Where's the Joy?
It may be closer than you think.
© 1997 by Paul Thigpen
My closest Jewish friend in college nicknamed me "Simchah" – the Hebrew word for joy.
It was no secret in our dorm that I laughed often and found a delight in daily circumstances that somehow escaped many others. One Christian friend confided: "The non-Christians here have a saying about you: 'Either Paul is totally crazy, or he's on to something we don't know about.'"
They were right. I was on to something — I should say Someone — they didn't know about, though I tried often enough to introduce them to Him. Only a short time before, I'd met the Lord, and He had become the great Fountain of my joy. Whenever I sensed His presence, a deep delight that I couldn't contain welled up within me.
In the nearly thirty years since, joy has rarely been far from me, because Jesus has remained close by. That's not to say that I haven't known considerable grief, sadness, and struggle. Nor could I even say that I've been happy most of that time. But I've known an abiding joy nonetheless. When Christian friends ask about the secret of that joy, I share with them two important lessons that have made all the difference: First, I've learned not to confuse joy with happiness; and second, I've discovered that if we want joy, we must abandon the pursuit of it, and go looking for God instead.
The Difference Between Happiness and Joy
People often equate happiness with joy, but the two are quite different. Our best clue to the meaning of happiness is found in one of its close synonyms, contentment, which has the same root as the word contain. To be content is to contain or possess what we want. So to be happy is to be satisfied, either because we have what we desire, or because we've given up the desire for what we don't have.
Happiness, then, is not so much a feeling as it is a condition or state of being. It's a calming of the heart's activity. Jesus spoke, for example, of the shepherd who is happy to find a lost sheep (Matthew 18:13). Once the shepherd obtains what he wants, his activity toward that goal ceases. The writer to the Hebrews told Christians to be happy (or content) by giving up the desire to obtain more than what they had (Hebrews 13:5).
We can see why the pursuit of happiness is the unhappiest of pursuits: We can't always have what we want; when we get what we want, we may lose it; and even if we don't lose it, the sense of satisfaction may fade because it disappoints us, or because we soon find ourselves attracted to something else.
That's why it's so important not to confuse joy with happiness. The Lord has promised that joy is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). But He never promised that we would have everything we want in this life. If we want to discover joy, we won't find it by continually striving to arrange the circumstances of our lives in a satisfying way. We must look for it elsewhere.
Like happiness, joy brings us pleasure; so what exactly is the difference between the two? One simple definition of joy that might distinguish the two experiences is this: Joy is the sense of delight that arises within us in the presence of someone or something we love.
While happiness is a condition or state of being, joy is a response. Joy depends, not on our acquisition of something, but rather on our encounter with something. Happiness possesses; joy appreciates. Happiness grasps; joy beholds.
This understanding of joy is found throughout the Bible. For example, joy is the appreciative response of a father to the wisdom he finds in a cherished son (Proverbs 15:20). It's the exultation of someone who loves righteousness upon seeing justice reign in the land (Proverbs 21:15). It's the pleasure taken by a citizen of Jerusalem in the beauty of that beloved city (Psalm 48:1-2). In each of these cases, people aren't feeling content because they have acquired something (happiness); they're taking delight in their encounter with something they love (joy).
The Order of Joy
Joy represents the culmination of a sequence of events inside us: We see goodness; we recognize it for what it is; we love it; and we enjoy it. Seeing, knowing, loving, enjoying — that is what we might call the "order of joy."
Jesus spoke of this connection between vision and rejoicing when He comforted His disciples on the night of His betrayal. He told them that He would be taken away, but that they would see Him again; and when they saw Him, their grief would turn to joy (John 16:16-22). For us as for the disciples, joy comes when we see the Lord, because it's the natural result of being in the presence of Someone we love.
In heaven, we will eternally behold the face of God as He is, without anything to obstruct the view (1 John 3:2). When at last we see Him perfectly, we will know Him and love Him perfectly, and we will enjoy Him without measure (1 Corinthians 13:12).
In the meantime, God is wooing us, drawing us to Himself with glimpses of goodness in this world that point us toward Him as their Source. Just as Jesus' disciples rejoiced because they continued to see Him after His ascension — through the works He did by His Spirit — we, too, can see Him if we're willing to look for Him. The resulting vision of God in times of trouble and in our everyday lives can cause joy to well up within us, a foretaste of the joy of heaven.
Looking for God in Difficult Situations
With all this in mind, we can understand the second lesson I've learned about abiding joy: To discover joy, we must abandon the search for it, and go looking instead for the One who is Himself joy to see, to know, and to love.
God is always with us. But our view of Him is often limited or obstructed, either by the difficult circumstances of our lives or by the wayward attitudes of our hearts. So if we want the joy God has promised, we must always be looking for God's presence, whatever the situation in which we may find ourselves. We may have ample cause for sorrow; but no matter how difficult a situation might be, if we can somehow see the goodness of God at work, we will know Him better, love Him more, and find joy in His nearness.
I remember coming home one afternoon to discover that the kitchen I had worked so hard to clean only a few hours before was now a terrible wreck. My young daughter had obviously been busy "cooking," and the ingredients were scattered, along with dirty bowls and utensils, across the counters and floor. I was not happy with the situation.
Then, as I looked a little more closely at the mess, I spied a tiny note on the table, clumsily written and smeared with chocolaty fingerprints. The message was short — "I'm makin sumthin 4 you, Dad" — and it was signed, "Your Angel."
