In a world full of tragedy and chaos, joy can be hard to find. What exactly is this positive, joyous character trait in the list of the fruit of the Spirit?
In English, joy has many synonyms, such as happiness, pleasure, gladness and delight. But how these words are used today does not necessarily reflect what the Bible means.
Selfish happiness vs. godly joy
Often today people think that pursuing happiness means trying to find what will make themselves happy. But is the Bible telling Christians that as long as what we do makes us happy, then it can’t be wrong? For example, if we think it makes us happy to sleep around with many different sexual partners, cheat on our taxes to get bigger returns, and criticize or bully others to make ourselves feel better, does that mean we should do those things?
No! The Bible says: “It is a joy for the just to do justice, but destruction will come to the workers of iniquity” (Proverbs 21:15, emphasis added throughout). The joy talked about as a fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22 is the positive and cheerful outlook of a person who has been called by God and understands how beneficial it is to follow God’s way of life.
Breaking God’s law never produces real, lasting joy. Selfishly seeking our own pleasure is not the way to real joy either. Real joy is a gift from God, and it is something He wants us to give to others unselfishly. We can have joy from God even when facing things that would naturally make us unhappy, such as trials (James 1:2).
But thankfully the Bible promises that in the long run, joy, happiness and pleasure will all align. Notice Psalm 16:11: “You will show me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
Joy is the realization that God loves us and wants to give good things to His children—those who have repented, been baptized and have received His Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). One of those good things is the Kingdom of God, when Jesus Christ will rule a peaceful and prosperous world: “Oh, let the nations be glad and sing for joy! For You shall judge the people righteously, and govern the nations on earth” (Psalm 67:4).
What is godly joy? Joy is the delighted response of Christians to the fact that we have been given a precious truth, gift and understanding of a way of life that brings fulfillment—now and forever.
Why does God want us to demonstrate joy?
As we’ve seen, joy that is gained through selfish desires and activities only brings a superficial high or temporary enjoyment. Yet there is another joy that comes through the Holy Spirit and following God’s way of life that brings real contentment and truly optimistic feelings.
God wants us to demonstrate the latter in order to prove to the world that He is the One who brings happiness. Satan’s landmines feel good for a short time but then blow our lives apart. As with all the fruit of the Spirit, Christians’ examples are the beacon showing that true joy is better than fake, flimsy, selfish joy.
Also, when we demonstrate joy, we are actively showing where our priorities are. Notice the parable of the treasure in a field: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44).
The joy over the coming Kingdom and what God has revealed makes everything else in life seem less important. Grouchy, ungrateful, negative and angry Christians don’t exactly demonstrate the truth about the Kingdom of God—something so wonderful that nothing else should take priority over it. It is something to rejoice about every day, all day: at work, at home, while driving, while playing—everywhere.
Why demonstrate joy? If we truly believe what God has told us in His Bible, then we have plenty to rejoice about. There will be times of mourning in this life (deaths of loved ones or life changes), but even in those times of sorrow and weeping, the underlying joy of God’s plan for humanity (including the resurrection of loved ones and the solving of this world’s problems) must reign in our hearts and actions. Easier said than done, right?
An example to follow
The apostle John gives us an example of joy that should be present in our lives. In his letter to Gaius, an elder he greatly commended, he said: “For I rejoiced greatly when brethren came and testified of the truth that is in you, just as you walk in the truth. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth” (3 John 1:3-4).
John was exceedingly cheerful and happy that people he had ministered to were continuing to walk in the truth. He was joyful because he knew as long as they walked in the truth, they would also have happiness and joy—for eternity.
John’s example explains where joy comes from and why it’s important. Joy comes from staying true to God’s teachings, and it’s important because it gives others joy and shows a grateful response to what we’ve been given.
An example to avoid
Christ mentions joy in His parable of the sower and the seed: “But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles” (Matthew 13:20-21).
This is only temporary joy, not real, lasting joy.
The person in the stony places may have had sincere joy at the beginning, but he soon focused on trials and let that joy fade away. Our joy, excitement and happiness in God must always be growing and expanding by staying close to Him and allowing the Holy Spirit to work in our lives.
Joy self-examination questionnaire
How are we doing in growing in the fruit of joy? To find out, ask yourself questions such as:
- Am I more positive or more negative? What examples from my life prove this?
- Is my joy for the truth the Bible and God’s Kingdom greater than my joy for physical things? How do I know?
- Am I a complainer (do I criticize and tear down) or an encourager (do I build up)? How do I know?
- Would others describe me as joyful, or as negative and grumpy? Why would they say that?
How do we demonstrate more joy?
We face many things that can steal our joy: stressful jobs, illnesses, deaths of loved ones, economic strain, dangerous situations, daily annoyances and frustrations, people calling us delusional for following the Bible, etc.
So how do we demonstrate more joy in our lives? The answer is simple: We must change our thinking. It’s important to realize the process is a lifelong struggle with our minds. Here are some ideas:
- When praying, list as many physical and spiritual blessings as you can think of. Strive to have a spirit of gratefulness and excitement about everything you’ve been given.
- Remind yourself to continually think about the benefits of God’s way vs. Satan’s way. Compare the way the world is now vs. the way the world will be at Christ’s return. You may want to put reminders on your phone, write messages on sticky notes or do something else to make yourself stop and think about this regularly.
- Text, write or call others with encouraging phrases, Scripture quotes or even funny comments, knowing that joy in God’s blessings and truth is contagious with believers. For example: “Have a great day at work being a light to a dark world” or “The joy of the LORD is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10) or even “A smile is a curve that sets everything straight” (Phyllis Diller).
When we consider, and truly believe, the amazing truth of the coming Kingdom of God and our part in it, how can we not be purely joyful in every aspect of our lives? Smile! God is real and doesn’t lie.
For more about using the Holy Spirit to make changes in our lives, see “How Do You Know You Have the Holy Spirit?”