“Joy to the world”—the title and refrain of a favorite Christmas carol—because “the Lord has come” is a profound invitation. Those who know Jesus celebrate him and call on others to receive the king!
Yet this isn’t a late-summer push for a premature holiday celebration—rather it’s a reflection on the fruit of the Spirit. The list in Galatians 5 starts with the triad of love, joy, and peace: the spontaneous delights of meeting and knowing God.
In this entry I’d like to focus on joy. And notice, too, how love is linked to the experience of joy.
God’s presence in us stirs a heart response. To know God is to respond to him with delight. He fills a place in us nothing and no one else can touch. We were made for him, and joy is his signature in the soul.
Joy, like love, is affective and transitive: heart-based and object-centered. So the quality of each term is found in its focus on God whom we love because he first loved us. Both joy and love are responses to his love poured out in our hearts by his Spirit. We hear this if we take Romans 5 and 1 John 4 together. So love and joy are two facets of one response. Love is our affective bond, and joy expresses the delight that comes with love.
Joy still has rhetorical power. Love is the weaker term. We might “love” a new phone or a photo, for instance, so that love is reduced to a soft pleasantry. Joy, on the other hand, has more life.
C.S. Lewis captured this in the account of his conversion in Surprised by Joy. He wrote of brief moments of joy that startled him from time to time. His instinct was to grab at joy—as if it was a commodity—but the joy evaporated as soon as he chased it. Finally he linked enduring joy to his meeting and trusting Jesus. It was a person and not a brief stir that brought lasting joy.
So what do we make of joy? Just this: we were made for it and our hearts chase it at every turn.
But apart from God’s presence in us we miss joy. We speak, for instance, of enjoyment—of moments that spark joy—as a goal in life. But enjoyments only point back to Adam’s fall—to his replacing the Creator with the creation—and to his efforts to find joy in his autonomy. But things—our toys, places, entertainments, and stimulants—are only devices that scratch at our itch for joy. Relationships, and nothing less, bring true joy.
On the other hand sin—self-love and pride—suffocates joy. Yet God grants glimpses of joy to all—even to sinners. Relational moments like a new friendship, a wedding, or the coming of a first-born child are lightning flashes. But even these fade as the friendships, the marriage, and the growing child are lost to the individual pursuits of lesser enjoyments.
Here’s a Trinitarian lesson, then. The joy of God’s eternal, mutual love is the source of our own ultimate joy. It represents God’s intrinsic delight spilling out to us as his beloved ones.
In John’s gospel, for instance, in his final discourse Jesus invited the disciples to step into his own sandals for a moment as his crucifixion and ascension to the Father drew near. “You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father” (14:28). The Father—“greater” in his initiatives of love for the Son—was calling him back to share the glory of their mutual love. This vision also punctuated Christ’s prayer in John 17:24.
This was also the heart of Christ’s calling to his followers in the vine analogy of John 15. Notice verses 10-11: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”
And we also recall joy as the motivation for both the incarnation and the atonement of the cross in Hebrews chapter 12: “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God….”
In sum we always have God’s invitation to “taste and see” his goodness. And for any who are still missing his love and joy—by chasing self-concerns and passing enjoyments instead—the joy of the Lord can become the strength in life. Just set your eyes on Jesus and see what comes of it.