I once read the following quote: “There are lots of reasons people cite for their loss of interest in faith, but one of the main reasons I have often heard stems from the perception that God’s people are boring, sad, anxious, narrow. One person said: ‘I just think that life should be joyful; and many Christians I know aren’t.’ Another person said, ‘I’ve been living my Christian life for two decades now, but one of the things I’m struggling with is that I don’t have much real joy. Can we talk about that?'”
Does that resonate with you? I remember my grandmother telling me, in her 90s and on her deathbed in hospice, that she was afraid she was not truly a Christian because she struggled so much with a grumpy, bitter spirit. We pitied my grandfather for the tongue-lashings he received. My grandmother was a woman who walked closely with Jesus for years, but as she grew older, she struggled with joy. How about you? Do you struggle with joy?
This week on the blog as we continue our series about the Fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22, we’re talking about joy. In the Bible there are some very intense statements about joy.
For example, the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk writes, “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.” (Hab. 3:17-18)
Jesus’ disciple Peter writes, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.”
Peter wasn’t some glutton for punishment. He got this teaching from Jesus. In Matthew 5:11-12, Jesus himself taught, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Clearly there is a Christian understanding of joy which says that joy is possible and important even when you are going through bad times. In fact, in Philippians 4, Paul writes “Rejoice in the Lord ALWAYS, and I say again, rejoice.”
If we are honest, though, we sometimes feel the opposite. Always rejoice? It can sound impossible. Is this just one of those Christian teachings that looks good on paper, but when we try to apply it to our real lives, we repeatedly fail, or we think we have no idea how to do it, so we conclude that it is a goal to shoot for, but not one that Jesus ever really expected us to achieve in this lifetime? We can think that the only place time we’ll have unceasing joy is in heaven. In Revelation 21:4 we read a description of heaven that says this, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
But that’s heaven. That’s clearly not now. Now the world is filled with many difficulties, some of which we wonder how we can possibly rejoice in the Lord always. You might remember a few weeks ago on the blog, Clint Watkins taught us about lament. (See the first post in Clint’s series here.) What do we do with lament, which is clearly not an expression of joy? Lament is a holy complaint to God, a crying out of our pain and hurt and loss. Lament is the expression of that pain and hurt. Isn’t lament the opposite of joy? Furthermore, the inclusion of so many psalms of lament in the Bible teaches us that it is right and good to express our pain. But is the practice of lament disobeying the teaching to rejoice always?
What do we do when we don’t feel joy? Maybe we should just say, “Lord, I’m confused here. You say it is okay to lament and feel all the hurt and even express it to you. But you also say that we should rejoice all the time, even in bad things we go through.” I suspect many of us might find that dissatisfying. Is God being contradictory? It kinda seems like it, doesn’t it?
Remember what we know of God. He is not a contradictory God. He is loving, good and wants us to experience the flourishing abundant life. So if he is telling us that both lament and joy can coexist, it is possible, and it is for our good.
With that in mind, let’s see what we can learn about joy, the second Fruit of the Spirit. On the blog we are studying the list of qualities in Galatians 5:22-23 called the Fruit of the Spirit. In Galatians 5, we learned that we Christians are people who are to crucify the acts of the sinful nature and walk in step with the Spirit. Christians are people who take action to grow the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. Last week we looked at what it means to grow love in our lives. (See the first post in the love series here.) This week, we are studying the second quality in the list, joy.
What is joy? In the next post we’ll try to define it.