biblical vocabulary: joy

“Count it all joy…”

“Rejoice in the Lord always…”

“The joy of the Lord is your strength.”

We look for it everywhere. We feel guilty when we don’t have enough of it. We wonder why it’s so difficult to come by. But do we know what it is?

What is this thing called “joy”? More importantly, what is it according to the Bible?

Remember, our goal is to approach the Bible not with our preconditioned perspective, but with heart and mind open to see what God Himself put there. Our own filters are usually built on whatever foundation other flawed human beings helped to lay for us, and they don’t always allow the whole truth to come through.

In the first part of this series, we looked at the word “faith.” If you haven’t read it, go back and read it now, because faith is joy’s parent - we’ll never achieve the latter without a solid standing in the former.

What is joy?

The top three dictionary definitions for joy are as follows:

  1. the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying; keen pleasure; elation: She felt the joy of seeing her son’s success.

  2. a source or cause of keen pleasure or delight; something or someone greatly valued or appreciated: Her prose style is a pure joy.

  3. the expression or display of glad feeling; festive gaiety.

Unfortunately, these definitions miss the mark of the Biblical understanding of joy by a rather wide margin, and when we bring them to our study of the Bible, we enter into the dangerous territory of thinking one’s “quality” as a disciple of Jesus can in some way be measured by one’s ability to be happy, look on the bright side, and walk into church with a smiling face every week. It’s not long before that attitude turns followers into fakers.

So, as always, we turn to the Bible for the truth. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of verses regarding joy in the Bible, but here are a few helpful ones:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
James 1:2-4

Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Hebrews 12:2

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!
Philippians 4:4

If the whole concept of joy really were wrapped up in those three definitions above, not a single one of these passages could be true. Maybe they never would have been written at all.

There’s no room for “the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying” in the kind of trials that test our faith, or in the long road to the Cross. Most of us, in our right minds, grieve and weep and agonize when we are suffering - and Jesus did the same. If even Jesus couldn’t “rejoice always,” according to the dictionary definition, how could Paul possibly command us to do so?

That’s why we need a new and biblical definition of joy if we ever hope to interpret the Bible correctly.


Joy is a choice.

Once we have put on God’s perspective (faith), He opens our eyes to the choice before us: We can let our emotions rule us, or we can let the truth rule our emotions. This isn’t simply about being a happier person or doing gratitude meditations; it is the resolute assurance that God knows and cares about what I’m going through, and has the power to overcome it. It is the choice - the resolve - to believe that God is who He says He is: utterly sovereign and utterly good.

This has been a very hard year for me and my family. There’s been a lot of grief and suffering that has rocked my world and forced me to reckon with how I really understand faith and joy - even how I really view God’s character. Do I really believe that if I jump, He’ll catch me? That He sees my pain and cares about it and reigns over it? Do I really believe that He loves me as much as I love myself?

Notice, again, that joy is not a feeling - contrary to our English dictionary. Biblically, you don’t need to be happy to have joy. In fact, you can be angry or brokenhearted, and still have joy. Your joy isn’t in your feelings or your circumstances, but “in the Lord.”

The Bible is full of beautiful laments that capture the essence of true joy. I recommend the book of Job, Jeremiah’s Lamentations, and Habakkuk in particular. These three men, plus David in the Psalms, may be the most joyful writers in Scripture, even though their words often sound the saddest. They suffered, but they knew that God knew, and God cared. They were not afraid to walk into church without a smile on their face, or into the throneroom without a song of thanksgiving; in fact, they fearlessly entered His Presence carrying their heart’s deepest woes, trusting that He would receive them and love them anyway.

That is joy.

Though He slay me,
I will hope in Him.
Nevertheless I will argue my ways before Him.
This also will be my salvation,
For a godless man may not come before His presence.
Job 13:15-16

Remember my affliction and my wandering, the wormwood and bitterness.
Surely my soul remembers
And is bowed down within me.
This I recall to my mind,
Therefore I have hope.
The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease,
For His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“Therefore I have hope in Him.”
The Lord is good to those who wait for Him,
To the person who seeks Him.
Lamentations 3:19-25

Though the fig tree should not blossom
And there be no fruit on the vines,
Though the yield of the olive should fail
And the fields produce no food,
Though the flock should be cut off from the fold
And there be no cattle in the stalls,
Yet I will exult in the Lord,
I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.
The Lord God is my strength,
And He has made my feet like hinds’ feet,
And makes me walk on my high places.
Habakkuk 3:17-19

Rejoice in the Lord always - not as a faker, but as a follower. Not because you feel it, but because you choose it. Not because it’s all good, but because He is.

biblical vocabulary: faith

We have it. We preach it. We pray for more of it. But do we know what it is?

What is this thing we call “faith”? More importantly, what is it according to the Bible?

A common struggle I see (and have experienced myself) in personal Bible study is the temptation to bring our own definitions and preconceptions to the Bible, interpreting it through the lenses of our own backgrounds and experiences. This can often be subconscious, even automatic, because the reality is, few of us have had occasion to practice and perfect interpreting ancient texts that are surrounded by a context decidedly different from our own. (More on how to study the Bible here!)

This problem is widespread and certainly understandable, but it can also be deadly to a right understanding of Scripture and an obstacle to knowing God, so we must do all we can to eradicate it.

