Dr. Dan Hayden •
When Warren Wiersbe wrote his commentary on the Book of Philippians, he titled it, Be Joyful, It Beats Being Happy. Biblically, of course, he is correct. It is better to be joyful than to be happy. On a practical level, however, many of God’s people don’t have the slightest idea of what he is talking about.
A while ago, a man called me on the phone to talk about his failing marriage. The problem, in his mind, was that the relationship had gone flat. He liked his wife as a person, but for some reason the excitement wasn’t there anymore and he was admitting that he no longer loved her. “I’m not fulfilled,” he said. “I’m just not happy.”
Knowing that he was a professing Christian, and wanting to direct his attention away from the peripheral issues to the core of his problem, I suggested to him that what he really needed was to discover the joy of the Lord. “More than happiness,” I said, “what you need is the kind of joy that only the Lord can give to you.” His response was classic: “What’s the difference? I thought that happiness and joy were the same.”
The tendency to equate happiness and joy is rather common. Perhaps you have even thought them to be synonymous. Quite frankly, as colloquial expressions, “be happy” and “be joyful” do seem to be saying essentially the same thing. As Christians, however, we are concerned to know if God has something different in mind, knowing that God has said, “my thoughts are not your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8).
The subject of joy is mentioned in many passages of the Word of God, but the words of Christ in His high-priestly prayer are particularly helpful when trying to clarify the biblical meaning of the term. In the middle of His prayer for the disciples, and for all who would yet believe on Him, He said to His Father:
And now come I to thee; and these things I speak in the world, that they might have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them thy word, and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world (John 17:13-14, KJV).
What is it that our Lord is really praying on our behalf? Two basic problems appear to be confronting Christians on the subject of God’s joy, and both of them are answered in this passage of Scripture. The first is a definition problem—we don’t seem to know what joy is. Secondly, there is an acquisition problem—we don’t seem to know how to get it.
WHAT IS THE JOY OF THE LORD?
A Definition Problem
A young lady once said to me, “Pastor, how can God expect me to be joyful (or did she mean happy?) when life is so tough and everything’s going wrong?” She was expressing a common frustration with regard to Christian joy. Problems and pain are usually thought of as inconsistent with the joy of the Lord.
You see, happiness is directly related to the circumstances of our lives. When things go well, we’re happy. When things do not go well, we are not happy. It is as simple as that. Now, if we equate happiness with joy, then we will think of joy in the same way. The fact that pleasant times are usually seasonal and transitory (sometimes even totally elusive), means that the joy of the Lord is perceived that way, too. Sometimes we have it; sometimes we don’t.
Is that what our Lord had in mind when He prayed for us? Not really. Jesus was praying for something far different. When He said, “that they might have my joy fulfilled in themselves” (v. 13), He used a word to indicate something consistent and lasting. The Greek word for “fulfilled” is pleroo, which means to make full or, in another sense, to complete and bring to a finished product. The idea then, is that we might have His joy brought to completion, or matured, in us.
Also, the grammatical form of this word (the perfect tense) contains the idea of something that begins in us with consequences that continue throughout our lives. It is something that happens within us that is irrespective of any outward circumstance. It is consistent, not intermittent. It is lasting, not temporary. Thus, the joy of the Lord has a quality about it that surpasses what we normally think of as happiness.
The key to our understanding the joy of the Lord, however, is to observe carefully the specific joy our Lord had in mind in His prayer. When Jesus prayed, He said, “that they might have my joy fulfilled in themselves” (v. 13). There it is. Do you see it? He does not have our joy (in the sense of what pleases us) in mind at all. Rather, He is thinking of His own joy brought to completion (fulfilled) in our Christian lives. That is more than an interesting observation. It is the essence of knowing what the Bible means when it refers to Christian joy. The joy of the Lord, quite frankly, is the Lord’s joy. In other words, it is the kind of joy experienced by Him when He was on the earth.
So you ask, what is the Lord’s joy? What is it like? Thankfully, we are not left to guess concerning the nature of this joy. In Hebrews 12:2 we read:
Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God (KJV).
We are told in this verse that “the joy” our Lord knew was something that was “set before him.” In other words, as He lived out His life there was something before Him that so captivated His attention that the difficult times (the cross and the shame), were no match for His enthusiasm. It motivated Him. It strengthened Him for the hard times. It created an excitement in His heart that made all other things pale into insignificance. It was so wonderful that His entire life was dedicated to pursuing it. The thing that was “set before him” was His joy. It was the joy of the Lord.
