Texts: John 16:16-24, Hebrews 12:1-3, Isaiah 51:4-11 2nd Lent Midweek
The Fruit of the Spirit: Joy
In the name of him who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross for our sakes, dear friends in Christ: As we began this series of devotions last week on Ash Wednesday, I mentioned that this year we’d be doing something a bit different. Instead of taking a typical journey through the penitential season of Lent by concentrating on all the negative aspects of the sin in our lives that we should be striving to eradicate, we’ll be looking at the positive, godly qualities that the Lord is even now working to instill in us. The thought being that we’d do ourselves good not just talking about what’s wrong with us; but actually considering the perfect goal to which the Lord is step by step bringing us. The most complete list of these godly virtues we desire to develop – the nine fruit of the Spirit – is found in Galatians chapter five, which, once again, is printed on the cover of your worship folder.
With this in mind, last week we examined the first fruit of the Spirit, which is love. And as we did, we discovered that the biblical concept of love is quite a bit different, and in many ways exactly opposite to what we normally think of when we use the word love in conversation. In common usage, we speak of love as warm feelings of affection for certain people, or we say that we love things that gratify us or bring us pleasure. To say it another way, I love what’s good for me. When Jesus speaks of his love for us and when he tells his disciples to love one another he has something entirely different in mind. He speaks of a love that doesn’t seek its own good, but the good of its object; and that devotes itself completely and sacrificially to doing what’s best for others without counting the cost or considering the reward to self. It’s the kind of love best displayed on the cross when Jesus gave himself to suffer and die on our behalf – as he himself said, “Greater love has no one that this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” While he was on the cross Jesus wasn’t thinking about how good we were making him feel, nor was he experiencing even the tiniest ounce of pleasure. No, he was literally putting himself through hell for us to save us from having to spend eternity there. It’s this kind of love that the Spirit is working in us, that we too would give ourselves to serve the needs of and accomplish good for those around us.
Very well, this week we’ll take on the second fruit of the Spirit on our list; namely, joy. And once again, we’re going to discover that the biblical notion of joy is something different than we usually think of when we use the word. Specifically, we tend to use joy as a synonym for happiness. And to be perfectly fair, that is one way the word is sometimes used even in many Bible translations, and that can cause a bit of confusion. What happens is that people reason that since joy is a fruit of the Spirit, and joy is nothing more than happiness, it means that God wants me to be happy – and therefore whatever makes me happy must be what God wants for me. I’ve actually encountered this argument before as people tell me why it is they’re leaving their spouse for the younger, sexier model, or why they feel it’s all right for them to be addicted to gambling, alcohol, pornography, or whatever. “It makes me happy. And God wants me to be happy. So it must be all right. Besides, don’t I have an inalienable right to be happy?”
Well, in a word, no. First, the U.S. Constitution says that you have a right to pursue happiness; it never guarantees that you’ll actually attain it. Second, though it may surprise some of the Christian citizens of our great nation, the Constitution was not handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai nor taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. It is never to be equated with the Holy Scriptures. So even if the Constitution did guarantee happiness, which it doesn’t, a Christian would still be compelled to operate under the higher Law of God while attempting to achieve it. Third, happiness is an elusive goal. I mean, what makes people happy? It varies widely from person to person. And because of our tendency to grow weary and bored with things, what makes me happy today might very well fail to do so tomorrow. On top of it all, there are plenty of people who seem to have it all, who have attained all the universally desired prerequisites for happiness and have successful careers, wealth, fame, talent, good looks, and so on – and yet they are decidedly unhappy. If you’ve ever read through the book of Ecclesiastes, you know that wise King Solomon came to that sad conclusion. There was no pleasure he could not pursue, and he indulged himself in everything. He had it all, everything that the wisdom of this world said should have made him happy – and in the midst of it all he said he hated his life.
Another way the mistake of equating happiness with the spiritual fruit of joy that sometimes appears is when misguided Christians say to themselves, “If I’m a believer, I must have the Spirit. And one of the fruits of the Spirit is joy. Therefore I’ve got to be perpetually happy. I’ve got to have the joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart because if I’m ever sad or sorrowful, it would cast doubt on the quality of my faith and question my commitment to Jesus. To be anything less than happy, might mean I’m not truly Christian.” And so to convince themselves of their status of “being saved”, they go about wearing a cloak of artificial happiness. Even when great tragedy strikes, they dare not take off their saccharine smiles for fear it would mean their faith is failing.
