Joy

Original Date: 
Sunday, April 29, 2018

Psalm 13, Philippians 4:4 and other scriptures The Fruit of the Spirit: Joy

Father…Grant What You Command
Tell me if this sounds familiar: you slept a little late on a Sunday morning. At breakfast, the kids didn’t want to eat what was offered. When it was time to get dressed, the kids weren’t interested in wearing what you set out for them. Then, in the car ride to church, you got into a fight with your spouse. By the time the car pulls into the parking lot the littlest is crying, the other two are screaming at each other, and you and your spouse aren’t talking.

Then you turn and say to everybody: “We’re going to church now, so get happy!”

Does that work? Is happiness something you can just turn on? Like flipping a light switch? Can you just “get happy”?

I’m afraid not. Happiness is a feeling. It’s an emotion. And emotions are beyond our immediate control. You cannot just snap your fingers and decide to feel something.

Here’s another example. Let’s say that you go camping. You wake up in the middle of the night and there is a gigantic silhouette of a grizzly bear superimposed on the side of your tent. You can hear him snuffling and growling. He seems hungry. Now, what are you feeling? Fear, right? You don’t have much control over that. He’s a bear. A hungry bear. You will be scared.

Emotions are not so easy to control. We don’t flip them on and off like a light switch. They are something we feel.

And so it’s interesting that the Bible is filled with commands to do things that are not within our immediate control. Specifically, the Bible is filled with commands to feel joy.

We are in the midst of our series on the fruit of the Spirit. Galatians 5:22-23 contains this list of 9 characteristics that will grow and ripen in the life of Christians who are surrendered to the influence of the Holy Spirit. These are the character traits that we want to cultivate in our lives as we are shaped to be more like Jesus.

And the second item on the list, the thing we’re going to talk about today, is joy. If you are a Christian, then you should be cultivating the fruit of joy.

But, of course, joy is an emotion. How do we cultivate a feeling? How can God command us to be joyful?

Make no mistake, the Bible does command joy. There are a bunch of scriptures that I could cite, but let me quote just a few, from the writings of the Apostle Paul:
Romans 12:12, 15: “Rejoice in hope. . . . Rejoice with those who rejoice”
2 Corinthians 13:11:“Finally, brothers, rejoice”
1 Thessalonians 5:16: “Rejoice always”
Philippians 2:18:“Be glad and rejoice with me”
Philippians 3:1: “Rejoice in the Lord”
Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice”

How do we cultivate an emotion? How can God command us to feel something?

Saint Augustine said,

“Father, command what you will and grant what you command.”

He knew God commanded certain emotions of him that he couldn’t make happen on his own, so he asked God to make them happen in his life. He essentially says: “God, if you’re going to ask it of me, then I ask that you would give it to me.”

It’s a good reminder of what these 9 fruits of the Spirit are: they are not character traits that we are going to develop by trying harder, or by following a list of rules; rather, they are the product of a life surrendered to Jesus. We are only going to see these fruits ripen in our lives as we allow the Holy Spirit to produce them in us.

But we need to cultivate the conditions in which joy can flourish. We can follow the command to rejoice as we base our joy in what God has done for us.

Our sermon today is not going to center on one Bible text. Rather, I have three points that I would like to make about joy, and then at the end I will suggest three solid anchors in which we can always rejoice.

Joyful God
First, we need to know that God is a joyful God. We really can’t talk about experiencing joy in our lives without first realizing that God is filled with joy.

This can be tough for us to grasp. Some of us have a picture of God in our heads in which God is categorically opposed to any sort of fun. Some of us have grown up with at an image of God as an old-fashioned school headmaster, whose primary concern is that we always follow the rules and don’t cause trouble. The way some Christians act, God is very strict and so going to church, or learning about God, needs to be a very somber and reserved business.

Maybe you’ve had encounters with people like that. People who give the impression that there should never be any laughter in church, and if there is any hint of fun in church they become immediately suspicious that God is not pleased. People whose primary image of God is as a rule-maker, and so their main concern is that the rules are always followed.
It’s hard to imagine a God like that feeling any joy. It’s hard to picture a God like that with a smile.

But it’s not a good picture of God. It’s not the picture that the Bible gives of us of God.

Here’s the picture that we should have… This picture is hanging right outside our sanctuary doors. It’s been there for over 10 years now. An artist named Karen Cooper painted it. She used to go Hope Church, before she and her husband moved away from Spencer.

This picture is based on a story Jesus tells in Luke 15. It’s a story about a shepherd with 100 sheep. One night, he does the headcount and only comes up with 99. So he decides to go looking for the lost sheep.

