Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are 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
Sunday dinner at my grandma’s house was always a memorable event. Food appeared on the massive oak table like royalty. King Roast Beef sat at one end of the table, Queen Mashed Potatoes reigned at the other end with Sir Gravy at her side, and the rest of the court surrounded them in splendor: fresh garden corn and tomatoes, home-baked bread, scallions and green peas, raspberry jam, ice cold milk and tea. Out of sight but giving off a delicious scent, the hot apple pie waited in state to be unveiled at the end.
Sunday dinner at Grandma’s house was an occasion of reverence and joy.
The most memorable of these meals occurred when I was about eight years old. Since I especially loved the mashed potatoes and gravy, I always tried to position myself near them. On this particular day I sat with the vatlike bowl of potatoes right in front of my face, almost exactly at eye level. Steam rose from the mountain of spuds, butter ran in rivers down its canyons. As people gathered around the table, I pondered how I would distribute the gravy. Should I build a little potato castle in the middle, with a moat for the gravy around it? Or should I make a giant lake in the middle? I decided on the lake.
When everyone was seated, Grandpa asked Uncle Albert to pray. That’s not his name, but I’ll use the alias to . . . well, you’ll see why. Uncle Albert was an odd man from a part of the family that some of us were a little uncomfortable with. I don’t remember which church they went to, but I once heard that they were “holy rollers.” I didn’t know what that phrase meant, but since it was whispered I was reluctant to ask. I found out when he started to give thanks. Albert prayed with great feeling and volume. He was truly grateful for the food. So was I. But he was grateful in detail. He thanked God for the scallions and the peas and the beef. He rhapsodized over the plates and forks and knives. He sang of Grandma and the “hands that prepared” the food. He extolled the name of God for his wonderful generosity. He wept and clapped his hands for joy. I began to notice the steam wasn’t rising as high on the mashed potatoes. My heart sank as his rose, and the potatoes grew cold.
I was disgusted when he finished and resentful for years afterward, but the seed of a new idea was planted: You feel joy when you are grateful for the grace that has been given you. Indeed, if we could ever take to heart the goodness and generosity of God—really perceive its height, depth, width and length (Ephesians 3:14-21)—we might act just like my Uncle Albert. If our gratitude could perfectly correspond to the grace that is given us, then no amount of thanksgiving and joy could be excessive.
THE TWIN CHILDREN OF GRACE
Gratitude and joy are the twin children of grace, organically joined both theologically and spiritually. In Greek they are even related linguistically: the words for grace, gratitude and joy all have the same root, char, a noun that refers to health and well-being. “Grace” is charis, “gratitude” is eucharistia, and “joy” is chara.
What is merely a linguistic relationship in Greek is a burning reality in the kingdom of God. Grace is God’s mercy, his unmerited favor. It is what Frederick Buechner calls the “crucial eccentricity” of the Christian faith, the unique and wonderfully odd thing God does to forgive sinners: he doesn’t give them the bad things they deserve but the incredibly good things they don’t deserve. The great gospel mystery is not that bad things sometimes happen to good people, but that such a good thing has happened to bad people. The guilty and broken have discovered that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). What else can we be but grateful? “How can anything more or different be asked of man?” asks Karl Barth. “The only answer to charis is eucharistia. . . . Grace and gratitude belong together like heaven and earth. Grace evokes gratitude like the voice of an echo. Gratitude follows grace like thunder lightning.”
And as gratitude follows grace, so joy follows gratitude, for joy is what we feel when we’re hugely grateful. The pattern runs throughout Scripture: God does something wonderful and the people praise him joyfully. What else could they do—praise him somberly? Genuine gratitude must necessarily be joyful. The greater the grace, the greater the gratitude; the greater the gratitude, the greater the joy.
Psalm 95, for instance, begins with a call to be grateful and joyful in a big way:
Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD;
let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before him with thanksgiving
and extol him with music and song. (Psalm 95:1-2)
Why such exuberance? Because God is super-outstanding, that’s why.
For the LORD is the great God,
the great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth,
and the mountain peaks belong to him.
The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land. (Psalm 95:3-5)
God’s creative power is reason enough to be grateful and joyful. But there is more: not only is God beyond impressive in what he made, but he has taken a special liking to us. He is intimately involved in our wellbeing:
For he is our God
and we are the people of his pasture,
the flock under his care. (Psalm 95:7)
The joy of genuine gratitude follows grace like thunder follows lightning.
