The Fruit of the Spirit: Joy
Is it ok to be happy? What’s an appropriate source of happiness? Is happiness different from joy? These are some of the questions we consider in this sermon as we look at the second fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22: joy.
Galatians (Geneva Commentaries), John Brown
Galatians (Crossway Classic Commentaries), Martin Luther
Galatians For You, Timothy Keller
A couple weeks ago we welcomed new members into the Citylight family, and after I introduced them and they made their commitment to our church public by reading aloud the words of our Church Covenant with the rest of the church, a few people began to clap, but I could tell there was kind of a question, “Can we clap now?” So I gave everyone permission to do so. Sometimes we feel happy, but we aren’t sure we’re supposed to, or we at least aren’t sure it’s ok to express that happiness. This can especially be the case for Christians. Are we allowed to be happy as Christians, or is that kind of a worldly thing? Clearly not all happiness is good; sometimes people get happy by sinning and hurting others. So are we allowed to be happy? And what is an appropriate source of happiness? The passage in Galatians on which we are focusing for 9 weeks (this is week 2), is a great place to ask such questions. In it, Paul is addressing Christians, and Christians all have a battle going on within them between the desires of the flesh, which are the desires their sinful nature produces, and the desires of the Spirit, which the Holy Spirit produces in them. We are directed in this passage to keep in step with the desires of the Spirit. In other words, we are to act on them, and not the desires of the flesh, and to help us do that, Paul gives us two lists: The works of the flesh (the ones not to act on), and the fruit of the Spirit (the ones to act on). Which list does joy show up on, then? Is that one to act on, or one not to act on? It turns out it shows up on the fruit of the Spirit list, and therefore it is absolutely one that we as Christians should act on. Therefore, rejoice with the joy the Holy Spirit produces in you. To help us do that, we’ll ask the same questions we asked last week about love, though I’ve added one this week: What is joy? Why is it a fruit of the Spirit? And how can we act on joy?
What is joy?
The second item on the list of the fruit of the Spirit is joy. The word itself is not terribly complicated to define. It is basically synonymous with happiness, gladness, or what older theologians called “blessedness”. The authoritative Greek lexicon defines the Greek word translated “joy” here as “the experience of gladness.” If you have been around Christian circles for long, you have perhaps heard well-meaning Christians make a distinction between happiness and joy. They’ll say that happiness refers to a mere emotion that comes and goes based on our circumstances, whereas joy is in the Lord and is, therefore, constant. But the Bible doesn’t make such a distinction between “joy” and “happiness.” Of course, neither the word “joy” nor the word “happiness” appear in the original manuscripts of the Bible, because the Bible was originally written in Hebrew and Greek, not English. Nonetheless, of the various words in Hebrew and Greek which modern English Bible translators translate with “happiness” or “joy,” there is simply not one of them that refers to a happiness based on worldly circumstances, and another that refers to joy in God that never changes. The distinction between the words is an artificial one. And the danger of making it is that it tends to empty joy of its meaning: What exactly does it mean to be joyful if it doesn’t at least include the emotion of happiness?
So it won’t do to define joy by simply saying it’s not the same thing as happiness. In fact, I think a perfectly good translation of Galatians 5:22 would be that the fruit of the Spirit is love, happiness, peace, and so forth. Nonetheless, there is some truth in what those who distinguish happiness from joy are trying to get at. The joy which is a fruit of the Spirit is certainly happy, but it is different from the world’s happiness. There is fleshly happiness and joy (that which our natural flesh can attain), and there is spiritual happiness and joy (that which comes from the Holy Spirit). The difference, then, is not between happiness and joy themselves, but between the source of both our happiness and joy, and even here there is another similarity: In the case of both Christians and non-Christians, the source of our joy is the object of our love. Remember we said last week that the fruit of the Spirit is love. That’s why fruit is singular, and why love is listed first. The rest of the fruits in the list, then, are in some way related to love, and Thomas Aquinas, the medieval theologian, helpfully explains how joy is connected to love. Love produces desire for the object of our love, and joy comes when we attain that object.