Often, when this story gets re-told, people make a big deal out the shepherd leaving the 99 to go find the missing lamb. The shepherd is pictured as being very heroic, and taking a great risk, to find the lost sheep. But I think the shepherd was just doing his job. The sheep were his livelihood. Having 99 sheep was good, but having 100 sheep was better.

The thing that always strikes me about the story—and the thing this picture is representing—is that when the shepherd gets home he calls all his friends and throws a party. He says: “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.” That’s the unusual part of the story: who throws a party for sheep? It probably cost him two sheep just to feed everybody that showed up!

The point of the story, though, comes in what Jesus says next:

7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. (Luke 15:7)

“Rejoicing in heaven.” This is what God is like. He’s the kind of God who throws a party when the lost get found. He’s a joyful God. A God of joy.

We need to get rid of this image of God as a killjoy. We need to get rid of the idea that God hates fun, or that He is always strict and severe. We have to see that one of the reasons joy is listed as a fruit of the Spirit is because joy is a good description of God. He is a joyful God.

Vacuum Pumps of Joy
Then, second, we need to know that we were created for joy. God’s plan for us, His preferred life for us, is that we would live joyful lives. Consider John 15:11:

11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.

This is part of Jesus’ speech where He compares Himself to a vine and says that we are the branches. He is inviting us to abide in Him. He says that the way we will be most fruitful(!) is when we are connected to Him.

And notice what He says here in verse 11. He says that He has joy. He’s a joyful God. His life is characterized by joy. And then, He says that He wants our joy to be complete. One of His purposes in coming to earth is to help us experience some of the joy that belongs to Him.

In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the essence of human existence is the search for joy. In his classic book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis—who was an atheist until Jesus claimed him—wrote:

All that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—is the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”

Simply put, the driving motive in history is the desire for joy. It’s like our hearts are giant vacuum pumps looking for something that will fill their emptiness.

The problem, as Lewis points out, is that we spend so much of our time looking for things other than God to provide that joy. That’s what happened to the Teacher in the book of Ecclesiastes.

Written either by King Solomon or a ghost-writer for King Solomon—Ecclesiastes is all about the apparent absurdity of life. In chapter 2, the Teacher goes on a quest for pleasure. He tries laughter. He indulges himself with wine. He undertakes great projects—houses and vineyards, gardens and parks and fruit trees. He buys slaves. He owns flocks and herds. He amasses gold and silver, the treasure of kings and provinces. He brings in the best singers. He brings in hundreds of women to form his own harem. He becomes, in his words, “greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem” before him.

And yet, this is his conclusion:

10 I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my work,
and this was the reward for all my labor.
11 Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun. (Ecc. 2:10-11)

We were created for joy. God wants us to experience joy. But we spend too much of our time seeking joy in meaningless things. “Chasing after the wind.” We fail to realize that the only thing that can truly fill the vacuum in our hearts is God Himself. St. Augustine said it like this:

Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

God is not opposed to our search for joy. He wants us to find joy. He just wants us to understand true joy is only found in Him.

Joy vs. Happiness
Third, we need to see that joy is deeper than happiness. Joy comes from something more permanent than just how we feel at the moment.

One of the dangers of talking about joy is creating the idea that—if we are good Christians—we need to be happy all of the time. That can lead us to fake happiness. To wear plastic smiles and put up false fronts about how wonderful things are, even when they are not. For people who tend to have a more melancholy personality, who don’t tend to be happy all the time, all this talk about joy can feel alienating.

But it’s important for us to see that there is a difference between happiness and joy.

Whenever you are happy, you are probably also experiencing joy. But joy is something you can also experience even when you are not happy.

Happiness is temporary. You see it in the word itself: Happiness = what’s “happening”. If you say, “I’m happy” you’re really saying “I feel good, right now.” Happiness is dependent on circumstances. That’s why the teacher in Ecclesiastes found everything he put his hand to to be ultimately unsatisfying. Because it didn’t last. Even the best moments eventually come to an end. Happiness is temporary.

But joy is different. It’s deeper. It lasts even when everything around us is changing. Joy isn’t dependent on what is happening now. Joy is strength. Joy is internal. Joy is eternal.

One of the best ways to see this in the Bible is by looking at the Psalms. The book of Psalms is the hymnbook of the Bible. These are the praise songs of Israel. And yet, fully 1/3 of the Psalms are classified as songs of lament. That is, they are poems that start out not by praising God, not by telling God how great He is, but by complaining about how rotten things are.
Consider Psalm 13:

1 How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?

The Psalmist is not happy. We don’t know what his exact circumstances are, but they are clearly not good. At this precise moment, he feels forgotten by God.