Psalm 16 oozes with joy; its essence is compressed into the last verse:
You have made known to me the path of life;
you fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand. (Psalm 16:11)
It’s all there. The grace is the path of life, the exquisite presence of God, and eternal life. The gratitude and joy, like echoes in a canyon, are a result of the eternal pleasures we find at God’s right hand.
These are but two examples from the book of Psalms, which is largely a libretto of joy and praise. This book, the largest in the Bible, begins with a description of the things that make for happiness—“delight . . . in the law of the LORD” (Psalm 1:2)—and ends with, “Let everything that has breath praise the LORD” (Psalm 150:6). Next to Genesis and Revelation, the Psalms are the easiest book to find. They sit, significantly I think, right at the center of the Bible—just like the gospel message.
MEGA-JOY FOR MEGA-FEAR
Since the same God comes to us in Jesus Christ, we can expect the same joyful pattern in the events surrounding his birth—only more so. When Mary, miraculously pregnant with Jesus, went to visit Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John, Elizabeth’s infant got very active. Elizabeth exclaimed to Mary, “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1:44). Now, mothers are accustomed to their babies twitching and kicking in the womb—sometimes they’re convinced they’ve got a future Olympic medalist in there. Few, however, seriously connect emotions to the prenatal gymnastics. But Elizabeth knew, with intuitive theological accuracy, exactly what her baby was feeling. That’s what happens when people see Jesus for who he is: spontaneous joy, even in the unborn.
The shepherds, on the other hand, needed a little help with their joy. Soon after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, an angel appeared in their camp to announce the happy event. For some reason, whenever people in the Bible meet angels, they don’t feel touched or special. Shattered is more like it. The English for the shepherds’ reaction is, “They were terrified.” The Greek is, almost literally, they were “mega-afraid.” The angel said, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10). The great joy the angel speaks of is “mega-joy.” In other words, the shepherds’ mega-fear would be replaced by megajoy when they saw Jesus.
Jesus taught that joy is one of the hallmarks of his kingdom. His mission statement was, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). What is fullness of life if not joyful? He also said, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). When people discover this, Jesus said, they are like a man who found treasure in a field and “hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field” (Matthew 13:44).
Jesus also taught about joy in his encounters with two women. The first story, found in Luke 7:36-50, is about a woman of sexually immoral repute who committed an act of gross social impropriety: she walked alone into an all-male luncheon. In attendance were respected city fathers hosted by a Pharisee named Simon. When the men spotted her in the doorway, the room turned deathly silent. Everyone wondered whom she knew in the room. The only sound was that of her bare feet padding across the stone floor. They were relieved when she stopped beside Jesus. Weeping, she knelt down at his feet and let her tears fall. Simon had conspicuously not extended the basic courtesy of having Jesus’ feet washed, so her tears did the job. Little rivulets of mud ran down the sides of his feet as she undid her long black hair and used it to wipe them clean. Then, with an intimacy that almost made the men blush, she broke open a vial of expensive, fragrant ointment and massaged its contents into Jesus’ feet.
Meanwhile, Simon’s thoughts were ugly: If he were who he says he is, he’d know what she is and he wouldn’t let a woman like that touch him. But he probably knows all too well what she is.
Jesus responded to Simon’s thoughts: “I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love” (Luke 7:47 NLT). In other words, her actions corresponded perfectly to the grace given her. Simon’s clearly didn’t. Do ours? Can any of us truthfully say we have been forgiven only a little, and therefore have little reason to be grateful?
The same thing happened with another woman, a friend of Jesus’ with no checkered past, just a heart of love for the Lord. She too did the grossly improper thing, crossing social and gender barriers to enter an all-male gathering. Though unwelcome, she nevertheless opened a jar and poured a fragrant, high-priced perfume on Jesus’ head. More blessed excess.
When some of the men began to mutter about how inappropriate these actions were, how the perfume cost the equivalent of a year’s wages, and how all that money could have been better spent on the poor, Jesus spoke forcefully: “Leave her alone. . . . Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me” (Mark 14:6). The Greek word translated “good” is kalos, meaning “fine,” “beautiful,” “elegant.” It is used in the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, to describe what pleases God, what gives him joy. Jesus thus judged her “excess” as entirely appropriate and said of it something he said of no other human act: “I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Mark 14:9). And indeed it has been told, countless times in every corner of the earth. That’s how highly God regards joyful gratitude. In language that echoes the words of Communion—“do this in my memory”—he blessed the expression of her gratitude as corresponding perfectly to the grace shown her and therefore worthy of universal remembrance.