So, if you love travel, for example, you will desire a vacation, and then you will feel joy when you take that vacation. If you love a person, you will desire to be close to them, and then you will feel joy when you are close to them. We can see, then, why it’s possible to have a kind of joy apart from the Holy Spirit: Because apart from the Holy Spirit, you will still love something, and when you attain that something, you will have joy. It’s just that apart from the Holy Spirit, the object that you love is something in this world. That kind of joy comes naturally to our flesh, and not all such joy is inherently bad: Spirit-filled Christians also rejoice when they take a great vacation or get to be close to someone they love. But it can be inherently bad, as when we derive joy from sin, and even when it isn’t inherently bad, it is limited in two ways: Extent, and duration.
It is limited in extent: You have joy in a great vacation, but it’s never the greatest possible vacation. You can always imagine ways it could have been better. And, it’s limited in duration. Even the best joys in this world don’t last. How long into the great vacation does it take for you to start thinking, “Man, only 3 days left”? The holiday season is upon us, a time of great fleshly joy for many, but you can never quite shake the reality that at some point, January is coming, and in this part of the world at least, it’s cold, and it’s dark. Fleshly joy, then, is limited in extent and duration. If it’s all you have, your joy will never be full, and it will only occur when circumstances in your life are favorable. Spiritual joy is different: It too springs from love, and comes when we attain the object of our love. But as we saw last week, the most fundamental object of the love the Spirit provides is God, who we also attain in loving him. Christians know God, and therefore we have the object we love the most, and in him, our happiness can be full, and our happiness can remain.
Why is it, after all, that nothing in this world seems to fill up our longing for happiness? Why does it seem that no matter how great the vacation is, it could be better? Because we were made for more than vacations, possessions, and even for more than romantic love, or parental love, which are among the greatest sources of happiness in the world. We were made for God. So the ancient theologian Augustine famously said in a prayer to God: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” But once they do rest in God, our infinite longing for happiness has found its match in the one infinite being! So Psalm 16:11, speaking to God, says, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Did you catch the extent and duration? Fullness of joy in your presence; pleasures at your right hand forevermore. He never changes, and he never ends, so spiritual joy, joy in him, never ends.
But does it change? Remember many Christians distinguish happiness from joy by saying happiness comes and goes because it is based on circumstances, whereas joy is constant because it is based on God who never changes. Ideally it’s true that our joy should never change because it springs from love for God who never changes, but in this life there are at least three reasons the joy of Christians does change. One is that love for God produces love for neighbor, and bad things can still happen to our neighbors. God has not yet come to do away with all death and sin. So, most obviously, when someone we love dies, we grieve. Another is that the desires of our flesh still wage war against the desires of the Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit of joy does not grow in us unhindered; there are thorns poking at it. So, in this life, sometimes we not only love our neighbor, but we love our neighbor more than we love God, and we are inordinately grieved when we don’t feel loved by them. We love that vacation so much that we not only desire it, we feel we need it, and therefore we are inordinately grieved when we cannot take it, or when it does not turn out to be as great as we imagined it would be. Third, spiritual joy varies in this life because there is a sense in which we are not yet in the presence of the God we love, nor are those neighbors we love. So Paul writes in 2 Cor 5:6 “that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.” So our joy is not yet full because we are not yet in the presence of the one in whom there is fullness of joy. Furthermore, those neighbors we love are not in his presence yet, and sometimes we are grieved because we see them wandering farther from that presence. So we see Paul grieved for his Jewish brethren who rejected Christ, and we have seen throughout Galatians his grief over the churches of Galatia, who were being tempted to forsake Christ. We too grieve the reality of loved ones who continue in a state of unbelief, and we grieve when we see sin gaining a foothold in the lives of our brothers and sisters.
It won’t do, then, to say that Christian joy is independent of circumstances. It does vary in this life. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that that joy which is a fruit of the Spirit establishes a baseline of joy in the lives of Christians that no circumstance can take away. So Paul could describe himself as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor 6:10). I’ll talk about how that’s possible and what that looks like in a bit, but for now let me try to summarize what I’ve said thus far with a fuller definition: The joy which is a fruit of the Spirit is a state of happiness that springs from a love for God that is satisfied in having God, which varies, but never ceases in this life, and which will be full in the life to come. The opposite would be despair: A sorrow with no baseline of joy beneath it, an unrelenting pessimism. No matter what, you refuse to be comforted. Even when good things happen in your life, you find a way to put a negative spin on them, and still choose to think only about the sad things in your life. Do you see that’s not only a sad way to live, but it’s also a sinful way to live? The counterfeit would be the fleshly joy we’ve already talked about plenty: a joy that springs from love of things in this world, and which is therefore always limited in both extent and duration.
