Some people seem to have the gift of happiness in this life, and some do not; I am one of those who does not. My friends and family call me “Eeyore,” and they are probably right to do so. For that reason, I have always been intrigued and challenged by the concept of “joy,” one of the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians. Joy is a deceptively simple concept. We all think we know what joy is, and we certainly long for it. Yet life can be very hard, and we often do not feel particularly great. In what sense, then, should we expect joy to be a part of our lives as Christians? I still have a lot to learn about joy. My purpose in this article is exploratory; I want to look at the biblical evidence for the nature of joy as a fruit of the Spirit.

What “joy” is not

Before we can talk about what joy is, we need to talk about what it is not. For example, most people would probably assume that joy requires the absence of sorrow, that joy and happiness must go together. The Bible, however, does not necessarily speak of joy in this way. That is, joy is not the state of being emotionally “up,” of feeling good about everything. In II Corinthians 6:10, for example, Paul describes himself as “sorrowful yet always rejoicing.” Why is he sorrowful? Well, the hardships he describes in that same context might explain some of his sorrow: much endurance, afflictions, hardships, distresses, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, sleeplessness, hunger… Paul has a lot in his life that brings him sorrow, and yet he has joy throughout it all. We can see, then, that Paul does not see sorrow and joy as being incompatible. The Bible does not always speak this way. Jesus tells His disciples that today they have sorrow but later they will have joy (John 16:22). But the Bible sometimes surprises us by joining sorrow and joy in the same person at the same time.

Furthermore, most people would probably assume that joy requires the absence of troubles, that joy results from having wonderful circumstances in one’s life. We can see from the II Corinthians passage above, however, that Paul clearly does not believe that joy only results from having all one’s problems disappear. Paul rejoiced in the midst of afflictions, hardships, beatings, and so on. Paul would not let us get away with saying, “Well, of course I don’t have joy; I still have too many troubles to be joyful.” The strange characteristic of joy in the Bible is that it often accompanies troubles. In II Corinthians 8:2, Paul says of the churches in Macedonia that “in a great ordeal of affliction their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality.” Even in a great ordeal of affliction they had an abundance of joy. And of course the classic statement of this theme is James 1:2, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials.” Clearly, in the biblical authors’ minds, joy is not the same as happiness, and it is not dependent on the circumstances that usually produce happiness.

What “joy” is

If joy can coexist with sorrow and troubles, then what sort of thing is joy? Joy is our natural response when we believe that something profoundly good has come or is coming our way. The Bible pictures this joy often:

  • The father has joy when the prodigal son returns home.
  • The disciples had great joy when they discovered that Jesus had risen from the dead.
  • A man knows that a treasure is hidden in a field, and so he buys the field with joy.
  • A woman goes through the pains of labor because of her joy when the child is born.

Notice how in each of these pictures, there is a temporary loss followed by restoration. The prodigal son has been gone a long time (but he returns); Jesus was dead (but He lives again); the man had to give up everything he had (but the treasure became his); the woman had to suffer great pains (but she gained a child). Joy is that satisfaction that comes when wrong turns to right, when loss turns to gain, when death turns to life. The important thing to realize, though, is that joy is possible before the change takes place. Joy only requires that we feel confident that the good is coming. The idea of Christian joy in the Bible is intimately tied to the idea of “hope.” Paul explicitly ties them together in Romans 12:12, when he speaks of “rejoicing in hope.”

We can start to see, then, why it is possible for joy to coexist with sorrow and suffering in the Christian life. On the one hand, this is a hard life. We have troubles. The world is still full of selfishness, hostility to God, and death. There is a lot to cry about; even Jesus cried. On the other hand, we know that God is going to triumph over it all. Sin will be destroyed. Death is not final but will be overturned. The aching need that we still feel in our hearts will be finally and completely fulfilled. We are at war with a powerful enemy, and so we sorrow; but we know that the enemy is losing the battle and one day will be defeated, and so we rejoice.