The last phrase of this verse, however, gives us our clue as to what it was. The Bible says He “is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” That final expression is descriptive of the glory that came to Christ as a result of all that He did. In His high-priestly prayer (John 17), He tells us that His whole purpose for living was to bring glory to the Father by accomplishing the work of redemption which the Father had given Him to do (v. 4). Jesus went on to say that there was a glory that would come to Him as a result of that accomplishment (v. 5)—a glory so wonderful and so exalting that no hardship was too great (the cross) and no rejection too severe (the shame) to deter Him from that goal. Even eating took a back seat to that purpose (John 4:31-34). It was the joy of His life.
Now the thing we need to understand is that the Lord’s joy was related to what would happen at the end as a result of what He did in the process. The glory and praise He would receive in Heaven as a result of having “endured the cross, despising the shame” on earth, was His joy. That was what was “set before him.” It was the end result, the goal, and the finish line that joyfully enthralled His soul. Therefore, He endured with joy the hardships He experienced because they were the means of achieving the joyful result (James 1:2-4).
All of this can be beautifully illustrated by our previous verse in Hebrews 12:
Wherefore, seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us (Heb. 12:1, KJV).
Serious athletes understand this principle. Olympic runners, for instance, will subject themselves to rigorous workouts, painful situations, and severe deprivation in order to do their very best in the Olympic Games. They are not masochists who simply rejoice in pain. They “lay aside every weight” and “run with patience” because they are driven by a vision of glory in which they win the race and receive the gold medal. The pleasure of participating and, ultimately, the glory of winning is their joy. Even the process becomes enjoyable in the sense that it contributes to the joy—the glory of winning.
That, dear Christian friend, is the presence of the joy of the Lord. It is not pleasurable experiences that make us happy here on earth—although happy times will come on occasion. The Lord’s joy is a wonderful sense of privilege and an incredible sense of destiny as we participate in the grand work of Christ upon the earth. It is enlivening expectation that the result of all our work, trials, and suffering in the cause of Christ will be a magnificent sharing in the glory of Christ. We will reign with Him (2 Tim. 2:12), we will sit with Him on His throne (Rev. 3:21), and we will share with Him in His glory (1 Pet. 5:1). Can anything beat that? Is that vision set before you? If so, it will be your joy, and you will say with Paul, “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).
Those that have caught that vision will understand exactly what Peter meant when he said:
Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to test you, as though some strange thing happened unto you. But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings, that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy (1 Pet. 4:12-13, KJV).
Our Lord is praying for us that we might have His joy fulfilled in us. What is He praying? He is praying that we will enter into such a close union with Him that the joy of His life will be the joy of our lives. He is praying that we will catch the vision of devoting our lives to the glory of God and to His purpose in the world with the realization that we will one day share in His glory. Oh, what a joy it is—no matter the cost!
HOW CAN WE GET THE JOY OF THE LORD?
An Acquisition Problem
Now let’s go back to my friend who was struggling with his marriage. How could the joy of the Lord help him when he was feeling so unhappy? Is there an answer today for those who are disappointed and discouraged about the circumstances of life? I think so.
Feelings of happiness or sadness are emotional reactions to how we perceive what is happening to us, and the strength of those emotions is regulated by our value systems. You see, my friend was looking to his wife to fulfill an expectation he had for some personal experience in marriage. It is the experience that he valued, more than his wife. He was unhappy because her behavior did not contribute to his valued feelings and so he wanted to exchange her for someone who would fulfill his desires. His highly valued marital expectation had become the touchstone of his emotions. His wife was merely a dispensable item that gained her value in relation to how she contributed to the greater value of his cherished fulfillment. He loved it, not her—and since he did not have it, he was unhappy. Happiness and sadness are like that.
Suppose however we could conceive of the ultimate value—a person so wonderful and an experience so fulfilling that everything else in our world would be pale in comparison. This person is more beautiful than any person who has ever lived on the face of the earth, more glorious than all of the celebrated personalities of history combined, and more loving than could be imagined in the grandest romantic novel. This incredible person is extremely wealthy and will always delight in fulfilling every desire of our hearts. We will never again know disappointment—only extreme happiness forever.
