What is Joy?

by Mike Ratliff

When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you. Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalms 73:21-26)

Undoubtedly, there is much confusion about that little three-letter word "joy." Is it simply a deeper form of happiness? Is it the opposite of sadness or depression? The secular perception of joy is "lasting happiness." However, the Bible interprets joy very differently. In fact, God commands His people to be full of joy. (Psalms 37:4; Philippians 4:4) If joy were an emotion based upon circumstances then that command would seem rather harsh and unrealistic. However, coming from a Reformed Theological perspective, we do know that God commands many things for His people to do that they could never do within their own capabilities. Beginning with salvation itself, we see that our believing unto salvation came through God's supernatural regenerative work in our Hearts. (Ephesians 2:8-9) Being spirit-filled (Ephesians 5:18), walking in the spirit (Galatians 5:16, 25), praying unceasingly (1 Thessalonians 5:17) and loving our enemies (Matthew 5:43-45) are only a few commands for believers obedience to actions which they could never do within their own abilities.

The Spirit-led believer is obedient to God because he or she walks through each day with their heart focused on God fully intent upon His glory. The Holy Spirit leads the Spirit-led believer into acts of righteousness. (Psalm 23:3) This believer knows he or she cannot obey God for His glory in his or her own abilities. Instead, they implore God for His wisdom, which he imparts freely. (James 1:5) Their obedience is fully empowered by God's grace.

Joy is both an outcome of our relationship with the Lord and our source of strength for our obedience of Him. (John 15) The Joy of the Lord is our strength. (Nehemiah 8:9) God desires for His people to be strong in Him so He graciously gives us joy as we cooperate with Him in our sanctification. (Philippians 2:12-13) The joy of the Lord is the source of our fulfillment. As we experience fulfillment in the Lord this way, we work out our salvation in ever-increasing levels of refinement. Christ-likeness deepens for those who have determined in their heart to walk the Walk by Faith and live for God's glory alone.

When the believer walks this way, their joy-filled heart produces true worship of their Lord. This worship is true worship because it is in spirit and truth. (John 4:24) That means their worship is completely God-centered, fully intent on His glory. There is no hint of entertainment. This worship's focus is to bless the Lord. What happens to those who worship the Lord this way? God fills them with His joy. The believer refocuses his or her priorities by turning their heart to God for fulfillment and away from all other sources. This is the exercise of delighting in God, which the Lord is drawing us all to do.

The Psalm I placed at the beginning of this paper is a snapshot of the process of God drawing a self-focused, bitter believer to turn from self-focus to Him for fulfillment. Here it is again.

When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you. Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalms 73:21-26)

Our tests and trials are God-allowed circumstances in our lives that are tremendous tools in His capable hands to grow us in grace. Look at the progression the psalmist took in this passage. What was he like at first? He was bitter, but his conscience was condemning him for it. When we become self-focused, our circumstances blind us to all spiritual reality. We see the physical instead of the spiritual aspects. We react brutishly and ignorantly. We lash out and sulk like spoiled children. We even accuse God of letting us down. However, God knows how to fix this problem. What did He do? He took his right hand, guided him with counsel. This is a picture of God drawing us into Repentance with Joy. This is the process of turning our focus away from the flesh and emotional reactions. As we turn away from what is dominating us we turn to God instead. God draws us to do this. What is the result? Spiritual blinders fall away. We see our circumstance from God's perspective instead of ours. We realize we have allowed our flesh to dominate us. We repent as God gives us His joy. We find true fulfillment. It is at this point we finally understand the profundity of, "The joy of the Lord is your strength."

When our joy is in anything or anyone other than the Lord it can be stolen or taken away because all apart from God is temporal. When our joy is in the Lord, it cannot be taken away or stolen because He is eternal and what He promises to do He does. (John 16:22, 33) The Lord wants our Joy to be full and eternal. (John 15) What is keeping us from having this full and eternal joy? Why does it seem that we actually do lose joy at times? When we are embittered, brutish and ignorant toward God we have moved our focus away from Him to something else. However, when we refocus on the Lord and who we are in Him then the joy of the Lord becomes mightily apparent to our hearts. Why? Jesus Christ is alive and when we realize who we are in Him, we attain eternal perspective. (John 14:18-19)

What is joy? A better question is, "What is the joy of the Lord?" The fuel that drives the engine of our worshipping hearts is the joy of the Lord. Our worshipping hearts keep us focused on the Lord for our fulfillment. As we delight in Him He grows us in grace. This is so much more than simply being religious. This is walking through every moment of every day living for His glory. The joy of the Lord both empowers that process and grows from it.

