I think most of us have learned there are multiple words for love in the Greek language. With seven words devoted to this concept, we assume it must be important. But did you know something similar is going on with the word “joy”?
In the New Testament the primary Greek word for joy is chara or its root chario. The Greek parts of the Bible also use agalliao, euphrosure, and (more rarely) skirtao and apolausis. Hebrew has even more words for joy. The primary one is samach and its close relatives simcha and sameach. Other words for joy include chadah, sus, alats, giyl, and alaz. The words for “shout” like ranan and rua also carry a joyful meaning in certain contexts. That adds up to more than a dozen words in the Bible to describe joy!
Clearly, joy is an important concept for Biblical writers and for the cultures they lived in. This type of joy isn’t just a happy feeling, though. It’s a state of being that we can have as a result of being in relationship with God. As a fruit of the spirit, joy is present in all spirit-led Christians. This joy can be bubbly, enthusiastic, and happy (and often is), but it can also be a quiet, enduring outlook that flourishes inside us even when we don’t feel outwardly merry.
Joy Is More Than Happiness
To those in less than pleasant circumstances, commands to rejoice (like Deut. 26:11: 1 Thes 5:16) often feel insensitive. “If you knew what I was going through,” we might say, “you wouldn’t tell me to feel happy.” Nevertheless, joy is something God expects and commands from His people.
It’s a similar situation as what happens with love. God is love, and He commands us to love others even when it doesn’t make sense from a human perspective. Biblical love is also something more than our modern concept of warm feelings toward someone. It’s much deeper. In much the same way, joy goes deeper than feelings of happiness.
“Joy is not happiness. Joy is an emotion that’s acquired by the anticipation, acquisition or even the expectation of something great or wonderful. It could be described as exhilaration, delight, sheer gladness, and can result from a great success or a very beautiful or wonderful experience …
“Joy is a permanent possession while happiness is fleeting. Joy stays, happiness comes and goes so why aren’t you more joyful if you are a child of God?” — Jack Wellman, “What Is The Biblical Definition of Joy?”
Joy is something that God feels (Deut. 30:9; Luke 15:6-7). It is also a fruit of His spirit that we develop as He dwells in us (Gal. 5:22). Scripture is filled with records of joyful people who overflow with gladness and delight because of their relationship with God.
Joy Found In The Lord
“The joy of the Lord is your strength,” Nehemiah once said (Neh. 8:10, KJV). I find this a curious phrase. Is the Lord’s joy what strengthens us? Do we find strength in the joy we have from being in relationship with the Lord? Or perhaps it’s both? Gladness, rejoicing, exhalation, and mirth aren’t usually things we think of as powerful. But the way God talks about them in the Bible, it’s clear that these feelings have a profoundly positive effect on us and on our ability to lead godly lives.
The prospect of the righteous is joy, but the hope of the wicked will perish. (Prov. 10:28, WEB)
All the days of the afflicted are wretched, but one who has a cheerful heart enjoys a continual feast. (Prov. 15:15, WEB)
A cheerful heart makes good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. (Prov. 17:22, WEB)
These Proverbs tell us that the righteous can expect joy in their lives. They reveal a cheerful heart can change our outlook on life — that life doesn’t have to change before we can have joy. Our joy comes from being in relationship with God, not our outward circumstances.
But let all those who take refuge in you rejoice, let them always shout for joy, because you defend them. Let them also who love your name be joyful in you. For you will bless the righteous. Yahweh, you will surround him with favor as with a shield. (Ps. 5:11-12, WEB)
No one can say David had an easy life. He was hunted by King Saul, lost his best friend, and one of his sons tried to overthrow him as king. He spent a large percentage of his life fighting battles or fleeing grave danger. Yet the Psalms he wrote are full of rejoicing. I suspect if we asked him how he could be so joyful with so much in his life going wrong he would be rather puzzled. “I have a relationship with my God,” I imagine him saying. “How could I not be joyful?”
Why Wouldn’t We Have Joy?
We are commanded to have joy because that’s the proper response to following God whole-heatedly. If we truly love Him with all our heart, soul, and might then how could we help but feel joy? I’ve come up with two core reasons why a Christian might experience a chronic lack of joy.
- We don’t fully realize what it means to be in relationship with God and to worship Him as Lord.
- We aren’t happy about following Him and serve Him grudgingly, if at all.
I suspect the first is far more common (at least, I hope so). Either way, a lack of joy isn’t something we can ignore. In fact, the people of Israel were told they would go into captivity because they didn’t serve “God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart” (Deu 28:47-48). While there is a time to weep and mourn (Ecc. 3:1-8) or to worship God in solemnity (Deut. 16:8; Lev. 23:36), for the most part our walks with God should be characterized by joy.
I have set Yahweh always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my tongue rejoices. My body shall also dwell in safety. For you will not leave my soul in Sheol, neither will you allow your holy one to see corruption. You will show me the path of life. In your presence is fullness of joy. In your right hand there are pleasures forever more. (Ps. 16:8-11, WEB)
Most of the time we lack joy because our perspective is too small. When I’m focused on my anxieties and sadness, when I look only at the day-to-day, when I drink-in bad news from the world around me I can forget I have a reason for joy. But when I mimic the Psalmist and “set the Lord always before me” I have a better perspective on the true state of the world. My heart can be glad because I remember that the most powerful being in the universe holds me, and everything else, in His hands. Not only that, He loves me and rejoices over me with delight (Is. 62:4-5). How can we not have joy with that perspective?
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