But that doesn’t mean he has lost his joy. Look at how the Psalm ends:

5 But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
6 I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.

The Psalmist is not wearing a plastic smile. He’s not putting up a false front of fake optimism. But he can continue to rejoice even when His circumstances are not great, because his joy runs deeper than mere happiness.

Real Christian joy is tougher than our circumstances. It withstands suffering and set-backs. It’s not a bubbly personality that sees the silver lining in every cloud, but rather the deep-seated assurance that God has everything under control.

Anchors of Joy
How, then, do we get joy like this? It is, of course, a gift of God. It is a fruit of the Spirit that we cannot produce ourselves. But what can we do to cultivate the conditions for it to grow?
For an answer, I want us to look a little more closely at these last verses from Psalm 13. Here, as the Psalmist declares his commitment to continue to rejoice, I see three things that we can anchor our joy in. Three things that we can rejoice over no matter what else is happening.

First, we can rejoice that God is in control. The Psalmist says: “I trust in your unfailing love.”

Our joy begins with knowing that God is sovereign. He is larger and stronger than anything else in the universe. And so, we know that whatever happens, it is never by accident nor beyond His supervision.

In Acts 16 the story is told of the Apostle Paul and his friend Silas visiting the city of Philippi. While there, they encountered a demon-possessed slave girl who made a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. When they girl saw Paul, she began shouting that he was a servant of the Most High God and that he was preaching the way to be saved. It was good advertisement, but after several days Paul became troubled by the way the demon was controlling her and so, in the name of Jesus, he cast the demon out.

This was good news for the girl, but bad news for her owners. So they put up a fuss and got a mob to rally against Paul and Silas. Before they knew what was happening, the town authorities had seized them, stripped them, flogged their backs, and stuck them in a jail cell with stocks on their feet. It was a very, very bad day.

And yet, even in the midst of this terrible turn of events, Paul and Silas never lost their faith that God was still in control. And so, as they recovered from their wounds in the middle of the prison, they continued to rejoice in God and sing hymns of praise (Acts 16:16-25)

How could they do that? How could they hold a hymn-sing in prison? They knew that God could take even the wicked acts of men and use them to His purposes (cf. Acts 4:27-28). They knew that all things work for the good of those who love God and are called for His purposes (Rom. 8:28). They knew that God was in control.

Second, we can rejoice in our salvation. The Psalmist says: “my heart rejoices in your salvation.”

Our joy is anchored in the long-term view that we have an inheritance awaiting us that far outstrips any earthly delight or momentary affliction.

Luke 10 tells the story of Jesus sending the disciples on their first missionary assignment. He sends them out two-by-two with instructions to preach the good news.

When the disciples get back, they are stoked by their success. They’ve been winning converts, healing diseases, and even casting out demons. They can barely contain their excitement.
But Jesus says to them: “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:20)

It’s not that Jesus wants to pour water on their enthusiasm for ministry. It’s just that He wants them to know that even their best day, even their most successful day of serving the Lord, pales in comparison to the glory that awaits them in heaven. And so they shouldn’t get too high when things are going well, or too low when things are going poorly; because the most important thing is the knowledge of their salvation.

For us too. No matter what is happening to us. No matter if it is a good day or a bad day. We must remember that our names are written in heaven. In that, we can always find joy.
And then, third, we can rejoice that God is for us. The Psalmist says: “I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.”

Not only is God sovereign. Not only has He purchased our ultimate salvation for us. But even now, He is actively working for our joy.

David Matthis writes:

…the good news for those of us laying claim on the blood and righteousness of his Son is that [God] is not indifferent to our joy. Not the thin, frivolous, empty “joy” mere external circumstances in a fallen world can bring, but the thick, substantive, rich joy that can run deeper and wider than life’s otherwise most joyless settings.

In Christ, not only is God no longer against us in omnipotent wrath, but now he is for us — for our deep and enduring joy — in all his omnipotent love. His promise through Jeremiah comes home to us in Christ: “I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul” (Jeremiah 32:41).

Our joy will not be perfect in this life; we will always strain and struggle. We will have our angsts and anxieties. We will have our ups and downs. Yet even here we have tastes. Not only is indomitable joy coming, but even now we sample the sweetness…

It is good news that joy is not optional in the Christian life, because the final weight falls not on our weak backs, but on the almighty shoulders of God himself.

God is for us. In Christ, He is on our side. And that means that He is constantly working for our joy. He is moving heaven and earth so that the end of our story will be one worth rejoicing over.

So, Christian, rejoice. Find your joy in Him.