Do you see, then, that God is not opposed to your happiness? The impulse to be happy is not necessarily from the flesh; happiness is a fruit of the Spirit! Certainly there is a counterfeit joy that the flesh can produce, but the problem with it is not that it makes you feel good! The problem with it is that it doesn’t make you feel good enough, and the good feeling it produces won’t last! The Spirit is actually working to produce in you a greater happiness that truly lasts, that circumstances can affect but never kill, and that one day will be fuller than you can possibly imagine. No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor 2:9). Is this how you think of God? Is this how you think of the Christian life? Sin often gets power over us because we assume that real joy is found in it, but we “have to” say no to it because it’s bad. And sin often does tickle our bodily senses and is therefore an easier kind of happiness, like fast food is easier to enjoy than a really good, costly steak. But we don’t say no to it because it feels good; we say no to it in order to say yes to a greater joy that it’s actually warring against, like the person who says no to fast food 20 times to save up enough money to enjoy something far greater in a glorious steak. On to our next question, then: Why is joy a fruit of the Spirit?
Why is joy a fruit of the Spirit?
As we did last week, we can consider this question from multiple angles. One is, why can’t the flesh produce this kind of joy, and we’ve already seen that in large measure: Our flesh, under sin, does not naturally love God. Instead, it loves this world and the things in it, none of which can produce fullness of joy (they could always be better), and none of which last (they always end). The best the flesh can do, then, is produce the counterfeit: A surface-level happiness that comes and goes with changing circumstances. That’s straightforward enough, but typically when we think of the flesh, we still think of people living overtly sinful lives. And indeed, remember Galatians 5:19: The works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, and so on. But the churches of Galatia weren’t being told by the false teachers who had infiltrated their churches to do those things. They were being told by them to get circumcised and observe the days, months, seasons, and years prescribed in the law of Moses.
In other words, man-made religion is as much a product of the flesh as sexual immorality. It gives you things the flesh can do: Get circumcised, observe the proper days, offer the right sacrifices, and so on. And it is just as powerless to produce that joy which is a fruit of the Spirit. It’s one of the differences between people who are religiously observant and people who have been born again by the Holy Spirit. The religiously observant may be moral, they may be dutiful, but they aren’t joyful; not like this. In fact, they are often even less joyful than the non-religious! At least the non-religious have fleshly joys, but the religious are often denying themselves fleshly joys without the Spirit producing spiritual joy in them! So they live dutiful, joyless lives, until over time, their natural desire for happiness can’t be contained, and under their outwardly religious persona, they start engaging in sin. How often do we find that the perpetrators of sexual abuse are outwardly religious? Or, they may have a strong enough conscience against such things that they will instead give themselves over to more socially acceptable hobbies. I’ve known men who were very religiously observant, but as you got to know them, you could tell what really made them happy wasn’t God; it was their favorite sports team, or eating at great restaurants, or some other such fleshly thing. Religion without the Holy Spirit cannot produce joy. If you really hate your job, but you come do it every day because you feel like you have to in order to get paid, you may show up to work every day, but you won’t have joy, and that is the heart posture of those who are religiously observant, but who are not born again by the Spirit.
But joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, and we’ll see that it is so for similar reasons that love is a fruit of the Spirit. First, joy is a fruit of the Spirit because it is an attribute of God. Did you know that God is fundamentally happy? In 1 Tim 6:15 God is described as the “blessed and only Sovereign.” The word translated “blessed” there is typically translated “happy,” although most English Bible translations don’t render it that way here to avoid confusing it with happiness as a changing passion in us. Nonetheless, it’s true: God is happy. The Father eternally loves the Son, and eternally possesses the Son, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from that love union between the Father and the Son. Recall that joy is determined by the object of our love, which produces desire for that object. We have, joy, then, when we possess the object of our love. So God, within himself, as a triune God, has the object of his love, and therefore is infinitely happy! God is not an angry dad who comes home every night looking for someone to yell at. He is already infinitely happy, and calls his children to enter into his happiness! It makes sense, then, when God comes to live in us, that he produces in us joy.
