As a third-century man was anticipating death, he penned these last words to a friend: “It’s a bad world, an incredibly bad world. But I have discovered in the midst of it a quiet and holy people who have learned a great secret. They have found a joy which is a thousand times better than any pleasure of our sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They are masters of their souls. They have overcome the world. These people are the Christians–and I am one of them.”
Would you describe yourself as joyful? Would you say that you are happy? There is a false stereotype of Christians that “to find religion is to be made miserable.” And yet, we read it in our Scripture lessons this morning—joy is a fruit of the Spirit. It isn’t a weak word, either. It’s not a faint smile and the attitude that you just have to endure the bad in life; it’s not resignation. It’s not wearing a fake smile when you feel like crying or kicking a door in—there’s more to it than what my wife calls the “’happy Christian’ stereotype.”
The early church father Tertullian once said, “The Christian is hilarious.” In Latin, hilaritas (hilarious) is the answer to the Greek word chara, ‘joy,’ which is closely related to the word ‘charm,’ and also to the Greek word for ‘grace,’ charis. It’s true that following Jesus requires you to give up some things that other people (and you, too) enjoy; it’s true that following Jesus demands something more than the cheap grace that says, “I’ve show up in church on Sunday; now to go do my own thing for the rest of the week.” Jesus demands more than just lip service—he demands your whole life. Despite what you may think, though, the Christian is happy; smiling; boisterous; full of laughter. There are those who think that there is a touch of the unseemly in Christians’ joy; it goes beyond the propriety of their good manners. It “just isn’t the way things are done!” Yet there is no denying it. The fruit of the Spirit is joy.
Have you ever seen a crime drama, or a criminal proceeding? The defendant sits at his table, worry and anxiety gnawing at him as he awaits his fate. Will he be found guilty? The jury slowly files in, and takes their seats after hours of deliberation. The judge asks, “Has the jury reached a verdict?” And the jury foreman replies, “We have, your honor.” He opens the envelope which contains their answer. Every person leeeeans forward in their seats in anticipation….The foreman reads the preamble, “In the matter of so-and-so, on the charges of thus-and-such,” he starts, and declares that the jury finds the defendant, “not guilty.”
Instantly, the defendant leans jumps to his feet in joy, and hugs his lawyer. Tears run down his face. A huge weight has been removed from his back! He is a free man! Relief and, indeed, joy, flood his heart. There is no one who knows joy like the person who has been relieved of a great burden.
And when Christ has entered your heart, you have every reason to be joyful. Death itself has lost its power over you, as has sin. There is a reason that the early Methodists were accused of being “enthusiasts”—they were too happy about the work God had done in their souls to restrain themselves. The same can be said of the early members of the Salvation Army, the Salvationists, or the early followers of St Francis of Assisi, the Franciscans. There is a story told of an organist in England who pleaded with a Salvation Army drummer not to bang his drum so hard. The Salvationist replied, “Lor’ bless you, sir, since I’ve been converted I’m so happy I could bust the bloomin’ drum.”
Indeed, this describes the apostles themselves on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. When the Holy Spirit descended upon their gathering and they were filled with the Holy Spirit, people thought they were drunk, they were so happy. It’s been happening ever since. When God saves someone and their happiness overflows, there are still some who scowl and glare—how dare religion escape the confines we’ve set aside for it! Yet that new Christian need not mind the disapproval. The early Methodists would understand.
So beyond outward appearances, what are the realities behind joy as a fruit of the Spirit? It’s not all laughter and emotional highs, after all. To get to the heart of what this supernatural joy is, we can first distinguish it from some of the things it’s commonly confused with.
Pleasure and a positive emotional state are often confused for joy. Some people probably think that joy is just a matter of getting enough endorphins in your system. And there are many people who think that they’re experts at joy as a result, even though they’re doing everything but following Christ. But joy is not simply a matter of “feeling good.”
Pleasure depends on circumstances. It’s hard to feel pleasure when you are sick or when those you care about are in poor health or unhappy. Pleasure can be stolen just by eating the wrong thing. Bang your shin or trip in the parking lot or get a toothache, and that “good vibe” you were feeling is gone. A Christian’s joy is much deeper than that. Joy as a fruit of the Spirit can be found in any stage of life, in all circumstances—even when you’ve lost everything. Joy is present even in the midst of persecution and pain. Father Brown, a missionary with the Oxford Mission in Calcutta was renowned for the overflowing joy of his heart; he would often speak of hilaritas, “gladness of heart,” and it showed in his own life, arriving at his appointments laughing—even as he limped along with a painful, incurable disease.
Pleasures are inconsistent. What gives you great pleasure in one stage of life will not give you any in a few years. When I was younger, I loved to eat mushrooms; yet, at some point, I lost my taste for them. Similarly, when I was younger I enjoyed playing soccer; yet I lost my interest in that as I grew older, too. You could practically write your biography based upon what things held your interest at different points in your life. But joy is constant. The youngest Christian, a ‘babe in arms,’ knows it. It remains there in a Christian’s 20s, when life is most unsettled—college and dating and trying to start a career—and it remains their strength. It is there for those in the Christian’s 70s and 80s and 90s, as well, their refuge in retirement.
