“Joy is the serious business of heaven.” - C.S. Lewis
I walk along the wooded trail with a heavy heart. I’ve been retreating from my house to this neighborhood path almost daily for the last two months, taking solace in its natural open space. These walks are exercise and a retreat. They’re a time of prayer and much needed reset for my soul.
But today, I’m unsettled. My heart is sad. A friend’s husband has lost his job, a neighbor’s father has passed away, and the entire world feels unsafe.
The verse “Rejoice in the Lord always; and again, I will say rejoice” (Phil 4:4)pricks my heart. I immediately shake my head, as if I could dislodge the command from being applicable to me, right here, right now, in these circumstances.
Out loud, I say, “How Lord? How do I rejoice in you now? With all this?”
I know God is worthy of all my adoration and praise, always. But where - and how -do I find joy when I am simply not feeling joyful? I continue to walk and wrestle with these thoughts. I take a deep breath, and remember the truth I’ve studied in scripture. I remind myself of three sources of biblical joy: Joy in God’s presence, joy in our salvation, and joy in His glory.
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for joy is simchah. It’s used to describe delight, gladness, blessing, and pleasure. And in the New Testament, the Greek word for joy is chara, which means joy, gladness, favor on, and - this is my favorite part - an awareness of God’s grace.
So while many of us know happy people or joyful friends, recognizing grace - the truth that God rescued us when we did not deserve it - is the key distinction between the joy of a non-believer and of a believer.
But knowledge must meet application. I know I’m supposed to be joyful. But the truth is, too often, I’m sad, overwhelmed, or angry. I easily get in the habit of operating with a myopic view of my circumstances, be it frustration with the kids, a looming deadline and not enough time, or general overwhelm with the state of the world.
In his book Spiritual Depression, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes, “Christian people too often seem to be perpetually in the doldrums and too often give this appearance of unhappiness and lack freedom and of the absence of joy.”
As women, I think we’re sometimes just exhausted. We carry so much emotional weight and physical drain and this is not to be discounted. Many of us have legitimate reasons to carry a heavy heart. So hear me clearly: joy in the Lord does not negate the truth of our experiences, emotions, or circumstances. But joy in the Lord is possible, and if we’re going to take Paul seriously - joy is commanded in all of our circumstances.
The good news is, this isn’t our work to do.
For just a minute, I want you to think about GPS. Yes, the global positioning system. We can tell our location by receiving positional data from three fixed-point satellites from wherever we are on earth. The analogy breaks down quickly (because in reality, as we move, the satellites change) but for the purposes of understanding Biblical joy, let this be our visual:
From anywhere in the world and in any circumstance, joy is ours when we connect ourselves with three fixed points for Biblical joy: Joy in His presence, joy in our salvation, and joy in His glory - our future glory.
Joy in His Presence
Psalms 16:11 says, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence, there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” And Psalm 21:6, “For you make him most blessed forever; you make him glad with the joy of your presence.”
So what does it mean to be in God’s presence?
My husband is the parent of choice in our family. It doesn’t matter if he’s shaving, reading, doing yard work, or loading the dishwasher, our kids simply love to be with him. While I can tend to shoo my children away, he consistently makes them feel welcomed, purposeful, and loved. It’s no wonder they want to be with him. And it’s with this kind of heart that our Heavenly Father receives us and desires for us to be with Him.
But how do we go into God’s presence? Through prayer and scripture.
Jeremiah 15:16 states, “Your words were found, and I ate them; and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O Lord, God of hosts.” Scripture teaches us who God is. It reveals His character and in turn, we learn who we are, and of our desperate need for Him. And prayer, whether we use scripture, song, or silently listen, is a means of abiding with our creator.
Joy in Our Salvation
In Psalm 51, David pleads with the Lord for mercy and asks for a clean heart; he acknowledges his sin, then in verse 12 says, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.” And in Psalm 20:5, the psalmist writes, “May we shout for joy over your salvation, and in the name of our God set up our banners!” Our salvation is the second fixed point for joy.
In Luke 15, Jesus tells three parables about God’s joy in our salvation. He describes the joy of a shepherd finding his lost sheep, a woman calling her friends to “rejoice with me” when she finds her lost coin, and a youngest son returning to his father’s house. And earlier in the same book (chapter 10), Jesus sends out the seventy-two as laborers in his harvest. They return with joy, overwhelmed by the authority to cast out demons in Christ’s name. Jesus' response is shocking. He says, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” He acknowledges their power over their enemy, but then he also puts a boundary on their joy. He says “...do not rejoice in this...but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” He redirects their joy off of their circumstances and to its proper source: their salvation.
Whether we are in a place of suffering or being used by God in a powerful way, He wants us to see salvation as a source of our joy.
Joy In His Glory, Our Future Glory
1 Peter 1:8 says, “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.” And Romans 8:17 says, “and if [we are] children, then heirs--heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”
It’s easy to look to the glorified Jesus when things in our life are going well. But when life is hard, do we put the suffering of this moment into the context of eternity?
We know we’ll have suffering in this life. Many of us, even right now, are experiencing some very honest emotions due to some very hard circumstances. But the here-and-now is not all we have. Our ability to reflect Jesus through joy need not be limited by the filter of our own experiences. Instead, the Spirit of God reveals scripture which informs and transforms our minds and hearts into His image. Jonathan Edwards said, “God’s purpose for my life was that I have a passion for God’s glory and that I have a passion for my joy in that glory, and that these two are one passion.”
Our focus is on Jesus, the one who suffered for us, giving us hope in eternal glory to come.
That day on the trail, I didn’t feel joyful. But with each step, I told God what was on my heart. I recited scripture and thought about the joy of being in His presence, the joy of my salvation, and the joy of future glory. I spent time in prayer and confession, I asked God to work in my heart. And I returned to my home without a fake smile and pretend happiness, but with a soul rooted in the source of real joy.
My prayer for all of us is that regardless of our circumstances, our Father God, through his Son, and with his Spirit, will seek Him as our source of joy.