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.

I am not alone

I am not alone

I've heard a lot of people say that they felt closest to Jesus in the darkest periods of their lives. I think I took it for granted that I'd be able to say the same - but I can't. Dark nights, crying alone, rain slashing against the windows, I don't often have a sense of His comfort or His presence. I just feel alone. Gray mornings, eyes swollen half-shut, I don't often see His new mercies. I just feel alone.

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