Many Christians might wonder, “But what if I don’t feel joy? Does that mean the Spirit hasn’t given this gift to me?” Remember that being led by the Spirit requires action. It is not a series of characteristics that he magically gives to us.
While the Spirit does work in, we also cultivate joy, we grow it, as we walk in step with him. The qualities in the list of Fruit of the Spirit are not emotions, not feelings, but a total package describing people who are walking in step with the Spirit.
In the New Testament book of Acts, which tells the story of the earliest Christians, we hear about how they experienced many difficulties. For example, in Acts chapter 16, we read that the missionaries Paul and Silas are imprisoned, and yet they are singing hymns! They are choosing to express joy despite their circumstances. Do you see the very practical application? You can choose to do things, to think things that will move you in line with the way of Jesus, even when you are hurting.
Consider how Jesus himself showed us how to choose joy. When he was being nailed to the cross, what did he do? Scream, “I hate you! I curse you!” No. He prayed for the people that were killing him, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” That’s the kind of thing that you do when you have joy deep down inside, flowing from you.
How is it possible to grow what can seem like inexplicable joy?
There is a fascinating story in the Old Testament book of Nehemiah that might help us answer this question. The events of Nehemiah chapter 8 occur about 150 years after Jerusalem was destroyed and the people were exiled to Babylon, the events we learned about during our recent study through the book of Ezekiel.
Nehemiah is a Jew in Persia, as the Medes and Persians eventually defeated the Babylonians. Nehemiah made it up the ranks in service to the King of Persia, and thus Nehemiah received permission from the king to take a delegation back to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls around the city. Before that time, Ezra had led the work of rebuilding the temple. There was a celebration, which we read about in Nehemiah 8. After 150 years of pain, the people are finally seeing a bit of restoration of their beloved city. What happens? As Ezra reads the Old Testament Law to the people, they starting weeping! This is what we read:
“Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, ‘This day is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. Nehemiah said, ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’ The Levites calmed all the people, saying, ‘Be still, for this is a sacred day. Do not grieve.’ Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.”
The people were weeping because it had been so, so long since their ancestors were living in Jerusalem, since the words of the Law had been read in the temple. But Nehemiah says, don’t weep and grieve, now is the time for rejoicing, because the joy of the of the Lord is your strength. Do you see how deep inner joy is like a strength that God gives us as we choose to walk in step with the Spirit?