I am not easily pleased. Yet an overriding sense of joy has begun to permeate my life.
We were made for joy, and we are destined for joy. As Frederick Buechner says, “God’s joy is in our blood” (The Longing for Home). We have both the capacity for joy and a deep yearning for joy. “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” So said the angel upon the arrival of Jesus in this world. Jesus clearly came to offer people a joyful, abundant life, both in his earthly ministry and his death. Yet as it was in the first century, so it is today: Most people continue to follow their familiar, dreary, humdrum grind of existence that they mistake for life rather than respond to Jesus’ open invitation to a life of joy. Even so, during each Christmas season I sense a wide-ranging spirit of longing for joy, for something greater just out of reach, that comes from deep within the spirits of so many.
The reason joy seems out of reach is because so many foes are battling against it—worry, fear, doubt, grief, deceit, weariness, and pervasive evil. All of these have the potential to rob us of our joy, and they often succeed. So many people in our culture live with deep regret and defeat rather than hope and contentment and joy.
What Is Joy?
Joy might be difficult to define, but you know it when you see it—and you certainly know it when you feel it. Clearly, joy is a feeling, though it is not simply that. Feelings tend to be fleeting. Joy, on the contrary, is a steady disposition about life. We might say that joy is a hopeful and peaceful outlook on life, a deep-seated sense of well-being. Unlike happiness, joy is not dependent on circumstances or chance. We can experience joy even in times of trouble and hardship.
As C.S. Lewis explained in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, you don’t find joy by pursuing joy. Joy is a byproduct. Joy is always a surprise. We are always joyful over something that we perceive as very good. But if it is a byproduct, a complement to something else, we might ask: What is the product? What is that other thing we need to know or have so that a deep sense of joy will flow over us?
Certainly loving another human being and being loved by someone bring us immense joy. Many people find joy in doing work they love. But, as Lewis found, the greatest and most enduring joy comes from knowing God through Jesus Christ and being a part of his joyful kingdom.
Joy in the Presence of Suffering
No doubt many of you, if you are like me, are beginning to feel uncomfortable and wary about this narrow focus on joy. You are possibly thinking, “Well, yes, but what about when we are in physical and emotional pain? What about my friend who is chronically depressed?” What about the rampant injustice, genocide, civil wars, millions of refugees and displaced people, and children starving? The world is in such a mess. How can we be joyfully impervious to all these crying needs? Will we go about our merry way while the world goes to hell in a handbasket?
But joy does not close our eyes to the pressing needs around us. In fact, it is the joy in our lives that gives us the strength and motivation to reach out to others in need. In George MacDonald’s novel Adela Cathcart, Adela expresses it this way: “Take from me my joy and I am powerless to help others.”
As I write these words, I have undergone four surgeries and regular treatments for bladder cancer. My wife has been battling breast cancer. So I am not exactly in a Pollyannaish mood in coming to this topic.
But the call to joy in Scripture occurs right in the presence of suffering (James 1:2-4). Each day that we live in gloomy despondency, in a dismal state of blah-ness, or in worry, fear, and anxiety, we are missing out on the full and abundant life Jesus intends for us. Jesus came into this world that we might have life in all its fullness (John 10:10). Jesus himself was a joyful person, and to his disciples he said, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11, ESV).
Joy in Scripture
The Old Testament is bursting with joy. Biblical Hebrew has thirteen roots for words for joy that express the exuberance of life of the people of God in response to God’s greatness and goodness toward them. These Hebrew words are often translated into English as “merriment,” “gladness,” “happy,” “laughter,” “wonder,” “exuberance,” “exulting,” “praise,” “worship,” “shout,” “sing,” “delight,” and “blessed.” Even “dancing” becomes a legitimate expression for joy, as in “You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy” (Ps. 30:11).
The poetry of the Hebrew Scriptures represents the whole of creation as already caught up in the dance of joy and wonder at the Creator. The earth is full of praising and rejoicing. The mountains and the hills burst forth with joy. The water in the brook is bubbling with laughter. The trees of the forest are clapping their hands. It is all a marvelous invitation for us to join the created world in this procession of gladness and praise. It is as though the whole creation is saying, “What are you waiting for? Don’t you get it? You people of faith, you children of God, surely you would want to join in the dance as well!” The psalmist proclaims it best:
Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
let the sea resound, and all that is in it.
Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;
let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes (Ps. 96:11-13a).
In the New Testament, Jesus’ arrival on earth is announced by expressions of joy. We have the familiar message of the angel to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10). We are also told that the wise men were “overjoyed” when they saw the guiding star (Matt. 2:10). The coming of Jesus into this world is a joyful occasion, and the central characters are caught up in the celebration. In Mary’s Magnificat, she declares, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46-47).
“The New Testament is the most buoyant, exhilarating, and joyful book in the world,” says the Scottish theologian James Denney (Studies in Theology). Jesus promised to give his joy to his disciples along with his peace and his love (John 15:11). Jesus’ followers are brought to a new outlook or attitude toward life, as were the multitudes who were fed, healed, delivered, and touched by Jesus’ teaching and his offer of the kingdom of heaven.
The most common New Testament word for “joy” is the Greek word chara, which appears 146 times and is typically translated “joy,” “joyful,” “delight,” or “gladness.” In its verb form, we often see it as a command: Rejoice! Chara is closely related to the word charis, which means “grace.” God’s grace in our lives and in the world is the occasion for joy. The beauty of creation, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of Jesus, the new, abundant life we are offered in Christ, and the promise of our own resurrection—these are all grounds for Christian joy.
The Kingdom of Joy
Jesus invites us into his joyful kingdom. In his parables, Jesus repeatedly declares the joy of finding the kingdom and being found by God. “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field” (Matt. 13:44). In Luke 15, Jesus shares the three “lost” parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son (or the two lost sons). All three are full of rejoicing:
- “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep” (Luke 15:6).
- “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin” (Luke 15:9).
- “We had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:32).
In each of these three parables there is great joy. There is joy on the part of Jesus, who does the finding, and of the Father who welcomes home his lost son. There is joy on the part of the angels in heaven “over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:7, 10). There is certainly joy on the part of the prodigal son who was lost but now is found.
In my own conversion experience at age 18, I was seeking something more. But in another sense, it felt more like I was found by God. I was ready to discard my childhood faith, but then God brought people into my life who really knew God with overflowing joy, and I was undone. After a period of resisting and wrestling, I finally surrendered, and sheer joy flooded my life.
Jesus came to bring joy to the world. What happened? Many have never tasted that joy or responded to God’s gracious invitation. Many believers have lost the joy they once had. As believers, we face enemies that can steal our joy—enemies such as worry and fear, despair, and sloth. Slipping into legalism with its constant striving to prove ourselves will chip away at our joy.
In our broken world, we need to nurture joy. We can practice the presence of joy in our lives with the spiritual disciplines of Sabbath rest, remembering God’s great promises and his gracious work in our lives. A posture of gratitude does wonders for restoring our joy. We must follow repentance of sin to the ultimate fruit of restored joy, as in David’s ultimate request: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (Ps. 51:12).
Joy is God’s gracious gift to us, the fruit of the Spirit. It is the distinguishing mark of the Christian. Our churches are called to be joyful communities in a world desperately in need of abundant, flourishing life.
- How would you define joy?
- Recount a time when you experienced true joy. What was the occasion, and why were you joyful?
- Was “joyful” how you would normally envision God’s kingdom? Why or why not?
- What would you do in the coming week to nurture joy or “practice the presence of joy” in your life?