The Bible says it is fitting to offer praise as a kind of sacrifice. “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise” (Hebrews 13:15). The picture is from the sacrificial system of the temple, which shows us that God’s extravagant gestures demand extravagant praise. Whether lambs or goats, the sacrifices had three things in common. First, they were to be the first and the best of a person’s flock. Second, a sacrifice had to be given in total abandon, nothing held back. Death is total. Finally, the point of the sacrifice was not death but life— life released through death, for the life of the animal was in the blood (Leviticus 17:11). A sacrifice of praise is living sacrifice (Romans 12:1), our best given up in total abandon to God—like those women, like Jesus. What would our worship services look and sound like if we took this seriously? What would lives lived this way do to the world?
In Charles Spurgeon’s little book Eccentric Preachers, he tells of the nineteenth-century preacher Billy Bray of Cornwall, England. Billy came to Christ as an alcoholic miner at age twenty-nine and was immediately filled with a grateful joy that makes my Uncle Albert seem restrained. He said, “In an instant the Lord made me so happy I cannot express what I felt. I shouted for joy. Everything looked new to me; the people, the fields, the cattle, the trees. I was like a new man in a new world.” He became a Methodist and started to preach with such enthusiasm that people called him a madman. Billy laughed it off and said, “They mean ‘glad man’!” Thus a fruitful forty-four-year career of evangelism, church planting and caring for orphans was launched in joy.
Billy’s joy affected his walking. He said, “I can’t help praising God. As I go along the street I lift one foot up and it seems to say ‘Glory!’ and I lift the other, and it seems to say, ‘Amen!’ And they keep on like that all the time I’m walking.” Billy fasted each week every Sunday afternoon until Sunday evening. If he was urged to eat something, he would exclaim, “On Sunday I get my breakfast and dinner from the King’s table, two good meals too.”
Even death was powerless to rob him of his delight in God. When he lost his beloved wife, Joey, he jumped around the room shouting, “Bless the Lord! My dear Joey is gone up with the bright ones! Glory! Glory! Glory!” It was the same when he found out that he too was dying. He shouted, “Glory! Glory to God! I shall soon be in heaven.” Then he told the doctor, “When I get up there, shall I give them your compliments doctor, and tell them you will be coming, too?” His last word was, “Glory!”
Spurgeon concludes, “It does not seem so very horrible after all, that a man should be eccentric.”3
NAZIRITES OF JOY
The Nazirites were people of Israel who separated themselves from others in a vow of consecration to the Lord. For the duration of their vow they did not cut their hair and abstained from alcoholic beverages. Their lifestyle wasn’t for everybody, but their devotion was. Their eccentric presence was a reminder of commitment to the Lord that applied to all the people.
I think God sometimes sends Nazirities of joy to his church, not so much that we should copy their behavior as come to desire their joy in God. The way Billy Bray expressed joy belonged to him alone. But the joy he found in God is for everybody. There are not different brands of joy, just as there are not different brands of God.
Another example: On the night of Monday, November 23, 1654, the great scientist and mathematician Blaise Pascal had a mystical encounter with God. With as much precision as his scientific mind could muster, he tried to record what he had experienced. He kept the account sewed in his clothing until his death, probably carrying it wherever he went. He wrote of the transcendent joy of the God of joy.
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,
not of the philosophers and scholars.
Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace.
God of Jesus Christ . . .
Forgetfulness of the world and everything, except God.
He is to be found only in the ways taught in the Gospel.
Greatness of the human soul.
“Righteous father, the world hath not known Thee, but I have
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
Pascal was a Nazirite, an eccentric of joy. We shouldn’t feel cheated if we’ve never encountered God the way he did, nor should we try to replicate his experience. Pascal’s experience was not that of every believer, but the God he met and the joy he received are the same. His words should awaken in us a desire for the God who gives such joy. Each of us is a unique and different instrument to be tuned by the same Spirit to sing his praise.
