A Different Kind of Joy
It is not true that seeking joy in Jesus will replace the joy of earthly pleasures. Jesus is certainly not a replacement joy for sinful pleasures. “Putting off and putting on” does not mean that obedience will give the same emotive satisfaction as disobedience. Of Moses it is said that he “esteemed the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt” (Heb. 11:26). Choosing Christ means choosing the much harder road. It means rejecting the world’s definition of joy altogether. Real joy often brings pain and suffering. I will pose a provisional definition of joy. It is the smile of God upon the soul that is yielded to his will. It is essentially his pleasure in us (Ps. 147:11).
This turns joy on its traditional head. It is not primarily what we feel about our circumstances or choices or others. Joy is not, as is usually thought and with much resulting frustration, the momentary happiness in getting what we want. Joy is not the happy place we find inside when all is going as we would like. Joy is first and fundamentally outward, or Godward. It is God. “In thy presence is fullness of joy; and at thy right hand are pleasures forever” (Ps. 16:11). Joy is God near us, with us, in us.
In this life, joy, therefore, requires faith to lay hold upon God’s pleasure in us. It is said that we are his dwelling place. He sent his Son to be “God with us.” When we walk in harmony with God’s will rather than push him away by our sins and willfulness, we have objective joy, for we have God himself. Because we do not find that obedience makes everything better all at once, and may actually make them harder, we must persevere in obedience – often against what we feel at the moment, even against ourselves and our fallen expectations and mistaken definitions of joy.
It is true also that “weeping may endure for the night but joy comes in the morning.” The Lord in his mercy and goodness often gives his children tastes of joy – the real joy of walking with him, saying “no” to the flesh, and walking the narrow way. Our Lord spoke of this kind of joy when he prayed on that last, painful night: “that they might have my joy fulfilled in themselves” (John 17:13). While his full joy was set before him (Heb. 12:2), he also possessed real joy at that moment, for our Lord did not go to the cross as a bitter or frustrated or angry man. He went as the voluntary, joyful Son of his Father and Savior of his people. If he did not go to the cross delighting to do the will of his Father even while he felt the pain and shame of bearing our judgment, his sacrifice would not have been effectual. We hated obedience and became miserable. Jesus Christ loved obedience and had peace and joy in that dark hour.
The older theology and resulting piety of the Protestant Reformation had a decided Godward orientation that is dangerously lacking today. Consider, for example, the frequently mentioned “brokenness” in Christian devotional literature. It is true that sin leaves us broken, but the brokenness is not first on our side. It is more objective and far worse than we can ever understand if we consult only our feelings. The real problem with sin is not the way it makes us feel or the difficulties it creates in our lives. It is that God is dishonored, his majesty offended. When his law is broken, of course we shall feel our peace and joy with him disrupted. A thousand conferences on the way we talk to our spouse, treat our children, or relate to one another will not deal with an offended God. We must turn back to him.
Turning to God is essentially looking at life from his perspective. Yes, I may feel bad about something I have done, and the consequences may be worse than I anticipated. What to do? God is offended. Even as believers, we provoke his jealousy and push him away by our sinning (1 Cor. 10:22). This is the way the apostle confronted the Corinthian believers. Their sins were terrible and created many problems. These were nothing in comparison to the way they had provoked God and offended his majesty. We must get on our faces before him, confess our wickedness, and trust his promise of mercy in Christ. He will forgive and heal, but we must turn our heart to him, and not our backs; he must be near in our reigns – ruling over our heart desires and motives (Jer. 12:2; 32:23).
We cannot be in a hurry when turning back to God. “Getting things right with him” is not a matter of a few minutes of confession and looking for the joy and peace to be restored quickly and all the bad consequences to go away because we have so nobly made a few admissions of guilt to him. Read David’s confessions. “My sin is ever before me” (51:3). “For my iniquities are gone over my head; as a heavy burden they are too heavy for me” (38:4). “I have lost my strength by sinning” (31:10). Did David not trust God’s promises? Was he sin-centered? No. He rightly considered his sins from God’s perspective. He knew that God could not be manipulated. Looking at his life from the perspective of God’s majesty and holiness, he saw something of the horror of his sins – not their consequences, which he rarely mentions, or the way they made him feel. He was alarmed that his sins had pushed God away, that he had offended the God of his salvation, the God of his life. He pled: “take not thy Holy Spirit from me” (51:11).
This is decidedly different from our modern notions of emotional health. David fasted and prayed in his seasons of struggle with sin. He was seriously displeased with himself because he took God seriously – his holiness, his righteous law, and his goodness. He knew seasons of “God with him” for he trusted in the Savior. It was God’s nearness to him that so alarmed him when he sinned. God near us means that we must deal decisively with sin from God’s perspective. He is a real person. His presence is covenanted and gracious. It is made clearer, more personal, and transforming by the Spirit’s indwelling presence. We are told, therefore, not to offend and grieve him (Eph. 4:30).
Believers therefore take sin seriously because they love God and do not want to do anything to offend him. This grows as we grow in Christ; you will never hear mature and knowledgeable believers speak lightly of sin, offending God, or the struggles of the heart. The consequences of sin are serious. We feel our fallenness. Accidents and disease take away our strength and leave us in pain, sometimes for a long time or all our lives. Many believers live with chronic pain or other bodily weakness. But what should concern us most is not the recovery of these temporary blessings – which shall be restored fully only in heaven – but what God thinks of us. Whatever my circumstances, good or bad, am I endeavoring to walk humbly before him? Am I walking in harmony with his revealed will? This is the place of joy.
This is the kind of joy our Savior promised to us. “As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father's commandments, and abide in his love. These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full” (John 15:9-11). Notice the holy, narrowly defined path of having Jesus’ joy fulfilled in us: love for God – obedience to his commandments – joy. This is not the world’s definition of joy, but it is God’s. This is because God walks on this path. His word makes reality what it is, and when we live out of harmony with his word, we cannot have true joy.
So wondrous is this joy that the Lord gives it in the midst of pain and suffering. Our Savior spoke most of joy as the cross loomed before him. He knew the cross was his ultimate act of obedience. It would also be the ultimate place of joy – when he obeyed unto death, accomplished everything written in the Scriptures, and yielded himself a burnt offering in order to reconcile God to sinners and sinners to God. True and lasting joy is found only on this path. God will take us to many difficult places, but because he is always with us, we find joy when we yield to his will.
Consider your areas of dissatisfaction. You want things to be better in your marriage, or with your children, or in your vocation and life circumstances. Have these desires and pressures led you essentially inward, to the way you can get good feelings back? Or, are your burdens leading you to God? Are you repenting and turning to him and wrestling with him in prayer for obedience? The more you fight to be yielded to Christ, the more you draw him near (John 14:21-23). The nearer he is, the more joyful you will be.