What is Joy?

by Mike Ratliff

21 When my heart was embittered
And I was pierced within,
22 Then I was senseless and ignorant;
I was like a beast before You.
23 Nevertheless I am continually with You;
You have taken hold of my right hand.
24 With Your counsel You will guide me,
And afterward receive me to glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but You?
And besides You, I desire nothing on earth.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Psalms 73:21-26 (NASB) 

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.

21 When my heart was embittered
And I was pierced within,
22 Then I was senseless and ignorant;
I was like a beast before You.
23 Nevertheless I am continually with You;
You have taken hold of my right hand.
24 With Your counsel You will guide me,
And afterward receive me to glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but You?
And besides You, I desire nothing on earth.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Psalms 73:21-26 (NASB) 

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.

Soli Deo Gloria!