The Bible is replete with commands to “rejoice” or to have joy. It’s shocking really, but God demands that His children be joyful. Yet, He doesn’t merely demand it, He also grants it. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit of God in the life of the believer; it is something God does in us. The duty to delight is really a gift from God.
Joy is referenced 70 times in the New Testament. It is used to communicate a sense of well-being rooted in spiritual realities. While we often think of joy in terms of circumstantial comfort or pleasure, the Bible has no problem identifying joy even in the midst of sorrow and trial. So, both Paul and James can assert that we should rejoice in suffering (Rom. 5: 3-5; James 1:2-4). Joy is deeper than circumstances and situations; it is rooted in the experience of an intimate relationship with God. As John MacArthur says it:
Joy is the inevitable overflow of receiving Jesus Christ as Savior and of the believer’s knowing His continuing presence. (Galatians, 166)
Joy derives from knowing God and being known by Him. It derives from the gospel itself which is the joy of our salvation (1 Peter 1:8-9).
Throughout the Bible we see that joy is a gift from God. Jesus, for example, speaks of imparting His joy to us (John 15:11). Paul, on the other hand, connects joy to the Holy Spirit:
For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Rom. 14:17)
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Rom. 15:13)
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness (Ga. 5:22)
The Old Testament too connected our joy to our relationship with God. We read:
You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Ps. 16:11)
For You make him most blessed forever; You make him joyful with gladness in Your presence. (Ps. 21:6)
Then I will go to the altar of God, To God my exceeding joy; And upon the lyre I shall praise You, O God, my God. (Ps. 43:4)
Joy, true deep well-being and contentment, comes from being in a spiritually rich relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It supersedes all circumstantial pleasure and endures forever.
Our experience echoes this truth. For, we often find happiness fleeting and our pursuits of pleasure are often hindered. We cannot seem to hold onto happiness in this life. If we are to have something as amazing as joy it must come from God. There is no other way we could attain it. For, even when we catch those things that we believe will make us most happy, we find they often betray us – just ask the drunkard, or the addict, or the over-eater. If we are to have true, deep, and lasting joy it must come from God. We are commanded to delight, but God gives us this delight in Him. He must give it.
There is, however, a strange paradox at play in the Scriptures. On the one hand, God demands joy. On the other, only He can give us joy. It is strange that God commands us to do, experience, and express something that only He can do in us. As we’ve said previously, fruit cannot be forced. It grows by virtue of its nature. Yet, we can and must do certain things to cultivate fruit. We can’t cause it, but we can certainly prepare ourselves for it. If joy is connected to our relationship with God through Jesus Christ, then we can cultivate joy by going deeper in our relationship. We can be more earnest in prayer, more studious in reading Scripture, more consistent in worship. We can seek God in all the appointed means of grace which He provides. The paradox of duty and gift is important. We are not passive, but we do not trust in our own efforts to produce the joy. The paradox matters because it keeps us humble and dependent. It matters because the paradox prevents, as John Piper says, “our strategies in the fight for joy from degenerating into techniques and legalism” (When I Don’t Desire God, 54). I cannot manipulate God into giving me joy through my duty. I actively seek joy, rather, because I know God wants to give it to me and in His time He will.
Joy is a fruit of the Spirit and will inevitably manifest in the life of the believer. Yet, such joy is clearly not produced by us, it comes from God Himself. As I seek to cultivate joy, then, I will seek to dig deep into my relationship with God. For though He commands me to rejoice, He also loves to give me the joy to do it.