So because of such potential pitfalls, we definitely don’t want to make the mistake of confusing the spiritual fruit of joy with simple happiness. And at the risk of being misunderstood, strictly speaking the Lord has not got his heart set on making you happy. What he does have his heart set on is saving you from hell. And to achieve that, there are times when it’s in both his interest and yours for you to not to be happy. We need the rough times in life. We have to experience pain and loss and sorrow and so on because it’s precisely the things that make us unhappy that drive us to the Lord in repentance, and that cause us to seek his forgiveness, relief, and restoration. It’s the sadness of this world that makes us seek something better – and that something better is found only in Christ. It’s in him that we come to experience godly joy.
So if we were to draw a distinction between happiness and joy, it would be this: happiness is a surface thing. It’s temporary. It’s fleeting. It’s forever changing like waves on the surface the sea, being blown here and there, and up and down in response to the day to day happenings of life. Joy, on the other hand, runs deep. It endures. It remains steady and constant despite what’s happening on the surface level of our lives.
This joy is anchored in the truths we confessed earlier in the Creed and its explanation. Because God has made me and all creatures, because he richly and daily provides all the things I need to support this body and life, because he continues to defend and guard me from all evil; and because Jesus, true God and true man came into this world to be my Savior, because he redeemed me from sin, death, and the power of the devil with his precious blood and innocent suffering and death, because I live under him in his kingdom, serving him in his righteousness; and because the Holy Spirit called me by the gospel and enlightened me with his gifts, because he keeps and sanctifies me together with his whole church in the one true faith, because he daily forgives my sins and the sins of all believers, and because he will raise us up on the Last Day and crown us with eternal life—because of all this I know who I am as a child of God. I know how lavish and infinite is his love for me. I know that he is using the trials and heartaches of this world to shape and direct me, and that one day they will end. And I know that I will spend eternity in the glory of his presence. All of this fills me – and all believers – with a permanent and unshakable joy that cannot be taken away.
And this is why it’s possible to be profoundly unhappy and yet filled with godly joy at the same time. We experience this seeming paradox especially at the death of a faithful loved one. On the surface we might be devastated. The loss inflicts immense grief. And yet there is as the same time the deeper joy of knowing that this person we love has been received by Jesus into the company of the faithful, that they are receiving even now a foretaste of the glory to be revealed, and that they will never again know sorrow or loss or pain as they await the resurrection on the Last Day. So even while we shed tears of sadness they are mixed with inexpressible joy.
Now obviously we will come to the fullness of this joy in the next life; but the point is that we have it in part already now. And by keeping ourselves focused on the truths that are the source of this joy, we can cause it to grow increasingly stronger. And we might think of this in two ways. Taking the picture of our life as a journey on a boat crossing a wide sea, when the surface is smooth, there doesn’t seem to be much of a distinction between joy and happiness. Life is good both on the surface and way down deep. Ah, but then when we’re called to face one of life’s storms, the Christian can go into submarine mode, so to speak, diving into that deeper reservoir of joy where the affects of what’s happening on the surface don’t shake things up quite so badly. Not that we are immune to what’s going on up there, or that we ignore it; but their effects aren’t nearly as upsetting or damaging.
And this is a good way to deal with things that are personally upsetting; the trouble is that it’s not much help to those who are around us who are also facing the storm. So whenever possible what we’d really rather do is try to bring some of that deep, still water of joy to the surface. It won’t make the storm go away; but the idea is that bringing that deep seated joy to the top will soften the waves and take some of the fury out of the wind so that you ride more calmly in the crisis. Then you can be of assistance to others and serve their needs. And you’ll also be a source of hope and inspiration to them because they’re going to want to know how you can keep your head in the fury of the storm. They’ll want to know your source of strength and joy, and so you’ll have the opportunity to share with them the joy of your salvation in Christ Jesus. And then they too may enter into the fullness of joy that the Lord wants to grant to all when sorrow and sighing shall flee away, and everlasting joy shall be upon our heads. Oh, what a great day that will be. May God in his mercy hasten its coming, and cause us to joyfully serve him until then. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!