Joy is about as rare as the bald eagle. That’s why Samuel Johnson once remarked that the human race is a vast assemblage of individuals who are counterfeiting happiness. That’s why, after Sigmund Freud had been successful in helping an emotionally disturbed woman, he commented that she had exchanged the exquisite misery of neurosis for the everyday unhappiness of normal human experience. And that’s why Joseph Folliet writes:

“I listen to you talk, my brothers of today; I lend an ear to your conversations, which are nothing but alternating soliloquies. You pour forth torrents of black bile in the form of criticism, complaints and accusations, forever deploring your bad luck and blaming some mysterious people called ‘they’ who never tire of playing dirty tricks on you. As it happens, ‘they’ is everything outside of you—tax collectors, neighbors, the government, perfect strangers. Nothing and nobody, from the weather to the people closest to you, can escape your censure. Why this perpetual fault-finding, which is sadistic toward others and masochistic toward yourselves? Isn’t it possible that you see the dark side of everything because there’s so much darkness in your souls? Don’t you find the world sad and ugly because you view it with a joyless eye? The cold and gloom are in you first of all. Always unsatisfied, always discontented, you make more and more demands. Now, demands point to a lack. When the destitute clamor, we can see exactly what they need. But when the rich and the surfeited multiply their demands, what can they possibly be looking for? Perhaps one thing that wealth and prestige can’t give: joy” (Invitation to Joy, Newman, 1968, pp. 1–3).

In a world short on many things, that’s the saddest lack of all—joy. Nothing, therefore, makes the Gospel so magnetic as its promise of joy. All through the New Testament, jubilant music echoes and re-echoes, a symphony of joy. When Jesus is born, the angels carol “good tidings of great joy” (Luke 2:10). As he talks to his disciples even in the shadow of Calvary, the Saviour tells them not only about his own joy but also about a fullness of joy that nobody can take away from its glad possessors (John 15:11; 16:22, 24). The Book of Acts describes the triumphant joy of the early Church as its hymns of praise arise out of the crucible of persecution (Acts 2:46; 5:41). What a phenomenon—a group of ordinary people exhibiting an extraordinary hilarity in a situation of extraordinary hardship!

The Gospel is both a message of joy and an invitation to begin living a life of joy. Notice, then, some characteristics of this all too rare fruit, the experience of joy.

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Consider first the source of genuine joy. God, Paul declares, is the blessed and only Potentate (1 Tim. 6:15). Since blessed means happy, Paul is here speaking of the happy God. If all truth and beauty and goodness are rooted in the very nature of our Creator, so too is all joy. God is not a grim and emotionless tyrant, the Unmoved Mover of Aristotle, a kind of cosmic icicle of eternally congealed solemnity. The Old Testament says this about him: “He will rejoice over thee with joy.… He will joy over thee with singing” (Zeph. 3:17). Our Lord Jesus reveals that “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth” (Luke 15:10). God himself is the source of all genuine joy.

Notice, second, that genuine joy, reflecting the beatitude of God’s own Being, is not the same as pleasure. Pleasure is the feeling of delight we derive from the stimulation of our senses. It too is good, provided it is traced back to God, the Giver of all good gifts, and serves as a stimulus to gratitude. A misguided hyper-spirituality must not motivate us to belittle the pleasure that our God-given sensory equipment makes possible.

Yet pleasure, regrettably, is short-lived. And it can easily degenerate into self-centered indulgence, an all-absorbing sensual quest that overrides morality, reason, and love.

Joy, which differs from pleasure, differs also from happiness, that very positive state which comes through human relationships. Happiness, like joy, is one of God’s choicest blessings. Yet even the best of human beings are limited in their power to understand and meet our needs. And sooner or later they die. Happiness, the inner glow we experience in and through our human relationships, is changing and fleeting.

Different, then, from pleasure and happiness, joy is that abiding beatitude, that deep-down exuberance which comes from God through his Spirit by faith in his Son. Joy is thus supernatural in its source and essence, a foretaste of the face-to-face communion with God that will be rapture forever.

Notice, in the third place, that joy, according to the Apostle Paul, is a fruit of the Spirit. It is one of that gracious cluster of Christlike characteristics enumerated by the apostle: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law” (Gal. 5:22, 23).

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An orange tree cannot bear fruit in total independence. Sunshine, rain, and soil must play a part if oranges are to be brought forth. So it is with ourselves and joy. We may crave joy and fiercely will to be joyful. But as psychologist Abraham Maslow put it: “You cannot seek ecstatic moments directly; you must be surprised by joy.” And in saying that Maslow is endorsing Paul’s teaching that joy is a fruit. We cannot directly produce it.

We can, however, cooperate with the fruit-producing forces, and at the same time we can eliminate anything that might blight productivity. An orange-grower prunes his trees, fertilizes and waters them, fights insects by spraying, and sometimes, when frost threats, puts out smudge-pots. Having done his human best, he waits for forces outside himself to produce the desired fruit.

Does this help us better understand how we may foster the fruit of joy? What about pruning our lives by spiritual discipline? What about enriching them through the Word of God? What about combatting carnal blight by prayer? What about warding off chilling frost by the warmth of Christian fellowship? What about taking seriously the condition that our Saviour lays down before he makes the promise of joy to his disciples—“If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his 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)? What about adjusting our schedules in order to spend time with God, remembering that David bears witness, “In thy presence is fullness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Psalm 16:11)? What about asking specifically that a great prophetic declaration may come to pass in our own lives—“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath annointed me … to appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness” (Isa. 61:1, 3)?

Let us pray that we may be joyful refutations of Nietzsche’s criticism, “I would believe in their salvation if they looked a little more like people who have been saved.”

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