Now imagine that we are the object of that person’s love, and one day soon we will have the opportunity to enter together into a highly ecstatic and wonderfully utopian situation. Imagine also that although we will have to wait for a short time, the experience is absolutely certain to come; and when it does, it will last forever. In the meantime, it is our privilege to know this person as a daily companion and as a provider of all our needs. Isn’t that a thought to challenge our abilities to dream?
The person of course is Jesus Christ. And the good news is that it is not a dream. In fact, it is much better than I have described. Our relationship with Him in Heaven will be absolutely perfect, for though it will be personally wonderful, it will be devoid of any taint of selfishness. Our thoughts will not be for ourselves. They will be only for Him.
This is the joy of the Lord! It is the very thing that Jesus anticipated with His Father. Now, He offers the same anticipation to those of us who have received Him as Savior.
Why is it, then, that so few Christians experience the joy of the Lord? Jesus gives us the answer in the next phrase of His prayer for us. After He prayed that we might have His joy fulfilled in us, He said:
I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world (John 17:14, KJV).
Here is the means of knowing the same joy that our Lord knew. Jesus Christ suffered many things while He was in the world, but the one thing that was continually before His mind was the word which the Father had given Him. He had a promise. He had the Father’s word, and he believed it. It was the truth of the Father’s word concerning the sure result of His earthly labors that became His joy.
Jesus said, “I have given them thy word.” You and I have the same promise from the Father with regard to the same sure result. Therefore, when we don’t experience the joy of the Lord, one of two things is true: either we don’t understand clearly (or have forgotten) what His Word is saying to us, or we have chosen (either actively or passively) not to believe what His Word has said.
In the first case, we simply need to read and meditate on the grand truth of Scripture concerning our eternal expectation so that we might clearly perceive our joyful heritage. Actually, it is necessary to do this daily so that we might continually be refreshed in the Lord’s joy.
The second instance however is the most destructive of all. Unbelief indeed seems to be the major culprit in robbing us of our joy. As the children of Israel did not enter into the promise of God during the days of Moses because of unbelief (Heb. 4), so God’s people today fail to enter into the Lord’s joy for the same reason. We know the truth in our heads, but somehow the pressures of life and the pleasures of the world seem more real to us.
My friend valued the physical sensation of sexual passion and emotional fulfillment more than the spiritual anticipation of entering into the glory of Christ. The former was real in his mind—he believed it. The latter was merely a theology to which he had given mental assent. He did not truly believe God’s Word to be real, for if he did, he would have considered everything else to be insignificant in favor of it. The lack of fulfillment in his marriage (for which, by the way, there are practical remedies in the Word of God) would have been seen in the light of the greater picture of serving the Lord and realizing His joy.
Let’s say it as it is. The real reason we are not experiencing the joy of the Lord is because we do not believe what God has told us in His Word. Somehow we cannot conceive of His promise as being actually real. We haven’t entered in because of unbelief.
In our Lord’s prayer for us (John 17:13-14), the joy of the Lord is placed in a contrast of settings. On the one hand He said, “I have given them they word.” That is the setting for knowing the joy of the Lord. On the other hand he said, “they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.” Our Lord experienced joy with the Father because He was not looking for His fulfillment in the world. In like fashion, that is the only way we also will find His joy.
How then do we get the joy of the Lord? It becomes a part of our experience when we believe that His Word, which He has given to us, is true. When the reality of Jesus Christ and His glory is fully grasped, then we also will be able to endure the cross and despise the shame for the wonder of the joy that is set before us.
In conclusion, let me encourage you to seek the joy of the Lord as a realistic goal for your life. King David prayed that every child of God would know God’s joy (Psalm 5:11). When he himself fell into sin and lost the sense of that joy, he prayed that God would restore it unto him (Psalm 51:12). Obviously it was a quality of life that he did not wish to lose.
Consider also the concern of the apostle Paul as he prayed for believers in Christ that they might experience the Christian life “with joyfulness” (Col. 1:11). John the apostle shared the same thought and dedicated his entire first epistle to the purpose that “your joy may be full” (1 John 1:4). There is no question about it. The joy of the Lord is a wonderful provision of God for His people.
Open your heart to the truth of God’s Word concerning the provision of Christ for your life—both now and forever. Believe it, and let the Lord’s joy be fulfilled in you.
Remember: “BE JOYFUL—IT BEATS BEING HAPPY!”