In this series of blogs we are exploring four Christian virtues associated with the Advent season: hope, peace, joy, and love. Each one of these virtues—as Christian virtues—finds their full meaning and significance in Jesus’ ministry on earth. Without them we are at a clear disadvantage in dealing with trials and in demonstrating the reality of the gospel in our lives.
Part 3: The Joy Assessment
An Unusual Imperative
There are a number of unexpected teachings found in the Bible. Among them are the imperatives related to joy. For example:
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2).
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13).
When we face “trials of various kinds,” rejoicing is not our immediate, natural response. Moreover, while we are going through trials, we are not likely to feel blessed by someone immediately saying to us, “Rejoice!” And yet, James, Paul, and Peter are not uncomfortable writing about the joy imperative in the context of suffering. Although we need to be careful and sensitive in our approach, we too must follow the lead of these New Testament writers as we interact with distressed counselees. Stressed-out counselees, at some point in learning to handle their trials, must reckon with the joy imperative. But how are we to make sense of the joy imperative?
The key to understanding the New Testament’s joy imperative is found in a phrase that supports and substantiates it: “in the Lord.” This phrase communicates the framework within which Christian joy in all circumstances makes sense. “In the Lord” describes the relationship believers have with Jesus. It is a relationship that transforms us, that gives us a new identity, and that secures a future of eternal blessings. To be “in Christ” is to be indwelt by his Spirit who empowers, enlightens, and enriches us in ways that are hard to capture in words. Although God has elected not to take his children out of the fallen world right away, he does offer foretastes of heaven to those who are in Christ. We can experience now, in a small measure, what will overwhelm us in eternity. For example:
Now God promises to provide for our basic needs as we seek first his kingdom and righteousness (see Matthew 6:25-34).
Now God’s Spirit enables us to understand Jesus’ role as Lord/Savior and to grasp the reality of having God as “Abba, Father” (see Galatians 4:1-7).
Now God grants us a pardon for our sins, freeing us from the plague of guilt (see Romans 8:1).
Now God gives us opportunities to do “good works” for his glory and others’ welfare (see Ephesians 2:10).
All of these “spiritual blessings in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3) occur in both pleasant and unpleasant circumstances. Although rejoicing seems “more natural” in pleasant or favorable situations, that is because we implicitly assume “joy” = “happiness.” Yet, in the New Testament joy is not intrinsically tied to any events we might experience. Instead, joy grows out of our relationship with the Lord. Joy is a “fruit of the Spirit” and is linked to the “kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:22; Romans 14:17). Therefore, as God’s kingdom purposes are accomplished—whether in positive or negative events in life—Christians can be expected to choose joy and to experience joy. Looking for what God is doing in this world—in both triumphs and tragedies—makes the joy imperative reasonable, because God is always at work fulfilling his purposes (Psalm 135:6; Proverbs 16:4, 9; Isaiah 46:10; Daniel 4:35; Romans 8:28; etc.). Joy, then, is an excitement about what God is doing to accomplish his will. And as odd as it may sound, joy can occur or be expected of believers even in the midst of struggles. For example:
“… we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:2-4).
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4).
“We [Paul and his co-laborers] are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing (2 Corinthians 6:8-10).
Christians must develop the habit of focusing more on what God is using events to accomplish—as opportunities to trust, love, and serve him—rather than remain narrowly focused on what they would prefer to happen for themselves. When they do, that is when they will be able to “rejoice in the Lord always.”
The “Joy” Assessment
The assessment of joy in our lives hinges on how devoted we are to seeing God’s purposes fulfilled. Therefore, when you (or your counselees) face trials, where does your focus land? Is it on how God might be glorified even in the struggle? To be more specific: What character traits are being shaped or sharpened by the trial you (or your counselees) have to endure? Do you (or your counselees) value these traits enough to understand the “heat” of the struggle?
Join the Conversation
Obviously trying to communicate the joy imperative with others is not easy. What have you done that you have found helpful? How do you hold to the joy imperative without coming across to others as calloused?