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Joy is essential to the Christian life. The Scriptures are clear: God’s people are both commanded to rejoice and characterized by rejoicing.
Our heavenly Father is not indifferent to our happiness. Joy is not a garnish on the dutiful entrée of the Christian life. Joy is not the icing on our cake, but an essential ingredient in a complex batter.
It’s not that there is only joy, but that in our most painful losses and sufferings, we discover how deep the reservoirs of Christian joy run. Only here, in difficulty and darkness, do we taste the essence of such joy — that it is not thin and frivolous and empty, but thick and substantive and full.
Joy Is Possible
To hear that joy is not optional lands on some ears with promise and hope. If joy is essential, then it must mean that joy is possible. In a world of sin and suffering, mess and misery, it is good news to hear that joy is possible.
For one, joy is commanded all over the Bible. It was commanded of God’s first-covenant people, Israel, perhaps especially in the Psalms. “Let Israel be glad in his Maker; let the children of Zion rejoice in their King!” (Psalm 149:2). “Let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad” (Psalm 14:7). “Rejoice in the Lord” (Psalm 97:12). “Serve the Lord with gladness” (Psalm 100:2). “Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!” (Psalm 32:11). With literally hundreds more instances throughout the Old Testament.
Beyond just Israel, God commands all nations to rejoice in their Maker (“Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,” Psalm 67:4), and even commands the natural world to join in the joy (“Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice,” Psalm 96:11).
In the New Testament, God himself, in full manhood, doesn’t change his tune once he’s become the “man of sorrows” in our fallen world (Isaiah 53:3), but commands our joy as much as anyone, and gives us even more reason to rejoice. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Matthew 5:12). “Leap for joy” (Luke 6:23). “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). Yes, joy is possible, joy so real and rich that we turn to friends and neighbors and say, “Rejoice with me” (Luke 15:6, 9).
If it weren’t plain enough at this point, the apostle Paul drives it home further in his letters to the churches. “Rejoice in hope. . . . Rejoice with those who rejoice” (Romans 12:12, 15). “Finally, brothers, rejoice” (2 Corinthians 13:11). “Rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16). And then, the joy tidal wave of Philippians: “Be glad and rejoice with me” (Philippians 2:18). “Rejoice in the Lord” (Philippians 3:1). “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). Not that we’re dull to the multifaceted pains of life in this age, but in Christ we have access to subterranean joy that is simultaneous with, and deeper than, the greatest of our sorrows — we are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10).
One reason the Bible is so relentless in insisting on our joy is because of the goodness of God. The imperative to joy in us is based on the indicative of good in him. “You shall rejoice in all the good that the Lord your God has given to you” (Deuteronomy 26:11). Joy in the heart of the creature corresponds to goodness in the heart of the Creator. Joy is the fitting response in the receiver to the goodness of the Giver.
But I’m Not Joyful
Some hear possibilities in the commands of joy; others hear problems. And both responses are justified. We are sinners, spiritually dead by nature (Ephesians 2:1–3). Often we are emotionally inconsistent and spiritually dull. Even in Christ, we daily ride the undulating roller coaster from lethargic hearts to quickened spirits, then back into dryness again.
Those of us who know ourselves, and are learning to be honest with reality, own up to how little we are truly joyful, and ask our Father again and again, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (Psalm 51:12).
To such sluggish and self-aware people, hearing that joy is not optional can feel fraught with more condemnation than possibilities. It can be a new weight to carry on already over-burdened shoulders.
But our joylessness is not the end of the story. One infinitely powerful piece remains in the equation.
God Is Utterly Committed to Your Joy
With our endless failures in view, it is such spectacularly good news that God himself is utterly committed to our everlasting joy in him. In fact, there is a sense in which he is as committed to our joy in him as he is to his ultimate purpose in the universe: that he be honored and glorified. Because our joy is tied to his glory. In the words of John Piper’s poetic refrain, God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him.
God is righteous, and thus not indifferent to his glory. And the good news for those of us laying claim on the blood and righteousness of his Son is that he is not indifferent to our joy. Not the thin, frivolous, empty “joy” mere external circumstances in a fallen world can bring, but the thick, substantive, rich joy that can run deeper and wider than life’s otherwise most joyless settings.
In Christ, not only is God no longer against us in omnipotent wrath, but now he is for us— for our deep and enduring joy — in all his omnipotent love. His promise through Jeremiah comes home to us in Christ: “I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul” (Jeremiah 32:41).
Our joy will not be perfect in this life; we will always strain and struggle. We will have our angsts and anxieties. We will have our ups and downs. Yet even here we have tastes. Not only is indomitable joy coming, but even now we sample the sweetness, especially in suffering. “Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8).
It is good news that joy is not optional in the Christian life, because the final weight falls not on our weak backs, but on the almighty shoulders of God himself.
For more on the possibility and essentiality of joy in the Christian life — even and especially in the midst of great suffering — see John Piper’s book Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist.