Joy and natural happiness should never be confused. Happiness is a state of pleasure or contentment usually resulting from positive circumstances. It is a positive natural response to positive natural events or situations. Or, at its best, it is the attitude that results from putting the best spin on otherwise difficult circumstances, a mindset popularized by the modern proponents of a positive mental attitude. Joy, on the other hand, is the fruit of the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit and is not governed by the vicissitudes of circumstance; in fact, it transcends them.
Joy is a choice. The unbeliever, being devoid of the Spirit of God, knows nothing of joy. But for the believer, who experiences the indwelling Presence of God, joy is the result of Christ within. I am not suggesting that I am always joyful, nor do I imagine that such is the case with any other believer. But a believer can and ought to experience the joy of the Lord even in His times of deepest distress (Paul described himself “as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” [II Cor. 6:10].) because joy is truly a choice. We know this to be true for several reasons.
(1) God commands us to be joyful. “Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). “Rejoice evermore” (I Thes. 5:16). “My brethren, count [“deem,” “consider”] it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations” (Jam. 1:2). God never requires the impossible; that is to say that everything God requires of believers is impossible to fulfill in the flesh, but nothing is impossible by the power of God dwelling in the believer. Believing His Word, yielding ourselves to Him, and obeying His will as revealed in the Word will produce “the joy of the Lord” in good times and bad.
(2) God Himself is joyful. “The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing” (Zeph. 3:17). “Thou (Christ) hast loved righteousness, and hated iniquity; therefore God, even thy God hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows” (Heb. 1:9). As God is essentially a God of joy and delight, and believers receive His nature, joy is our heritage. The text immediately above provides insight into how it becomes possible to live a joy-filled life: love righteousness and hate iniquity (and, conversely, what crushes joy: hatred of righteousness and love of iniquity).
(3) God intends His joy to be fulfilled in believers. “Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Psa. 16:11). “And now come I [Jesus] to thee [the Father]; and these thing I speak in the world, that they might have my joy fulfilled in themselves” (John 17:13). Ultimate joy will be the lot of the believer in the perfect presence of the Lord in eternity, but those who through faith and obedience live in fellowship with the Lord experience a wonderful fullness of the Lord’s joy even this side of eternity.
How do we choose to be joyful? We do not experience joy in the scriptural sense by some effort of our minds (PMA). Joy is the fruit of the Holy Spirit. How, then do we “choose” it? It is not the product of wishing, hoping, nor even particularly of praying for joy. Rather, joy is the (super)natural outflow of obedient abiding in Christ: “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love . . . . These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full” (John 15:10, 11). Thus, we experience joy, not through a conscience choice to be joyful, but through a deliberate choice to believe God and to obey His Word.
A reality check. Joy is not a denial of reality, nor a Pollyanna-ish view of life. Joy is not the fruit of a life without burdens and trials, nor is it the absolute absence of grief, sorrow, and pain, but it is the personal experiencing of the character of the indwelling Christ in the life and the further assurance of His good and perfect purpose in all things. We may have the testimony of Habakkuk: “Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation” (Hab. 3:17, 18).
Joy is a choice.
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