Marie Kondo has recently introduced the phrase “spark joy” into popular speech. Christians often speak about joy too, but what does it really mean? What if I’m not really feeling the joy of Christ now? What if He just isn’t sparking joy for me? Does it mean that I’m not a Christian, and what should I do?
Is this your struggle? Has it crossed your mind before? If so, you are not alone.
It’s okay to not feel joy all the time.
The Psalms tell us that “weeping may tarry for the night, but rejoicing comes with the morning”. The Bible records for us such feelings in the Christian life. In other words, for the Christian, it’s possible to feel non-joy. Like the Psalmist, we can be miserable at night, and then feel better in the morning. This tends to be the case, because the night is where idle thoughts, physical tiredness, and loneliness can make us feel anxious and frustrated with our circumstances. The Christian life, even with Christ in it, cannot possibly be full-on joy 24/7. That’s a comfort to know — that my life, even on a pretty blah day, is not beyond the reach of God because there’s no joy in it. But that said, it’s probably important to think harder about why we are feeling what we are feeling, and what we are expecting in order to feel better.
Are you thinking in a worldly way?
It can be tempting to look to how you’re feeling about God right now as the barometer of your walk with God. But our feelings change with circumstances. Jer 17:6 warns us that the heart in our chest is “deceitful” and will lie to us. Our hearts and feelings can be easily manipulated by circumstances. We feel “good” on good days when we get what we want, like good weather for our plans, or success in our projects and goals. But on the other hand, when we are denied of what we want — when we face rejection, or that our requests are denied, and our plans fall through — we feel lousy. This is often how the world determines “good” and “bad”, where our feelings are sovereign. Our feelings seem to have ultimate control over our thoughts and identity. But is that all you are? A slave to your desires? It should not be so for Christians.
Christian joy, however, does not come from feeling satisfied or disappointed with life’s circumstances. That’s the big difference in a Christian thinking about joy and the world’s thinking. The apostle Paul’s words in Phi 4:11-12 show us that there is a secret contentment and delight that the Christian has access to that does not come from what’s going on in his or her life. If I’m not feeling joyful, it doesn’t mean that I will never feel joy, or that joy is beyond my reach.
No, the Christian has a non-circumstance-dependent source of joy. What is that? It is the settled assurance of who we are in Christ, and what His finished work on the cross means for our past, present and future. The gospel has the power for our joy. We must learn to say to our good or bad circumstances: “Hey, you don’t define me. I have a better reality. I’m going to trust what God, whom I cannot see, more than I trust you circumstances, though I can see you. I will walk by faith in the living words of God, and not by sight.”
See that God is for you
So see this by faith:
In Christ we are justified in salvation past— we died with Christ and our past mistakes don’t define us(Ps 103:12). We have peace with God now (Rom 5:1).
In Christ we are being sanctified in the present because the power of the Cross works in you (Rom 6:22) — everything in our present is being used by God for an unimaginable good we can’t understand (Rom 8:28).
In Christ we will be glorified in salvation future because God is committed to His Son’s Cross-work (Rom 8:30) — He’s not done with us yet, but when He finishes, it will surpass what we have ever known, and everything empty will be fulfilled, everything broken will be renewed.
If this is true, what could happen that could mess up our lives? Nothing! God is for us, for your and me, and not against us!
Why isn’t it automatic
This is the hardest part to understand: if my joy is so great, and I’m “invincible” in Christ, then why doesn’t God make it such that I’m automatically joyful all the time? There are at least 3 reasons: first, God wants to set us free from worldly thinking but understand His will (Rom 12:2). As long as we think that God wants us to be happy apart from Him, we will always be thinking like the world. There is a better way that is not independent of God. In fact, happiness is in Christ and what Christ has done (Rom 14:17). This comes from telling us the truth, and having us learn to walk in the truth. If it were automatic, you would not see His gospel as a better source of joy, only as an alternative.
Second, God delights in our cooperation. God could glorify Himself by making our joy automatic, but He delights in giving us an opportunity to participate in good works, that is, the good work of tuning our heart to Jesus for joy (Phi 2:12). Like a loving father, God wants to see us grow and get better at what we do as we do it with Him. But this isn’t just about being nice and loving to other people. The work that God is ultimately concerned with is in us and that brings Him glory. In other words, God wants to transform us to be joyful by abiding in Him (Jn 15:7-8) —which is what Jesus was like. If it were automatic, we would not grow healthily to be like Jesus.
Third, He wants us to enjoy enjoying the gospel. We could easily get our needed dietary requirements just by having a capsule of nutrients, but there is great joy in the eating. Part of the enjoyment isn’t just about getting the energy but is also the experience of smelling, tasting and enjoying the food with others. In the same way, the food of joy God supplies is diverse, tasty, and artful. He wants us to enjoy enjoying His Son bit by bit, going from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor 3:18). If it were automatic, we would lose the enjoyment of joy.
Today’s fight for joy
So what do we need to do practically ? We can access the promised joy of Christ by thinking through what your day, and its “misery” truly means because of the gospel. Surely this is what Paul means when he says “be transformed in the renewing of your mind” (Rom 12:2, Eph 4:23). Here are some examples of how thinking through gospel truth can bring you joy in the middle of challenging circumstances:
Me: “My bus is late; things never go well for me.”
Gospel truth: “God’s wrath is propitiated and He doesn’t hate me (1 Jn 2:2). In His hands, inconvenience works out in my character Christlikeness, including patience and punctuality (Rom 5:3-4).”
Me: “My classmate/colleague didn’t do his assignment; why are people so irritating.”
Gospel truth: “All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Rom 3:23). Why are you surprised by others’ laziness? I have the Holy Spirit helps me not be lazy but sanctifies me for wisdom and love for the irritating (1 Pet 1:2).”
Me: “All my efforts feel meaningless today; I must be useless.”
Gospel truth: “We’re not home yet, not glorified yet. Today was tough but I know I’m not useless because I’m God’s workmanship (Eph 2:10). God is working out His good dreams in and for me.”
Me: “Someone I love let me down; I always give more than I get.”
Gospel truth: “Jesus suffered on the Cross, and I am not greater than my Master (Rom 8:17). I take up my Cross and join Him, and when I have no more love to give, He joins His heart to mine (Gal 2:20).”
Me: “I wish my life didn’t look like this; God gives other people His best, I get leftovers.”
Gospel truth: “If God had something better than Jesus to give me, He would give it (Rom 8:32). There’s something good He’s doing here that I haven’t seen yet (Rom 8:28).”
We’ve covered a lot of ground, and just to close, here is a summary:
It’s okay for the Christian not to feel joy all the time, but some clearer thinking on joy will help.
So first, are you thinking in a worldly way?
The world’s happiness comes from celebrating our circumstances.
Be clear that Christian joy comes from celebrating our past, present and future in the light of the gospel.
See that God is for you in Christ.
So why isn’t my joy automatic? Answer: If it were automatic, God’s option for joy would not be seen as a better option, we would not be growing in joy, and we would not be able to enjoy joy!
So, today’s fight for joy is resting my heart in the gospel, and looking at my life, past, present and future through the finished work of Jesus.