The big difference between the joy Pascal and Bray knew and the joy I typically know is that joy seized them. They could no more help what came over them than a surfer can help the waves coming in from the ocean. And like a surfer, they could only ride it when it came. Happy are those for whom joy comes in this way. My joy isn’t usually that kind. It comes and goes, waxes and wanes. Sometimes joy sweeps me off my feet, but more often it courts me and asks for a decision.
DESCRIBED AND PRESCRIBED
Joy is a choice. In fact, Scripture commands it. True, as Bray and Pascal show us, it is sometimes an irresistible influx of God’s favor. He can give joy just as he gives all his other graces, and we can do no more—or less—than receive what he gives:
You have filled my heart with greater joy
than when their grain and new wine abound. (Psalm 4:7)
You have made known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand. (Psalm 16:11)
The precepts of the LORD are right,
giving joy to the heart. (Psalm 19:8)
The apostle Peter spoke of joy as a given in his first epistle, the natural outcome of believing the gospel: “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are 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). But joy is also prescribed. Joy is both what one feels and what one does.
Shout with joy to God, all the earth!
Sing the glory of his name;
make his praise glorious! (Psalm 66:1-2)
Jesus commands joy in the most uncongenial of situations—when we’re being persecuted. How else could joy exist in the midst of oppression except as obedience to a command, not what we feel but what we do? Jesus says the proper response is to “rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven” (Luke 6:23).
The Lord also commands his disciples to redirect their joy. It’s quite a trick to cease being joyful for one thing in order to be joyful for another. But Jesus clearly believes they can make that choice. They’ve been thrilled to exercise power in the service of the kingdom, to see demons obey when they use the name of Jesus. But their joy is misdirected, he says: “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). When he says this, he himself is filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit and thanks his Father that it is his “good pleasure”—his joy—to hide himself from those who think themselves wise and learned and to reveal himself to “little children” (Luke 10:21). Everyone is involved in this command to be joyful—not just the disciples, but the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit!
Two other classic New Testament texts on the command to be joyful are found in Paul’s letters. He issues back-to-back commands in Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” And 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 is just as succinct: “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
JOY IS A SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINE
Since joy is a command, we may also see it as a spiritual discipline, something we choose to do constantly in order to do it better. That’s how discipline works. For a competitive swimmer, to swim daily is to swim better. A basketball player practices shooting free throws in order to shoot free throws more skillfully.
The realm of the Spirit is like that. Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit; it’s what we exhibit when the Spirit has control. The Spirit cannot be controlled— as Jesus said, the Spirit is like the wind. But we can spread our sails to catch the wind when it blows. That’s what the spiritual disciplines do for a Christian. By engaging in them we position ourselves to give the Holy Spirit maximum access. The spiritual disciplines do for our souls what a camera shutter does for the film inside. Strictly speaking, cameras don’t make pictures. Only light makes pictures as it gains access to the film in the camera. A spiritual discipline positions our soul to receive the light that changes us into the image of Jesus Christ.
The discipline of joy is a discipline of thanksgiving. We are to give thanks and rejoice no matter what—to rejoice in order to be joyful. To one bereft of joy, this may seem like telling the crippled to walk by walking. But the blessed and liberating command to just do it can unlock the coldest of hearts; there is a compassionate genius in the discipline of joy: “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
Pascal gave similar counsel to skeptics who wanted to know if Christianity was true. The way they could find out, he said, was to behave “just as if they did believe.”5 Philosopher Peter Kreeft explains Pascal’s advice as the “feedback principle” in action. Sometimes when damage to the brain has crippled a person’s limbs, therapists can begin to heal the brain by exercising the arms or legs. Gradually new neural networks are formed and the brain regains some control. External behavior can change internal realities. The skeptic who has not been convinced by arguments and proofs can know the truth by acting as if he knew it. She can obey in order to believe. The heart has eyes, and they are opened by exposure to the light.
Jesus taught this principle when he said, “Anyone who wants to do the will of God will know whether my teaching is from God or is merely my own” (John 7:17 NLT, emphasis added). Do we want to know if Jesus is true? The key is to first know something about ourselves: Are we willing to obey him? If the answer is yes, we will indeed know him; if it is no, we won’t. “Obedience is the opener of eyes,” wrote George MacDonald. “We don’t see in order to obey; we obey in order to see.”7
SUFFICIENT REASONS FOR JOY
Joy can be commanded because it is based on objective reality, not a subjective feeling. The realities of God, his Son and the gospel go deeper than any experience of pain or pleasure. For what other reason than Jesus can the faithful suffer joyfully? He said that to suffer for righteousness is a blessed thing and we should rejoice when the opportunity arises (Matthew 5:10-12).