In the midst of that disarray, and despite my irritation, joy suddenly sprang up in my heart, sweet and pure. My attention had been redirected from the problem to the little girl I loved. As I encountered her in that brief note, I delighted in her. With her simple goodness in focus, I could take pleasure in seeing her hand at work in a situation that seemed otherwise disastrous.
The same is true of my joy in the Lord. Many times life looks rather messy; I can't find much to be happy about in my circumstances. Nevertheless, if I look hard enough, I can usually see the Lord behind it all, or at least working through it all, "makin sumthin" for me. He has left His signature, His fingerprints, on the situation if I will just search for them. And when I find the evidence of His presence and His plan, a joy rises up in me that cannot be overcome by otherwise unpleasant circumstances.
Some years ago, I severed my left Achilles tendon while playing volleyball. My left leg up to my hip was placed in a cumbersome cast for many weeks. As far as I was concerned, the handicap couldn't have come at a worse time: It was a hot Georgia summer, and we were living in a tiny campus apartment with only one bathroom — upstairs. My whole leg throbbed and itched continually; I couldn't get up and down stairs without terrible difficulty; I couldn't drive or take a shower; and I had to sleep on a mattress in the hall because my fumbling in bed with the cumbersome cast kept my wife awake at night. To make matters worse, my wife was pregnant and struggling almost daily with morning sickness.
My frustration was complete. Where was God in all this?
The Lord was there, but I had to look for Him. I found Him in all the wonderful friends who came to take care of us. They helped with meals, housecleaning, and transportation. They prayed for me and with me. They kept me laughing and reminded me that God was still in control. And when the cast finally came off, I realized that we were closer than we'd ever been before. God had been in the middle of that mess, and He had left His signature in the lovingkindness of my friends.
Joy in the Everyday
Sometimes joy seems to elude us most in the everyday routine. The world seems gray; the hours seem empty. We aren't particularly distressed, but we don't find much pleasure in what we do.
In these times, joy must come to us the same way it comes when we are hurting: We must catch a glimpse of the Lord. The task of preparing ourselves for joy in the ordinary circumstances of life is actually a matter of directing our attention. We must build an interior habit of beholding God. But how do we cultivate this habit?
Perhaps surprisingly, we make room in our lives for God's joy through the traditional disciplines of the Christian life — such things as prayer, worship, Scripture study, fellowship, and service. Now you may object that, as the Scripture tells us, "all discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful" (Hebrews 12:11). Yet eventually joy will follow the discipline — if we keep our eyes on the Lord as we labor. The purpose of spiritual disciplines, after all, is to open us to God's grace, which also opens us to the joy of encountering God. Each discipline can open our eyes to some aspect of God's goodness that enables us to see, know, love, and delight in Him more deeply.
The discipline of prayer, for example, can give us daily a joyful view of God's nearness. But it becomes a frantic and draining labor if it centers on ourselves or our concerns. Once while I was in graduate school, our finances were especially tight, and I panicked when an emergency expense came up. When I approached the Lord in prayer, I found myself pointing furiously at the problem and nagging Him to pay attention to it.
Then suddenly I remembered to turn my focus to God instead of the problem. I began to praise Him, declaring Him all-powerful, all-wise, and all-loving. I began recalling all the times He had proven Himself faithful to us, all the times we had seen His fingerprints in the midst of untidy circumstances. Before long I was rejoicing that He ruled over the situation. I still wasn't happy with my circumstances, but the assurance of God's loving power brought joy into the midst of an everyday challenge.
A Love Letter from God
Scripture reading is another discipline that can provide us a joy-inspiring view of God. When I approach the Word of God as a fresh love letter from my closest Friend, searching for Him as I read, then in each line I taste the pleasure of knowing better the One I love. When the Scripture commands me, for example, to forgive, the command becomes an occasion for joy when I behold in the Scripture my Savior forgiving my own sin, setting the example for me. Then, when I ask Him to help me forgive others and express my confidence that He will answer, I sense His nearness even more vividly. My joy abounds.
The same is true when we reach out to others in the discipline of service. If we keep our eyes on the task itself, we may find ourselves in a joyless ministry. The work may be long and hard, the fruit may be difficult to measure, the people receiving our ministry may be ungrateful.
Yet Jesus said that if we care for the "least" of His brothers and sisters, we will be caring for Him as well (Matthew 25:40). We'll find joy in our service only to the extent that we find Jesus there — only when we remember that whatever work we do, we are "working for the Lord" (Col. 3:23).
Looking for God's Fingerprints
Whichever Christian discipline we may consider — worship, witness, fasting, fellowship, or many others — the same principle holds. If we want our lives to flow with joy, then we have to look for the Lord in what we're doing. However dismal or intimidating our circumstances may seem, we must look for God's fingerprints in the midst of them, some indication that He is with us. Only then will we be able to "leap for joy," as Jesus said, because we'll be looking past the hardship to focus on our great reward: the Lord Himself (Luke 6:23).
Will we always be happy? By no means. Happiness will come and go until we reach heaven and at last our desire rests fully in God.
Will we be beyond the reach of sorrow? Of course not. But the sorrow will be chastened by the joy, and the joy will be our refreshing stream in the desert until that Day when the wilderness will become a garden — and we will behold at last the beauty of the Face which we were created to enjoy forever.
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