For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.
–1 Thessalonians 1:4-6 (NIV)
We continue to look at what the Bible can teach us about ourselves and our relationship with God and each other. Today we look at what the NT means by “joy.” We often use joy and happiness interchangeably, but that is usually not a good idea from a biblical perspective. Happiness is contingent upon people and events. When we experience success and people treat us well, we experience happiness. But when things go south on us–we lose a job or suffer loss of any kind or people turn on us–we are robbed of happiness (if you don’t believe me, go online to the Columbus Dispatch and read the letters to the sports editor after an Ohio State football game, whether the Buckeyes win or lose).
Not so with joy. As Paul tells us here, the source of real joy is God himself living in us in the form of his promised Holy Spirit. We can experience joy (chara in the Greek, which the BDAG defines as “the experience of gladness”) in any circumstance. I have seen this most notably at Christian funerals. Last year, for example, my father-in-law died right before Christmas. This had the potential to add extra insult to injury because he died right before a major family holiday. Yes, there was sadness and and a keen sense of loss in our family, but there was also joy because we knew that Don is all right, that he is in good hands. We know that our separation from him is only for a season, not forever. That is why Paul told the Thessalonians not to grieve as those without hope grieve. Yes, we grieve for ourselves and our loss, but we do not grieve for those who have died in Christ because we know they are not lost, and this knowledge produces joy in us.
Clearly then, joy is produced in us when we develop a relationship with God. We find joy because we know God’s love for us and we have heard and believe his Gospel. Faith always seeks understanding and when the latter comes, joy accompanies it because we know we are loved and claimed forever by the Source and Author of all life. That is why our Christian joy is not contingent on circumstances and people the way our happiness is. True, we can also find joy in circumstances and people when they manifest God’s great love, mercy, and grace as when John leaped for joy in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary visited her (Luke 1:44) or the Apostles returned to Jerusalem in great joy after our Lord’s Ascension (Luke 24:52), but our Source of joy always remains with God and God does not change. That is why our joy does not change and that is why the Thessalonians welcomed the Gospel with joy, even in the face of great suffering because of it. They had God’s Holy Spirit living in them, testifying to them that they were loved and claimed forever by God through Christ and no circumstance or person could rob them of that hope and promise.
That is real power for living in a broken world where all sorts of things can go wrong and in which evil rears its ugly head all too frequently.
God intends for those whom he loves that they have joy in their lives. It is and always has been a distinctive trademark of Christians, and will more often than not turn heads and make those who do not possess it stand up and take notice, prompting them to ask what the secret is.
Do you have the joy of Christ in your life?