From the beginning Christians took this to heart and suffered joyfully. The apostles were flogged for their testimony and left the prison “rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41). Flogging was not a generic beating. It was a brutal and painful punishment consisting of thirty-nine lashes with rods or a whip. Someone who had endured a flogging emerged wounded, bloody and depleted for days, even weeks. But inexplicably there was joy in the wounds of these apostles. Paul and Silas are unforgettable in the Philippian dungeon, having been stripped, flogged and put in stocks. And they’re singing (Acts 16:22-25). How could this be?
Clearly their joy came from something deeper than circumstances. Our English word happy gives itself away. Its root is the Latin hap, which means “chance.” Typically for us, joy is happiness, what we feel when circumstances are pleasant. But Christian joy is anchored in the facts of faith, to be trusted no matter the circumstances: Christ has come, Christ has died, Christ is risen and coming again. My sins are forgiven, my hope is sure. As the Heidelberg Catechism states, “I belong, body and soul, in life and in death” to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. Nothing can separate me from his love. These are the fixed quantities amid changing circumstances. These are the soil of joy.
God commands joy because he has given us reason to be grateful. Only spiritual obtuseness gets in the way. This is what George Herbert was lamenting when he prayed,
Thou that hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more, a grateful heart. . . .
Not thankful when it pleaseth me,
As if Thy blessings had spare dayes;
But such a heart whose pulse may be
Herbert saw that his spiritual poverty was such that he needed not only God’s gifts but also the gift to recognize them and be grateful.
The church I pastored in New Jersey funded the translation of the Jesus film into the language of a primitive people who live in the jungles of East Asia. Since a repressive Muslim government rules them, I won’t identify them more precisely. These people had never heard of Jesus or seen a motion picture. At the premiere of this movie their joy—and that of the missionaries witnessing it—knew no bounds.
When the people saw this good man who healed sick people and spoke tenderly with children held without trial and beaten, they came unglued. They began to shout and shake their fists at the screen. When nothing happened, they turned to the missionary running the projector. Maybe he was responsible for this injustice! He had to stop the film to explain that the story wasn’t over yet. So they reluctantly settled down to watch.
Next was the crucifixion. Again the people came apart. They threw themselves on the ground and wailed. There was so much noise the missionary again stopped the film to explain that there was more to come. Again they composed themselves.
Then came the resurrection. This time the missionary had to stop the movie not because of anger but because of the celebration that erupted. A party broke out with dancing, singing and backslapping. They were given reason enough to be grateful, and therefore to be joyful.
We have been given the same reasons. “Thou that hast given so much to me, Give one thing more, a grateful heart.” Such sad words these are, that we who have been given every reason for joy can be so joyless. So God commands it: when we cease to see as clearly as those wise and simple tribespeople, we are to rejoice anyway—that we may see better.
CONVERTED TO JOY
I vividly remember the day I became a Christian, and I clearly remember the moment I began to understand joy. I’m sorry to say the two events are separated by many years. I was converted to Christ when I was about nine years old, and I was converted to joy when I was fifty. One year I didn’t want to go back to work after my vacation. I was burdened with the problems of the church and depressed over struggles in my family. But I gritted my teeth, pointed the car toward home and went back, grimly determined to be obedient to God and do my job. This attitude continued for two weeks. Then one night in a prayer meeting the Lord spoke to me. The words were harsh, but the tone was tender. He said, “I don’t need this from you, Ben. If you can’t serve me joyfully, don’t call it service. You dishonor me with your ingratitude. Change your attitude or get another job.”
That night the meaning of joy became clear to me: while joy is a gift, it is also a choice. I had been passive about joy. God was telling me he had already given me all I needed to be joyful because joy comes out of being grateful—and if my faith tells me anything, it tells me that I have every reason to be very, very grateful. Only spiritual obtuseness disconnects this reality from my emotions. Every day I have reason to behave just as those primitive people did in the jungle when they saw the Jesus story for the first time. So I pray, with no small embarrassment, “Thou that hast given so much to me, Give one thing more, a grateful heart.”