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What does the Bible say about joy?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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The following text is adapted from the transcription of the video above. To be notified of these videos when they release, subscribe to the Denison Forum YouTube channel.

We can’t talk about joy unless we first talk about our need for joy, the reason why we need joy in our culture. 

From a theological perspective, this takes us back to the division between soul and spirit that characterizes our culture and cuts us off from the God who is the source of joy, the God who is the source of life, the only God that really is the source of that which our hearts most need.

Six centuries before Plato, there was a philosopher named Orpheus. He had an idea that the soul existed in a pre-incarnate state, and it sinned, we would say, and it was punished by being put in a body. He thought the whole point of life was to live in such a way that when we die, our souls would go back where they came from. This notion influenced Protagoras, which then influenced Plato, who influenced the whole Western world.

That’s why we have this idea in the West that there’s the spiritual and the secular, Sunday and Monday. We’ve segregated God into a part of our lives. 

The Romans had this transactional religion where you sacrifice to the gods, so that they would bless your crops or keep you safe at war, whatever it is you wanted. 

At that time, you would have this distant relationship with God, where God was just a part of your life rather than the Lord of your life.

If we made that decision, we would cut ourselves off from the God who gives life and gives eternal life, from the God who was the source of joy, from the God who is the source of that which we most need. 

Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in him.” 

We’re made that way because we were just created that way. It’s like cutting flowers off to put them in a vase where you can put them in water. But if they’re not attached to the roots, eventually they’re going to die. 

That’s where we are as a culture. 

So when a pandemic comes along, or a terrible circumstance, we have no place to turn because we’ve been cut off at the roots, and the roots that are the basis of our joy are no longer there. 

We’ve separated ourselves from God. And we’re therefore missing the joy that can be found only when we’re connected to the Lord of joy, to the God who gives joy.

Does the Bible say we’re going to be happy regardless of our circumstances?

We hear this a lot. We have this idea that if we’re just right with God, if we give enough money, if we go to enough church services, if we’re active enough in our religion, that we’ll always be healthy and happy. This is really the health and wealth gospel. 

This is certainly not what Jesus said. 

In John 16:33, he told his disciples, “In the world you will have tribulation.” 

The Greek word translated tribulation, thlipsis, is a word which was used for the weight that crushed grain into flour. 

Jesus said, in this world “you will”—not “you might” or “you could.” The “you” was inclusive of all of his followers. 

If we’re going to live in a fallen world, we’re going to experience a fallen world. The world’s going to fall on us at times. We are just going to experience what this is like.

Let’s think of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, sweating drops of blood and crying from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). 

The Bible does not promise happiness. And the reason for that is happiness is based on happenings. It’s based on circumstances. 

Our circumstances in this fallen world are too unpredictable, and often are too difficult and too painful.

So Christianity is not a naïve religion. It’s not a “Praise the Lord anyway” idea that says that no matter where we are, we’re supposed to be happy in those circumstances. 

That certainly wasn’t Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. 

That’s certainly not the experience that he offers us or that he promises us. 

It’s not happiness that we’re after, but joy.

If we’re not promised happiness, why follow Jesus?

What we have here ultimately is a conversation on the joy of the Lord, which is a fruit of the Spirit. 

The Bible says the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22–23). 

Joy is a sense of well-being that transcends circumstance. It’s not based on your happenings. It transcends your happenings. 

You can know the difference in the two, even in difficulty, if you’re experiencing the sense of well-being that comes from the Holy Spirit at work in your life. 

That’s why the Bible can say, “Rejoice in the Lord always”—not rejoice in the world always, rejoice in the Lord always, because joy is a fruit of the Spirit (Philippians 4:4). 

We follow Jesus because He is Lord. We don’t make him Lord, he’s already Lord. He’s already King of kings and Lord of lords. 

But when we follow him, when we submit to him, when we surrender our lives to his lordship, when we ask the Holy Spirit to empower us and to fill us and to control us, he manifests joy in our lives and through our lives as our witness to the world. 

Think of Paul and Silas in Philippi in the book of Acts singing hymns at midnight, and the other prisoners listening to them. When we think of the joy of the Lord, the joy that we can have even in the most difficult circumstance, that’s an incredibly powerful witness to a world that is settling for happiness. 

So the invitation here is: to follow Jesus as your Lord, submit to the power of the Holy Spirit, ask God to manifest his joy in and through your life. And when he does that, seize the opportunity to demonstrate the difference Jesus makes in your life. 

The darker the room, the more obvious the light. 

The more difficult the circumstance, the more obvious your joy will be. 

If you follow Jesus and surrender to Him, and ask for the joy of the Lord in and through your life.

Will you be a light?

I close with this: I’m thinking about one of the churches that I pastored a number of years ago. 

I had not been there very long when I became acquainted with a member of the church who was dying of cancer—dying of breast cancer. Extremely difficult obviously—horrifically painful. 

I came by to see her quite often and was with her the day before she passed away. And to the very end of her life, she never lost her joy, even in pain, even in grief, even in all that she was going through in that. 

When she had no happiness about it, she had a joy that was transforming and attractive. You couldn’t walk into her hospital room and not sense the joy of the Lord and not want what she had. 

Her joy to the very end of her life was her powerful witness to a culture desperate for joy.

So wherever you find yourself today, whatever your jail cell is, you can sing hymns at midnight. 

You can rejoice in the Lord always if you’ll ask the Holy Spirit to control you, to empower you, and you’ll ask the Spirit to give you, to manifest the fruit of joy in your life. 

He will do that. And other people will want the joy of Jesus they see in you. 

That’s the promise of God.