That’s the foundation behind this post, and the ones that will follow it, in a series called “Biblical Vocabulary.” The words we study will be familiar, even basic, but sometimes it’s the most familiar and basic words that are the easiest to misread.

We’ll begin with faith.

Faith is not simply having confidence in a thing; it’s not simply believing something you can’t prove; it’s not simply believing in God or the teachings of Christianity; it is seeing things the way God says they are, and not the way my eyes see them.

What is faith?

The top three definitions of faith on are as follows:

  1. confidence or trust in a person or thing: faith in another's ability.

  2. belief that is not based on proof: He had faith that the hypothesis would be substantiated by fact.

  3. belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion: the firm faith of the Pilgrims.

Each of these definitions makes up at least a piece of our typical understanding of the word “faith.” When we come across it in Scripture, one of these - or bits of each - likely informs our understanding of the text surrounding it.

And each of these definitions has a place in the Biblical understanding of faith as well. There is an element of faith that requires trust, and belief in that which is not necessarily concrete; and, of course, it is associated for our purposes with God and religion. But none of these captures fully the spirit of the word “faith” as it’s used in the Bible, so we go to the Bible next.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men of old gained approval.

By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible. . . . And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.

Hebrews 11:1-3, 6

These are the most famous “Faith is” verses in the Bible, especially verse 1. The trouble with this verse is that the language is about as clear as a theological dictionary - it sounds good on paper, but what does it even mean? “The assurance of things hoped for” and “the conviction of things not seen” just sounds like a fancier way of restating the definitions from

But we miss some key information if we don’t dive into the subsequent verses and allow the author of Hebrews to expand on his words. Verse one is merely his thesis statement; the rest of the chapter shows us what this thesis statement means - what faith is as a reality in the life of a believer.

By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world, and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.

By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going. . . . By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who had promised.

Hebrews 11:7-8, 11

Faith is not simply having confidence in a thing; it’s not simply believing something you can’t prove; it’s not simply believing in God or the teachings of Christianity; it is seeing things the way God says they are, and not the way my eyes see them.

Faith is a new perspective.

We could call it supernatural vision, or God-glasses, or God’s eyes - whichever phrasing we use, the culminating point of Hebrews 11 (corroborated by the rest of Scripture) is that faith is not simply having confidence in a thing; it’s not simply believing something you can’t prove; it’s not simply believing in God or the teachings of Christianity; it is seeing things the way God says they are, and not the way my eyes see them.

When I look out the window, I see solid ground and a world made up of physical things - trees, people, buildings, rocks. But God says that there’s more to this world than that, and that “what is seen was not made out of things which are visible” (Hebrews 11:3). Elsewhere in the Bible I can read of principalities and powers that are invisible to the human eye, and spiritual realms outside of my vision. When I put on faith, the whole world gets a thousand times bigger, and the need to put on my spiritual armor becomes a thousand times more necessary.

Likewise, when Noah began to build the ark, he saw solid ground. He had never seen water fall out of the sky or press up from the fount of the deep to cover the face of the earth. But God said that He was going to cleanse the world with a flood, and Noah made the choice to order his life around what God could see, and not what his own eyes could see. In doing so, he “became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith” (Hebrews 11:7) - along with Abraham, Sarah, and the dozens of other named and unnamed witnesses whose testimonies make up the remainder of Hebrews 11.

Notice that faith is not a feeling. It is not feeling certain or feeling confident. Faith can exist outside of certainty and confidence, and even outside of belief, because faith is an action (see James 2).

One of my pastors uses a helpful illustration for this concept: He fully believes that parachutes work, and that when someone jumps out of a plane and deploys their parachute, they will survive the descent to the ground. But you’ll never find him jumping out of an airplane, because he won’t put his faith in a parachute.

Faith jumps. Not because of any extra-special feelings of confidence, but because of a supernaturally-broadened perspective that relies on God to be who He says He is and to do what He says He will do, even without a clear view of the outcome.

The next time you read a Bible passage that uses the word “faith,” don’t just insert your own definition of the word - use the Biblical definition. When Paul charges Timothy to “[hold] onto faith and a good conscience” (1 Timothy 1:19), how does your understanding change if you read “hold onto God’s perspective and a good conscience”?

For me, using the Biblical definition of faith completely changed how I understood large portions of the Bible and Christianity. I no longer feel guilty when I don’t “believe hard enough,” or wonder if I’m not really saved when I don’t feel fully confident in the tenets of Christian doctrine. I can see the examples of what saving faith looks and acts like in the testimonies of Hebrews 11, and I can look back on my own life and see the times when God said “Jump!” and I jumped.

Incidentally, He’s never failed to catch me. And every time I let Him, my faith is a little stronger the next time.

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Hallie Liening

Hallie grew up on a small farm in rural eastern Washington. At 18, she moved across the country to go to Bible school, and then married the Boy Next Door at 20. Now 22, she is a graduate of Great Commission Bible Institute with a Certificate in Biblical Studies and resides in Olympia with her husband and her two cats. She survives the claustrophobia of living near the city by making frequent trips back home to visit her family and her horse, writing sentimental blog posts about the countryside, and by filling her house with photographs of Mt. Adams sunsets.

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