…even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy. 1 Peter 1:8
Sometimes we struggle to grasp the biblical view of joy because of the way it is described today. We might confuse joy with happiness. The word happy can be sentimental, and happiness can be understood as an emotional state.
The Common English Bible, a translation sponsored by my denomination, even replaced the word “blessed” in the Beatitudes with the word “happy” (Matthew 5:1-12), possibly sending the message that Jesus wanted us to live in a continual state of carefree delight.
Many songs have been written with the theme of happiness, but one that stands out to me is Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” I didn’t realize this in the 1980’s, but I’ve noticed recently that the words “Don’t worry, be happy,” can be interpreted as instructions and not advice.
The Bible, perhaps like McFerrin, instructs us to be joyful. We see this command numerous times in the Psalms (32:11, 34:2, 66:6, 96:11, 97:12, 105:3, etc.) We are to “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16) Joy is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. (Galatians 5:22-23)
Everyone experiences sadness, and so did Jesus. He was called “a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isaiah 53:3). The author of Ecclesiastes tells us, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting,”( 7:2a). Feelings of sadness, depression and despair are normal, even for disciples of Jesus.
However, joy is not like what we often consider to be happiness. It is not an emotional experience that happens to us. It is something we willfully do and we are commanded to do. Paul writes to the Philippian church, “Rejoice in the Lord always” (4:4). Not occasionally or when we are in the mood. Keep in mind that Paul wrote this letter from prison where he is facing death. Yet he tells the Philippian believers that they should rejoice despite his circumstances.
How is this possible?
Paul gives us a practical way forward in that same passage: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (4:8).
This is a call to focus our attention on what God has done for us in Christ. When we find ourselves depressed, down, irritated or unhappy, we can return to the source of our joy, and see how our difficult circumstances are insignificant when compared to the enormous riches in Christ.
God commands us to experience true joy. Not just in heaven someday. Not when circumstances take a turn for the better. Not when sorrow and darkness finally lift. God wants us to taste real joy today.