The Apostle Paul, having warned the Galatian Christians regarding the dangers of falling from grace by adhering to the Law of Moses (Galatians 1:1-5:16), sought to exhort them regarding sin and righteousness (Galatians 5:17-24). He denounced the “works of the flesh” (Galatians 5:19-21); he now encouraged them to embody the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-24:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control; against such there is no law.
The first manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit can be well described as the ultimate embodiment of all of them: love. Paul then continued with “joy.” The word translated above as “joy” is the Greek word chara, defined by Thayer’s as, “joy, gladness: the joy received from you; the cause or occasion of joy; of persons who are one’s joy.”
In the New Testament “joy” is found in all of the above dimensions. The emotional experience of joy at hearing the Word of God and finding salvation in its message is in view in Matthew 13:20, 44. Christians are commended for proving willing to suffer while experiencing joy in 2 Corinthians 8:2, Philippians 1:25, and Hebrews 10:34. Paul expressed a joyful disposition toward those faithful to God in the churches in 2 Corinthians 2:3, Philippians 4:1, 1 Thessalonians 2:19-20, and 2 Timothy 1:4.
Christians, therefore, are a people who ought to be marked by joy. Christians have many reasons to rejoice. We live in hope: our Lord has redeemed us from the world of sin and death, and we look forward to eternal life in glory in the resurrection (Romans 8:1-39). We live with the encouragement of the people of God who have gone on before us, and presently share the company of brethren of like-minded faith (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Hebrews 10:24-25, 11:39-12:2). If we pursue the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, we always will have what we need (Matthew 6:25-34). In Christ we enjoy freedom from the bondage and oppression of sin so as to share in relational unity with God and to glorify Him in faithful love and obedience (Romans 6:14-23); Christians do well to consider this as joy and to abide within it.
Joy, therefore, must be a hallmark of the faith. According to Paul the Kingdom of God is “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). Paul urged Christians to rejoice always, repeating himself for emphasis in Philippians 4:4; he exhorted the Thessalonian Christians to the same end in 1 Thessalonians 5:16.
Yet this insistence on rejoicing “always” ought to give us pause. How many of us associate “joy” with a feeling of happiness? Is Paul really expecting Christians to always feel joyful and happy? Are we to imagine that Paul himself experienced warm feelings of joy and happiness while being beaten, stoned, or in desperate want?
We may enjoy the feeling of joy and happiness, but the Christian’s joy is not rooted in feelings. Feelings come and go; the goal in Christ is not to manufacture emotions to maintain the pretense of joyful excitement no matter what. Joy grounded and rooted in emotion and feeling cannot endure the trials and difficulties experienced in the life of faith.
The Hebrews author and James help us to understand the kind of joy Christians must maintain in the faith. The Hebrews author exhorted Christians to look toward Jesus as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, for He endured the cross, and despised its shame, on account of the joy set before Him (Hebrews 12:2). James exhorted Christians to consider it a joyful thing to endure trials, since those trials would test their faith and produce endurance (James 1:2-4). Neither the Hebrews author nor James suggested the difficulties, trials, or shame themselves were sources of joy or joyful experiences; instead they focused on the joy which could be found in the outcome: developed character traits, growth in relationship with God and His people, victory over sin and death and eternal life.
The Christian’s joy, therefore, is not grounded and rooted in emotion, feeling, or physical circumstance, but in what they are obtaining and will obtain in Christ. Such is how Christians endured the loss of property or standing “with joy”: they did not feel warmth and happiness from the indignity and shame they endured, but understood that they were sharing in the suffering of Christ so they would obtain the glory God had given Him (cf. Romans 8:17-18, Hebrews 10:32-35). Their suffering was unpleasant (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:3-11); the fruit of their suffering could sustain them in joy.
In truth, everyone has a source of joy: they seek after something which they believe will make them glad and happy. Those in the world look for joy in the world: far too many in money, power, fame, sex, or drugs; yet just as many, if not more so, look for joy in good things elevated beyond their station, like their nation, family, entertainment, sports teams, etc. It is not wrong for Christians to find some happiness and joy in family, their work, their nation, sports, hobbies, etc., but such can never be the sources of their ultimate joy. Christians must be glad in God in Christ through the Spirit; their joy must be the relationship they are cultivating with God, and they must prove willing to renounce all other joys if need be in order to obtain eternal life and glory in the resurrection (cf. Matthew 6:19-24, 10:34-38, 16:24-28). Do we see ourselves in the merchant who found the pearl of great price; have we “sold” all we have in order to obtain the joy of life in God in Christ (Matthew 13:45-46)?
Joy is a beautiful thing and can sustain us in our lives. Yet joy is not a masquerade of positivity for the sake of enhancing quality of life; rooting and grounding one’s joy in anything in this world will lead to grief, pain, and distress. Christians find joy in their relationship with God in Christ through the Spirit, finding strength to endure all difficulties while maintaining composure and dignity because in Christ we know we hold lightly to everything that pertains to this life. That which causes us distress in the world renders the hope we cherish and sustain all the more sweeter, and prepares us more thoroughly to enjoy it. Joy and gladness in things of this world fade; rejoicing in the Lord Jesus endures forever.
Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, in the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13).
Ethan R. Longhenry