Our world is full of suffering and anxiety. 2020 was a hard year and so far, 2021, isn’t solving all our COVID problems just yet. I’ve certainly been struggling with the uncertainty of what the next day or week might hold. Yet my biggest battle has been with joy. The Apostle Paul wrote, “In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy” (2 Cor 7:4b). Even amidst danger, persecution, hunger, rejection and conflict, Paul could still rejoice. Unfortunately I can’t say likewise. Perhaps you can’t either.
However, Paul’s example is a challenge to many of us with our first world problems, and a guide for us when we are overwhelmed with pain and sadness, lest we become victims of despair. Remember, joy is meant to be a marker of the Christian life: there are countless exhortations to “rejoice” throughout the Bible, and it’s the second item on the list of the Holy Spirit’s fruit in Galatians 5:22. Yet in the difficulties (or maybe the monotonies) of real life, overflowing with joy seems beyond us. The metaphorical fountain in our spirituality might feel like it’s running dry. And if that’s how we are experiencing faith, what are we projecting to the world about the one we believe in?
How do we unstop our joy? How do we get it flowing so that it becomes the ocean we float in, even when there’s dark clouds overhead? How can we cultivate a faith dripping with joy—a joy so inundating that anyone who meets us can’t help but get wet?
Firstly, we need to understand what joy is all about: for Paul, joy isn’t simply a fleeting feeling. It’s not based on circumstance or mood; it’s something deeper and longer lasting. Paul’s expectation is that joy is an ongoing reality for the Christian. That’s why he calls on the Philippians to “rejoice … always” (Phil 4:4). So whether life is hard or feels pretty breezy, we should rejoice.
Paul is not just an overly optimistic guy, placing unrealistic expectations on the rest of us. If you’re familiar with his life, you know he really suffered: take a look at 2 Corinthians 11:23-28 for a quick summary of just a few of the struggles Paul endured. The thing about Paul is he just doesn’t believe that situations of suffering are enough to quash the reasons for our joy. While there is an emotional element to joy, its capacity to abide and not run out is more to do with what it is flowing from.
The source of our joy
This is because the source of joy is the gospel. Paul’s exhortation to continual rejoicing has a focus: “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil 4:4; emphasis mine). As Christians, our belief is relational: the heart of who we are and what our lives revolve around is a person. And this person is who the gospel is all about. The character and actions of our Creator and Saviour need to be celebrated. The book of Psalms reminds us of this: it contains song after song of praise simply because God is God. Psalm 8 is one example: it begins and ends with the declaration, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (vv. 1, 9). Sandwiched between is a description of God’s creative power and grace towards people.
Therefore, because our beliefs are centred on an eternal God who offers eternal salvation, suffering is not a circumstantial reason against joy. The gospel brings news of eternal blessings and a more wonderful hope than anything this world promises, and so the trials and difficulties of now are overshadowed by the delights found in the good news of Christ. When Peter wrote to Christians under persecution, he said,
Though you do not now see [Jesus], you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Pet 1:8-9).
The big picture of the gospel transformed the perspective of Peter’s readers on their circumstances, and gave them a clear focus for their hope and a reason not to fall into despair.
Often spells of spiritual dryness lack emotional engagement with God. If our belief is simply an intellectual assent, it won’t carry us far through the twists and turns of life. Deepening our faith starts with deepening our relationship with Christ: we need to keep reflecting on and convincing ourselves of the goodness of the one we worship and the gospel we live by. Ask yourself “What’s so good about the gospel today?” Ask yourself the same question tomorrow and the day after and the day after that.
Joy in community
That said, we don’t rejoice alone. We might think that the individual blessings of health, wealth and success are what we really need for joy. But God in his wisdom gave us the blessing of each other. The church is to be both the context and mutual contributor to our joy. Paul pictures the community of believers rejoicing together: in Colossians 3:16-17, he says,
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
The word of Christ—the gospel—unites the church, causing verbal outflows in song, speech and prayer. It plants thankfulness in our hearts. It transforms our internal reality and, therefore, our external manifestation of that reality. As the gospel’s presence in the life of the believer leads to an impact on their words and deeds, this expression is rightly accompanied by joy. And as this happens in the context of Christian community, we share in this joy together. We can celebrate the wonder of the gospel transforming others, just as we acknowledge its work in our own lives.
Joy in evangelism
Given that the gospel’s presence in Christian lives naturally gives rise to joy, it’s surprising that many Christians share their testimony as if it’s the most boring story in the world. There’s nothing more unconvincing to the goodness of the gospel. So often I’ve heard people preface their account of “How I became a Christian” with a statement about how “It isn’t very exciting”. While I doubt many of these people mean to imply that the gospel is not exciting, that’s the danger of what they are communicating. If you don’t think you’ve got much to share about how Christ has impacted your life, it might be a sign that your heart and mind need some refreshing.
If the gospel is the source of Christian joy, bathe in its goodness. Ask yourself what you love about God and his promises. Reflect on the difference that Christ makes in your life. Remind yourself from Scripture of the new identity you have as a Christian. Then share that joy: let it be the truth upon which you ground your testimony, instead of just a listing of events and places where you may have heard that truth. Let the glory of the gospel shine out in your smile of wonder that such an astounding message should provoke in us.
If we dwell on the gospel, it will dwell in us. It will shape and transform the thoughts of our mind and the desires of our heart. The joy it offers will be our joy, and as we speak of the God we belong to, this delight will tumble out for all to see. Whether you are among Christian brothers and sisters, or standing in a room full of non-Christians, let the beliefs that have so profoundly shaped and determined your identity become emotionally tangible. Don’t be afraid to share with others how knowing Christ has changed you. Don’t feel you need to conceal your joy.
For me, even as the pandemic continues to breed anxiety, my hopes aren’t simply founded on a vaccine. The unchanging gospel is my source of joy, and it offers me much greater comfort and eternal certainty. The past few months have reminded me that my God is bigger than world events. His sovereignty over all means I can rely on him, even though the world may feel out of control. In Christ, I have such wonderful treasure—treasure I’ve come to value anew. Furthermore, this is wealth I want to gladly share with others.
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