Remember also from last week that the Spirit works in us as we hear with faith the gospel message. So, there should also be something in the gospel that naturally produces joy when we hear it with faith, and indeed, there is. Part of the reason workers can be miserable is because they haven’t yet received the wage for which they’re working, and so they have to keep working and working. But that’s not true of us! Jesus already did the work that was necessary for our salvation! We all, by nature, have loved this world and the things in it, and so have either despaired if we have felt we cannot attain them, or have had fleshly joy when we attain them, but only as much as they can bear, and only for as long as they are around, or we have denied fleshly joy in an effort to be religious observant, which left us with no joy at all. We have refused to love God, whether we believed in him, whether we even performed certain rituals in his name, and therefore we deserve to grieve forever. But God the Son, the God who is eternally happy, became human for us, and took upon himself the name: Man of Sorrows. We read in scripture that he bore our griefs and carried our sorrows. He was made like us in every way, except sin. He obeyed every one of God’s commands from the heart, but suffered on the cross for our disobedience by bearing the ultimate sorrow: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? He was cut off from the object of his love, the source of true joy, and only then was he raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father, risen to everlasting joy, so that his joy could be in us, though we deserve grief.
So although we still experience sorrow in this life, we rejoice now because the work of our salvation is done! Jesus bore our sorrows to bring us back to the God who is eternally happy! And now, because of what Christ has done for us, God is no longer angry with us! The demands of his justice have been satisfied! There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus! Do you see how hearing that with faith should produce joy in us? God is infinitely happy, and today, though you are still guilty of sin and justly deserving of his displeasure, if you are in Christ Jesus, he is happy with you! Listen to how the prophets describe the days in which we now live in Christ. In Jeremiah 32:41 God says, “I will rejoice in doing them good.” Do you see that God does not merely do good to you, but he rejoices in doing you good? It makes him happy! Isaiah 62:4-5, speaking to sinful people under God’s judgment, says: “You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married.5 For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your sons marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” As a groom rejoices over his bride: That’s how God rejoices over us now. Zephaniah 3:17: “The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” We sing to God with joy because he is now singing over us with joy.
Religious people can’t have that kind of joy because they never know whether God is happy with them. They’re still working to make him happy. And non-religious people can never have that kind of joy because they’re still in love with the world that can’t bring it. This is even the case when such non-religious types dabble in spirituality. When they do, they typically accept very naturally that God is happy with them, but it doesn’t produce joy in them because they haven’t really been convicted of their sinfulness. So the message that God is happy and happy with them is no big deal; why wouldn’t he be? But when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, when you are convicted of your sin, and you realize you deserve nothing from God but wrath, and instead hear with faith the gospel message that he’s already poured out his wrath, so that now, through Christ he is happy with you forever, that produces joy. And so the fruit of the Spirit is joy, a state of happiness rooted in God, in who God is, in what God has done for you in the gospel, that is affected by circumstances in this life, but that no circumstance in this life can eliminate, and which will be full in the life to come, when we will be with him forever. If you aren’t yet in Christ, get in on this. Confess your sins, leave them behind, and trust in Jesus. God will make his face to shine upon you, and he will give you joy. Church family, this is what God is producing in us. As with any of these fruits, he is sovereign in doing that: He doesn’t always do it to the same extent and with the same timing in each of us or throughout our lives, but he is doing it. Nonetheless, we do find in this life, as we’ve said, that our experience of joy varies. How, then, can we keep in step with the Spirit as he produces joy in us?
How can we act on joy?
To start answering this question, we can acknowledge that sometimes, the Spirit just does it! You get that overwhelming sense of joy in the Lord, and then the question is not so much how to cultivate joy as it is what to do with it. Each fruit of the Spirit is a noun, but each fruit of the Spirit also has a corresponding verb, an action we take, which that impulse produces. So we saw last week, with love it was service: Serve one another through love. With joy, the verbal form even sounds similar in English: Rejoice. So James 5:13 says, “Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.” As John Owen writes, “singing was a means appointed of God whereby men should express their joy in a way of thankfulness.” Most simply, then, as the Spirit produces joy in you, the way to keep in step with that is to rejoice, and song is the way God has appointed for that to be expressed. This is why we sing when we get together on Sundays! Because the Spirit is producing in us joy! And this is why our songs are about God, and not about the game our sports team won this week, or the promotion we got, because our joy is ultimately in God, who we love more than those things!
