I spent the good part of my childhood believing that Christian faith and joy had very little, if anything, to do with one another. I viewed God’s commands and His way of life as somewhat of a hassle, as perhaps good in some sense but incompatible with my passions and desires.
But around the 8th grade, partly through the writings of C.S. Lewis and Oswald Chambers, I began to see that God’s commands and way of life weren’t just for his glory, but were also very much for my good and my joy.
After learning this, I remember sitting in church services and being frustrated at the disconnect between the truth being stated or sung about, and the level of passion or joy associated with it. Did we really believe these things we were singing? Did the pastor really believe what he was preaching? Why was there no perceived excitement?
And this disconnect between right knowledge and appropriate passion, which I find in myself just as much as anyone else, has been perhaps my greatest motivation for being in ministry and for teaching, preaching, and writing. I want others to see that trust in God and satisfying joy belong together.
So what is this satisfying joy that comes from knowing God? I find John Piper’s definition helpful: “Christian joy is a good feeling in the soul, produced by the Holy Spirit, as he causes us to see the beauty of Christ in the word and in the world.”
A few thoughts:
Piper specifies that it is “Christian joy” he is talking about. This begs the question: Is joy something only Christians experience, only something found in relation to God? Or can it be experienced in human relations and experienced by unbelievers?
Understood in a broader sense (simply “a good feeling”), joy can be experienced in many ways in this life, by all people. For biblical proof of this, John writes in the book of Revelation that unbelievers rejoiced at the death of the saints. So joy can be felt even for evil things!
But God, and a relationship with him, is much more than one means among many of finding joy. While knowing God is not the only way to experience joy in this life, the joy that comes from knowing God is the most secure, enduring, and satisfying kind of joy. As C.S. Lewis so masterfully put it:
“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” (The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses)
In other words, joy is not unique to Christians, but Christian joy is unique. Namely, it can be felt no matter what our external circumstances and it lasts into all eternity.
And this gets into another phrase in Piper’s definition of joy: He says that Christian joy is a good feeling “in the soul.” What this means is that it transcends what is going on with our bodies, both outwardly, in the various situations we find ourselves in, and inwardly, amidst the chemical or biological imbalances that we may experience. With Paul, we can say, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” And not only content, but happy. Not happy that bad things are happening to us, or that our life feels out of control, but happy that, in the midst of it all, we are in the hands of a completely good, completely sovereign God.
This means, as Piper points out, that Christian joy comes as a result of “see(ing) the beauty of Christ.” The truth, goodness, mercy, and justice of God are not merely doctrines to believe (although they are that), they are realities to be rejoiced and satisfied in. The appropriate response to knowing and being known by God, to being found in his favor, is joy.