“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who serves Christ in these things is acceptable to God and approved by men” (Romans 14:17-18).
The second characteristic that is part of the fruit of the Spirit is joy. When thinking about the character traits that are required of disciples of Christ, I believe we easily forget joy. Notice that Paul says that the kingdom of God is joy in the Holy Spirit. In fact, Paul says that we are not pleasing to God if we do not exhibit joy. God places an importance of each of us having joy in our lives.
Unfortunately, this concept has been twisted and distorted into “God wants me to be happy.” Under this delusion we make decisions that make us happy under the false notion that God is pleased. So we plunge ourselves into all sorts of life pursuits and activities because we think God wants us to be happy. We seek after wealth. We sacrifice our families for more possessions. We press for success and power. We think we will find happiness in our work. We have gotten to such a terrible point in our society that we think we are defined by our job. We are not longer husbands, wives, fathers, or mothers. Now we are defined by secular work as if being a good spouse and being good parents is not who we are and not important work. But you will not find one passage in the scriptures where you will find the words, “God wants you to be happy.”
Society has turned happiness into a passive, selfish pursuit. Happiness simply happens. Society suggests that there is nothing that we are to do on our part for happiness. You can just find happiness. Marriage is described this way: that he or she found happiness. Work is also described in a similar way. Happiness is not something that can be generated, according to the world, but something that you simply stumble across. People are to make us happy. We speak of happiness as if it were not a decision on our part, but simply is the end result of a variety of circumstances.
It is because of this mentality that we must argue that happiness and joy are not the same concept. When we speak of happiness, we usually think of our mood. We have a good day because things are going the way we want them to go. We are happy because people are treating us the way we want to be treated. I hope you see that we have made happiness into a passive, selfish desire. I should not have to do anything to be happy. Happiness should just come to me. Without any work on my part, I should have a happy marriage. Without any work on my part, I should have a happy family. Without any work on my part, I should have happiness at work and at school.
But none of this is what God is talking about. When God describes the need for Christians to have joy, God is not saying that you should engage in selfish pursuits so that things will make you happy. The scriptures speak of having joy regardless of the circumstances. Joy is an active responsibility to enjoy the life God has given us, regardless of our life situation. We see this concept at the beginning of James’ letter to the Dispersion, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials…” (James 1:2).
Clearly there is not happiness in the midst of a trial. A trial is a painful time of suffering to one degree or another. A trial is a time of hurt and a time of indecision, not knowing what direction your life is headed. Happiness is not the word to place on such a circumstances. But God is calling us to be joyful in such circumstances. Just as we saw when we look at love as part of the fruit of the Spirit, so it is with joy that it is a decision to be joyful regardless of what we are facing. So how can we find joy during times of difficulty? How can we be Christians who are hopeful and joyful even though we experience Satan’s efforts to destroy our faith?
Finding Joy Through God’s Word (Romans 15:4-6,13)
“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”
God tells us that one way we find joy in through the reading of the scriptures. Endurance and encouragement can be found in the scriptures in a number of ways. Reading about other people who lived before us and experienced life challenges yet overcame gives us confidence that we can be like them. We find joy because there are many joyful teachings in the scriptures that we need to come to know. We can read about the love and mercy of God toward mankind. We can read about God’s forgiveness when we make mistakes. We can read about the hope of eternal life. My personal passage of hope and joy through difficulties comes from the writer of Hebrews:
“Be satisfied with what you have, for He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ Therefore, we may boldly say: The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:5-6). I need to know that God does not leave me even when there may be times that feel differently. When life is not going according to plan I need to know that this does not signify God abandoning me. The scriptures are full of hope and joy if we will simply spend time in them. Read about David’s struggles in the Psalms. Read about wise living in the Proverbs. Read about the power and love of Jesus in the gospels. Read about the activities of first century Christians in the epistles. Hope and encouragement can be found in the scriptures is we will open and read regularly.
Finding Joy By Confessing and Stopping Sin (Psalm 32:1-5)
“Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.”
It is difficult to have a joyful life when riddled with guilt. We certainly are not going to have joy in all circumstances unless we are a relationship with God. David speaks about the physical and emotional toil that presses against a person who is concealing sin. We have to fret about the consequences of our sins. We have to be concerned if we are caught. We also have to see that God can work against us. Sin is far more devastating than being out of fellowship with God (though this is very significant). But we often see sin as nothing and do not comprehend the mental, emotional, and physical anguish that comes from sin. Sin corrupts every part of our being. Further, sin brings its own set of consequences with it.
Finding Joy By Taking a Long Range View of Life
“Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 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 1:1-2).
I believe these passages teach us to have a long range view of life. Our difficulties are momentary. In fact, Paul calls our afflictions light. Now we know that Paul did not have light afflictions. All of his life we read that he was suffering persecution. We know he had a thorn in the flesh. But by having a long range view of life he was able to call these things “momentary, light afflictions.” In the same way, Jesus lived His life with a view of His great purpose. Jesus looked past the suffering and the shame of the cross and saw the joy that was set before Him. The joy was not in the suffering, but in the knowledge that His suffering would bring about future glory for all people. Too often we take a very near term view of life, not thinking about the fact that our time here is simply a vapor and forgetting that what we do in our lives now is about preparing ourselves to be with God. What we are doing now in life are simply preparation steps for eternal glory. Thus, Paul could say that we are not looking at the things that are seen but the things that are not seen because it is the eternal things that matter.
Finding Joy By Thinking About Others First
“We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own free will, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints— and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us” (2 Corinthians 8:1-5).
Paul describes the Christians in the Macedonian regions enduring a severe test of affliction. Not only are they suffering in this affliction, they are also enduring extreme poverty. Despite these difficulties, the Macedonian Christians had an abundance of joy because they could help others with a wealth of generosity. Paul indicates that these Christians were suffering under affliction and had no money to give. Yet they did not focus on their own problems, but thought about the suffering of other Christians. Therefore, they gave beyond the means they had available to them. The Macedonians Christians decided to be full of joy in the midst of their misery.
What would we have done in their situation? I suspect that we first would have been complaining about our situation. Second, I think we would have been expecting others to help us out during our affliction. Third, we would not have given a dime to Paul to take to the other Christians because we would have seen our own need first, rather than others’ needs. What a different attitude these Christians had! This is the attitude that we are called to adopt to be the joyful, fruitful Christians that God commands.
Finding Joy By Remembering All That God Has Done
“Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:19-25).
Quite simply, we need to focus on the things that really matter in life. We must always remember all that God has accomplished for us through His Son. We have a great high priest who has gone into the Holy of Holies where God dwells and has made atonement for our sins with His own blood. This is what matters most in life. God has done so much for us and has suffered much to save us from sins. Our difficulties are light and our suffering is small in comparison to what Jesus endured so that we could be with Him.
Joy is a choice. Joy is a decision. We can decide to be fruitful, joyful people regardless of our circumstances. While we will have pain and suffering in our lives, we can remain joyful, positive people because of the hope we have in Jesus. Turn to God’s words in times of trouble and find encouragement. Keep your eyes on the prize. Focus on helping others instead of focusing on our own problems. Cease sin to receive God’s blessings.