Oh Lord, teach us to live for Your glory. Never let up on revealing the depths of our fleshly depravity that must be cut away. Never stop cleansing and reclaiming our souls. Oh Lord, we deserve nothing but hell, but you have saved us by grace through faith which you gave us. Oh Lord, we dedicate ourselves to becoming Spirit-led mature believers whose joy is in You alone! Amen!

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

9 thoughts on “What is Joy?

  1. I think people come up with these formulas for God’s joy because deep inside they need something to hang onto, and if they have an untangable happy feeling, unstable though it may be, they wont have to face the questions that lurk deep under the surface. It could be said that these questions dont even have a real answer, but they lead to two possible ends. One end being a deeper faith in a soveriegn God who at one point, for the greater good, let the ultamate horror happen upon the cross, even though no one could see the good in it at the time. The other end might result in a sorrow of heart, a loss of friendship with God, a search for identity apart from God, if even perhaps for just a season, painful though it may be, it causes one to journey deep into the realm of deep questions and validation. Madeleine L’Engle once said, “If faith never encounters doubt, if faith never struggles with error, if good never battles in with evil, how can faith know its own power? A faith that has stared doubt in the eye and made it blink, or a naïve faith that has never known the firing line of doubt, I will choose the former every time.”
    It is certainly true, that the joy of the Lord is not a formula to be exercized five many a day. Like if I wake up in the morning and quote Nehamiah 8:10 sixteen times then ill feel the joy of the Lord until ten o’clock, and then if I rebuke the spirit of depression at ten thirty and quote James 1:2-4 seven times I will feel joy until three thirty. It is from God, and goes past human understanding and circumstances. I thank God for his joy.


  2. hi,
    I woke up with a heavy heart and i could not seem to know why, i cry, pray and battle for sometime.
    i sudenly felt empty and need the word of God to fill me which i finally got from your site
    thank you my God bless you richly


  3. Cathy,

    Thank you for the blessing. I pray my sister that you draw near unto God, worship Him, delight in Him, and move forward in our Lord’s Joy. We do have to move from self-reliance and self-sufficiency to godly humility in order have strong faith and intense joy. I pray this for you Cathy.

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff


  4. I firmly believe that joy comes from knowing, knowing the truth of God’s word and believing it. The more we come to know and trust him the fuller our joy becomes. I am reminded of the Hebrew boys in the furnance and Paul in jail singing prasies unto God. These were able to rejoice at these critical times in their lives because of what and who they knew. Their trust, knowledge,love and experience with the Lord produced joy. How many of us can truly say that in the mist of very difficult times we display the peace and total confidence in knowing that our situation is of the upmost importance to God and he is in control no matter what it looks like. How many of us truly experiences the peace that passes understanding which produces eternal joy, one that’s not only a temporal facial expression of happines, but an inward consistent display of great pleasure and delight in a God that we know will deliver us out of every situation because he loves us. God’s desire is that we be full of his joy, but I do believe that we have some work to do in obtaining this joy in the fullness. Learning his truths and believing that he is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, we say this a lot but do we really believe it. We can examine ourselves when come to the measure of joy that we have by observing our reaction in difficult times and they will come. These are some of the things that I am learning on this journey and in my pursuit of a fuller level of joy. God Bless Each and every one that may read this, and I hope that in some way you are encouraged to pursue God in his fullness. We are going to make it together.

    One Of God’s
    Leading Ladies


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  7. I praise God that I have found the joy of the Lord, and that it has truly become my strength! I used to suffer from severe depression, which the Lord delivered me from. I never knew that this kind of joy even existed! I discovered that there is a vast difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is an emotional state (which all emotions can linked to chemical reactions in your brain) and is totally dependant on your surroundings or what is happening to you at that time. But joy is an internal, eternal state that can only come from the Lord. I have found that I cannot give anyone joy and no one can give me joy. It only comes from God! And because no one gave it to me, then that means that no one can take it away!!! I have also found that it is really hard to explain something to someone who has never experienced what you’re feeling. If they’ve never experienced the true joy of the Lord then they can’t understand it. I think it is something that has to be experienced to be understood. Anyway, God bless you & yours, and may the peace, love and JOY of the Lord be with you always!!!!


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