Joy as a fruit of spirit

In what sense, then, should we understand joy as a fruit of the Spirit? We make a mistake if we think of the fruits of the Spirit as immediate or automatic, as some sort of magical inner glow that comes upon us when we become Christians. If we were to explore each of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians, we would find that all those qualities come as a result of a change in our understanding, a growing maturity in our faith. Love and joy and patience are fruits of the Spirit because, apart from the work of the Spirit of God, our minds are hostile to the truths that will lead us to love and joy and so on. We need a moral transformation so that we respond to the gospel with eager acceptance instead of apathy and hostility. Only with such a moral transformation can we become people with spiritual joy. Through the Spirit we come to know the truth, and the truth brings us joy. We see this explicitly described in Romans 15:13, where Paul prays, “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” A very clear progression is implied here: 1) God fills us with joy. 2) He does this by filling us with hope through the power of the Holy Spirit. 3) That hope in turn is built on a foundation of believing—that is, believing the promises of life and fulfillment found in the gospel. So joy is a fruit of the Spirit because the Spirit strengthens our faith, and our faith gives us hope, and our hope gives us joy.

That same context in Romans 15 gives us a clue to another way that the Spirit produces joy in us, and in a way that may seem surprising: The Spirit leads us to joy by taking us through trials. We have already seen that hope leads to joy, but how can we know that we ourselves are believers, that we are justified in having such a hope? Paul says that “through perseverance… we might have hope.” This is a very common and important theme in the New Testament: Jesus and Paul and James and Peter all emphasize that God shows us the reality of our faith by taking us through trials, by asking us to persevere in trusting Him through hard times. Peter says that the proof of our faith in such trials is more precious than gold. And how is it that we can persevere through such trials? In Romans 15:5, Paul speaks of “the God who gives perseverance and encouragement.” In other words, God Himself, through His Spirit, is the one who gives perseverance. The trials of our faith that God takes us through are for our own benefit. As the Spirit leads us to persevere through the testing of our faith, He is showing us that we ourselves are believers, that the promises of God are ours. This is why James can say, “Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials…” As James himself goes on to explain, the testing of our faith leads to perseverance, and the one who perseveres inherits the crown of life.

We see, therefore, that joy is a fruit of the Spirit because the Spirit builds in us a hope-filled belief (which leads to joy) and demonstrates to us through our perseverance in trials that we are true believers, destined for eternal life (which further leads to joy).

Joy in real life

How then does spiritual joy show itself in real life? I have a few observations. First of all, we should not confuse joy with exuberant worship. Such worship can be a fine thing; anything that we do with the sincere intent to honor God is a worthy activity. But we all know that human beings find it easy to be emotionally carried away in large groups, with music playing and excitement running through the crowd. Spiritual joy runs much deeper than mere enthusiasm. A Spirit-induced joy is rooted in an absence of despair; it is the determination to believe that God is good and that we will be all right even when circumstances are at their worst.

Secondly, it is important to understand that spiritual joy is a matter of the will and the understanding. When I say that joy is a matter of the will, I do not mean that we should just “decide” to be joyful. That sounds to me like denial; life is hard, but we just pretend it is not. No, I mean that joy is a result of our decision to believe the truths of God. God has promised that in the age to come all things will finally be very well, but we all have a tendency to forget, dismiss, and even deny this fundamental truth. Joy, then, is the fruit of a spiritual victory in our understanding; we have decided to believe God. We are confident that in His eternal kingdom God will conquer sin, death, hurt, futility—everything that makes life today so hard—and so we look forward with eager anticipation.

Finally, we must all face the sober truth about how God deals with His people: He does not intend to make things easy for us. God intends to test us and try us, forcing us to look at today’s hurts in the light of tomorrow’s joys. This is God’s way; spiritual maturity is not the absence of suffering, but the presence of hope and faith in the midst of suffering. If in this life God’s people lived in perfect ease, joy would be easy and automatic and certainly not a mark of spirituality. When life is hard, however, we have the opportunity to be weaned from the lie that this life is all there is. The way of the world is to curse and moan and fear and complain when times are tough; people refuse to rejoice until their current problems are solved. However, if God is really God, and life in His kingdom is an eternal treasure that will feed our souls eternally, and God will keep His promise to bring into that kingdom any who ask Him, then what is the true situation of believers? If the gospel is indeed true, then we are rich, blessed, fortunate, to be envied above all others. How can we not rejoice?