Not only is Christmas supposed to be a joyous time, Christians are supposed to be joyful people all year round. Among all the people of the earth, Christians have the greatest reason to be full of joy. But sometimes life steps in and just robs me of the joy. I know I should feel it, but sometimes I just don't. The question emerges: Is joy something I should just wait for? Will it just come upon me?
I am not alone. There seems to be a great absence of joy in the lives of many Christians and congregations today; for some, especially during the holidays. Of the several "fruit of the Spirit" (Galatians 5), for many joy just may be the most elusive.
Interestingly enough, the Bible never recommends that we "rejoice," it commands us to do so ("I will say it again: Rejoice!" Philippians 4:4). When I first realized this, a few questions immediately came to mind: How can I suddenly have the emotion of joy? According to the Bible, how can it be cultivated? In short, what can I do to work on my joy?
The pathway to joy, however, has not always been an easy one to navigate. It has become clear to me that God won't force the expression of joy upon us. Much like a host throwing a party, who invites you to the event in full hopes that you will absolutely enjoy yourself, he provides all that is needed for a good time -- the atmosphere, the food, the people -- but your attitude and actions determine how much you enjoy the event.
In order to tap into the joy supply that Christ has secured for us, it will require some discipline. Joy is not only something felt within, it must be cultivated and practiced. Happiness is fleeting and random, but joy is nurtured and grown. Joyful people practice these Biblical habits regularly.
The best way to maintain an outlook of joy is by abiding in Christ, remaining close to the Lord day by day: "If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete" (John 15:10-11).
Several years ago I was sitting in a routine church staff meeting when one of the staff members told us of a young man who had made a recent commitment to Christ at a small group. After a couple of token nods of heads around the room, the pastor proceeded to rebuke us: "Hey, guys! Did you hear what I just heard? Someone gave his heart to Christ this week. Now, c'mon, let's hear it!" Then, he broke out into clapping, shouting and whistling in celebration. The rest of us joined in.
The point was well taken. Seeing people come to Christ was one of our reasons for existence as a church. When someone takes that step, we need to mark the moment and to mark it with joy. After all, if the angels in heaven stop and rejoice (Luke 15:10), shouldn't we?
Reading the Scripture can be an incredible source of joy. I enjoy utilizing commentaries and study resources from time to time, but I have found the greatest joy in just sitting back and reading the Word of God. Allowing the mind and heart to get caught up in the truths, the biographies, the adventures, the insights and the promises contained in the Bible is a fountain every Christian should drink from frequently and regularly.
"I have rejoiced in your decrees as much as in riches" (Psalm 119:14 NLT).
"I rejoice in your word like one who finds a great treasure" (Psalm 119:162 NLT).
Singing, whether in a church or in my car, is one of my favorite ways to stir up and release the joy of the Lord in my heart. When my mind fills with anxious thoughts, it does me a world of good to just begin to praise God and sing. Singing allows my soul to move its focus from the circumstances of life and to the character of God. It's downright therapeutic. Paul encouraged it: "...be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord..." (Ephesians 5:18-19).
A generous spirit is a joyous spirit. Paul praised the Corinthians not only for their giving, but especially for their "cheerful" giving: "Now I want to tell you, dear friends, what God in his kindness has done for the churches in Macedonia. Though they have been going through much trouble and hard times, their wonderful joy and deep poverty have overflowed in rich generosity" (2 Corinthians 8;1-2 NLT).
Our joy is renewed by remembering God, by meditating on his goodness, by recalling his specific acts of faithfulness to us. The book of Psalms is, in effect, a record and a recounting of God's goodness to people: "You satisfy me more than the richest of foods. I will praise you with songs of joy. I lie awake thinking of you, meditating on you through the night. I think how much you have helped me; I sing for joy in the shadow of your protecting wings" (Psalm 63:5-7 NLT). Joy never forgets -- to remember.
Jesus made it clear to his disciples that they had overlooked an incredible well of joy as they walked with him -- simply by not asking him for more: "Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete" (John 16:24).
Sometimes as Christians we can feel guilty asking God to give us "more." It is important, however, to remember that God wants to bless us in abundant ways, including, but even beyond, our physical needs.
When the Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippian church, he was chained day and night to a rotating Praetorian guard while under house arrest. Even in this limiting state, however, he wrote this wonderful Epistle of Joy. In addition, he made it clear that even in these dire circumstances, he was still finding reasons for joy. Paul knew that sometimes to discover the joy we must surrender ourselves to the God-allowed circumstance: "But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So you too should be glad and rejoice with me" (Philippians 2:17-18).
Jesus came into this world not as a king, but as a servant (Philippians 2). He came to show us that the greatest joy is found when we learn how to truly serve God and people in need. The heart of a genuine servant is a joyful one. When we discipline our minds to focus on God's will and the needs of others, we discover a place where joy abounds. The journey of serving God is supposed to be one paved with great joy: "Serve the Lord with gladness..." (Psalm 100:2a NKJV).
Living life with heaven in mind is one of the best ways to renew our joy. If the vertical focus of heaven is our highest hope, than nothing in our horizontal experiences or relationships can keep us from the promise of it. When this world lets us down, we can be reminded of a Place that never will. Peter was clearly anchored to the higher hope of heaven when he wrote: "Though you have not seen him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and area filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls" (1 Peter 1:8-9).
No moments are as engaging and wonderful to a young child as those that are made when a dad (or mom) put down their chores long enough to connect with them, to get on the floor and wrestle and play, or to just toss a ball to them. Great joy in found in those moments of spontaneity. What about enjoying God? It sounds almost too good to be true doesn't it? And yet God not only wants us to worship him, he wants us to enjoy him. "In thy presence is fullness of joy and at thy right hand pleasures forevermore" (Psalm 16:11).
C.S. Lewis recognized the importance of making the joy choice, even when doubts arose:
...moods will change, whatever view you reason takes. I know that by experience. Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing [i.e.: Christianity] looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. ... That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods 'where they get off,' you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist...
In the final analysis, joy is a regular experience that no Christian can afford to miss. It requires certain disciplines, but they are well worth it. Choosing joy will involve capturing moments of celebration, making music in your heart, discovering the reasons you have for joy, and sometimes telling your emotions where to get off. And, one day our final destination will be not only entering into heaven -- but entering into joy!
"Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord" (Matthew 25:21 NKJV).