The idea of joy has engaged philosophers, spiritual leaders, writers, and the common folk in the world in a seemingly endless conversation. It seems everyone is in search of joy in this life. Ironically, it seems few people really know what joy really is. To help in understanding what joy is, we can start by identifying some of the emotions and situation that are not related to joy.
Joy is not circumstantial. In other words, joy does not come and go based upon our circumstances and our reactions to them. If the feelings I experience seem to rise and fall with the events in my life, what I am feeling is not joy. Neither circumstances nor people cannot “rob me of my joy.”
Joy is not happiness. These are two distinct experiences, joy and happiness. The principal difference between them is causation. Happiness, unlike joy, is circumstantial. For example, if I am leaving to drive to the Boundary Waters, put my canoe in a lake and start a week-long paddle adventure, I can tell you my circumstances will have me in a happy mood. But what if on the way I run over a ladder in the road, flatten two tires, and mess up the front end of my truck? Not only am I not going canoeing for a week, but I am getting towed, and paying a lot of money for repairs. My circumstances have changed, and my mood will likely have followed suit.
Joy is not a mood. Happiness, like sadness, is a mood. Sadness is thought by some to be the opposite of joy, but joy has no opposite mood because it is not a mood state. Many circumstantial phenomena can influence mood – health, well-being, personal history, and more. True joy, however, is immune to circumstances.
Likewise, joy is not the product of positive experiences. Fulfilling one’s bucket list, experience “perfection” in a sunset, evening with friends, or a meal will not by itself lead to joy. Joy is not subsequent to any human experience.
If joy is not circumstantial, is not the same as happiness, is not a mood state, and is not the result of certain experiences, what is it?
Joy is a spiritual phenomenon that occurs in spiritual beings. All human beings are capable of experiencing joy, though I fear many if not most do so.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “Small things, done in great love, bring joy and peace. To love, it is necessary to give. To give, it is necessary to be free from selfishness.” Love, selflessness, and serving others by giving of oneself are all revealed features of our God. In her words is a clue to the pathway by which joy comes to us. Joy flows into us when we are controlled by the Spirit of our God, when we are abiding in Him and He is living His life and producing His fruit in us. “The fruit of the Spirit of God in us is love, joy, peace…” the Bible tells us in Galatians 5:22.
When joy flows into a person’s spirit, it impacts mind, the will, and the emotions of that person. It affects the mind in that it changes the perspective of the person. We do not gain joy by changing our perspective, as many believe. We change our perspective when joy enters our thinking from the Holy Spirit within us. Joy produces a paradigm shift. It changes our view of everything around us.
Joy also influences the will, infusing it with a spiritual focus. Our joy will begin to overflow into our willful choices and responses, expressing itself in good and positive volitional choices. The joyful paradigm is supportive and reinforcing of the will in this.
Joy will overflow the emotions of a person, and in some respects transcend them. Thus, a person can experience joy at the same time as a variety of emotions. Joy certainly may produce happiness. Joy can also be present when we are experiencing emotions such as pain or sorrow. I first read about joy in the midst of sorrow in the works of CS Lewis, but later experienced it personally when my father passed away. Even while experiencing profound sorrow, it was a sorrow mixed with joy – joy over the greatness of my father’s life, the bigness of his love, the depth of his impact upon me and literally hundreds of others.
“The joy of the Lord happens inside the sorrow,” wrote Tim Keller. Peter, in speaking of the fiery ordeals that had beset the early Christians, reminds them that in these sorrows they are experiencing “…a joy inexpressible and full of glory.”
Joy is the will of our God for each of us. And joy can transcend even our sorrow and personal pain. Yet we cannot experience joy by seeking it. We experience true joy only by seeking our God above all other things. It is the fruit of His Holy Spirit in us when we are yielded to Him as fully as we can be.
May our God bless us all as we seek Him above all, no matter what is happening to us or around us. The joy of the Lord is indeed our strength.
In the next post on joy we will explore the roots of joy.