Expanding that out a bit, we also see precedent in the Bible for giving thanks to God in prayer. So when the Spirit produces in us joy in the Lord, we can also express that through giving thanks in prayer. This is a helpful paradigm for how to respond to those more circumstantial, fleshly things, that nonetheless bring us joy. There’s nothing sinful about enjoying the birth of a child or a good meal. How, then, should we respond when we feel such joy? We recognize such things as gifts from a happy God, and give him thanks for them in prayer! As the Spirit works that impulse in you, act on it. Just don’t lose sight of the limitations of such sources of joy. There is a fascinating passage in 1 Corinthians 7 where, among other things, Paul says this: “The appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let…those who rejoice [live] as though they were not rejoicing…For the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor 7:29-31). In other words, when you do derive joy from something in this world, it’s a helpful spiritual discipline to thank God for it in prayer; don’t feel bad for enjoying it, but then to also add something like this to your prayer: And yet, Lord, I know that one day, this too will pass, but you will not.
Finally, beyond singing and prayer, one more way to act on the fruit of the Spirit of joy is to tell others about it. So John says in 1 John that he’s writing his letter so that his joy may be complete. In other words, he had joy in seeing and hearing the risen Jesus, but his joy would not be complete until he told someone else. Since our joy comes from God as he is revealed in the gospel, the joy the Holy Spirit produces in us compels us to share the gospel, both with those who believe and those who do not. But one of the most common ways joy appears in the New Testament, that surprised me as I studied this, was the way Paul points out the ways he sees God working in the lives of others. It seems to be one of his primary sources of joy, that does vary by circumstance, but in a good way: As he hears good reports of churches standing firm in the faith, he rejoices, and he writes to those churches and tells them about that, along with all the ways he sees God working in them! It’s good for a church for people to share with one another the ways they see God working in their own lives; it’s even better when members of that church see ways God is working in one another’s lives, and point them out to one another, along with the joy they’re getting from them. “I just can’t tell you how much joy I have before God when I see the love God has given you for his word over the past year.” May statements like that be the norm in our church.
Ok, so that’s what you do with the joy the Holy Spirit is producing in you: Rejoice in song, rejoice in prayer, and share your joys with one another, especially the joy you have at seeing God’s work in one another’s lives. We could stop there, but I better close by answering a question many of you may have. I know for me, my problem isn’t often that I feel so joyful and I’m just not sure what to do with it. My problem is I often don’t feel joyful. We said that our experience of joy in this life, even when it’s a fruit of the Spirit, does often vary, so let me conclude with some thoughts on how we keep in step with the Spirit when we don’t feel joyful.
First, it may be that you are not a Christian. You may profess faith and be religious, but you may lack joy because you haven’t been convicted of your sins and trusted in Christ for salvation. In that case, you need to first repent of your sins and trust Christ to receive the Spirit, who in his timing, will produce joy in you. But Christians sometimes lack joy also, so if that’s you, begin by asking why you lack joy. Since joy is tied to what we love, try to especially identify what you love, that you feel you cannot attain, and therefore cannot have joy. You may find an inordinate love for something in this world under there, and if so, confess that to God, and hear with faith the gospel again. In his timing, God will restore the light of his face to you. Or you may find an ordinary love for someone who died or someone who’s wandering from the Lord, and therefore you’re grieving. Or you may find a love for God that just isn’t quite consummated, and therefore you’re still not entirely at rest. In these cases, look forward to your future. Romans 12 calls that “rejoicing in hope.” Our joy in this life is never full, but we can rejoice now in the day it will be. Though we shed tears now, the day is coming when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. He is infinitely happy. Because of what Jesus has done, He is happy with us today, and one day, our happiness will be full, and will never end. That’s the joy the Holy Spirit is producing in us even now, so rejoice with the joy the Holy Spirit produces in you.