It’s also easy to have ‘too much’ of things which give us pleasure. Once we hit that point, what once attracts us now repels us. For much of my life, I have loved honey-roasted peanuts. Not just any, but specifically Planter’s honey-roasted peanuts in a tin—it just loses something when it’s in a plastic bag. I used to often snack on them, getting my fingers sticky with the mixture of honey and salt that comes with handling those peanuts. There’s often a tin or two of them at my house as a result. My wife went and bought another tin recently, and reminded me of it. She was surprised when I said I just wasn’t that interested in them anymore. I hadn’t really thought to say anything to her before then, because it hadn’t come up—but I’ve slowly been losing my taste for them.
Similarly, I used to get my mother to go with me and my brother to a Japanese restaurant that opened up in Muncie. We actually ate there fairly frequently. It was precisely that frequency which came to kill my mother’s interest in Japanese food. She came to much prefer Mexican food for a while after that, and I would often go along with her to Mexican restaurants…which resulted in me developing a bit of an aversion to Mexican for a while. Pleasure satiates. It’s easy to have too much. But joy never satiates. The old commercial slogan said, “There’s always room for Jello”—but we all know that even that is a lie. Only the Christian can say, “There’s always room for more.”
Pleasure is also shallow. It’s only “skin deep.” Pleasure can’t exist in the same room as the “hard questions of life,” like why people suffer and die or why life is so ‘unfair’—it has to ignore them. Pleasure is the Christmas party thrown by a family that doesn’t know Christ; a party without a purpose. But joy goes to the very core of our being. Joy is a smile that reaches the eyes and the heart as well as the lips. There may be times when joy is accompanied by laughter, by cheering and by ecstasy, the ‘emotional highs.’ But there are times when joy sinks into quiet contentment and peace. Pleasure is skin-deep—but joy? Joy goes to the very core.
Joy goes to the very core. It possesses the whole person.
The person with the joy of God in their hearts cannot worry. They don’t need books like Philip Yancey’s Where Is God When It Hurts? They don’t need to understand in order to believe, but like St Anselm of Canterbury, they say, “I believe that I may understand.” They believe it when the Bible says “God is love.” They also believe the Bible when it says that God is all-powerful. The All-powerful is the All-loving, and thus they cannot worry, because they trust that even when they are in the dark, God is still working in the world to bring about his purposes.
The joy-filled heart is also free of guilt. Christians from the newest, the ‘babe in arms,’ to the most spiritually mature (regardless of their age) are always aware of the wide gulf separating human beings from God. The spiritually mature are even more aware than the new Christian, in fact—they see their own sin more clearly who have. The most holy saint is painfully aware that all of his or her holiness is derived. “Though the darkness hide thee, though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see / Only thou art holy, there is none beside thee / Perfect in power, in love and purity.”
And yet for all of that painful awareness of their inadequacy, the joy-filled heart does not dwell on that. Instead, it knows the relief of the death-row prisoner who hears at the last minute that his sentence has been commuted, the defendant who hears the verdict, “not guilty” at her trial. They are sinful and impure—but there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus. Only God is holy—but he fills us with his Spirit to make us holy too. The hymn speaks for them when it says, “Long my imprison’d spirit lay / Fast bound in sin and nature’s night / Thy eye diffused a quickening ray / I woke, the dungeon flamed with light / My chains fell off, my heart was free / I rose, went forth and followed thee.”
The joy-filled heart is painfully aware of his or her own sinfulness; yet the same heart is free of guilt. Because even though they know that God is holy, and that they are not, they do not dwell on that. Instead, they accept God’s forgiveness and trust God to make them what they cannot make themselves. Even if they find it hard to forgive themselves, they nonetheless accept God’s forgiveness, and dwell on that instead. As the saying goes, “They love heaven more who have seen hell.”
The person with the joy of God in their hearts is free of worry and of guilt. There is a third thing which the joy-filled heart is free of: fear. Many people go through life with the fear gnawing at them that their life is meaningless. They want to know the answers to the questions that we all want to know: Is there a God? Does he want to hurt me or help me? Is there meaning to life?
They want to be a part of a cause, of “something greater than themselves.” Yet they find all too often that these causes are transient, and they become disillusioned with them—it wasn’t “greater than themselves,” after all.
I read a study recently that showed that where there was a substantial increase in the number of people who identify as “not religious” or who do not identify as Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, etc. These people are the so-called “nones”—as in, “none of the above.” Yet this study found that despite the decline in religious affiliation, the percentage of people who believed in a God or in a “Higher Power,” and who prayed, remained much higher. The “nones” are afraid to follow Jesus, but many of them still want to find meaning in life, which they are attempting to find through such groups as the Juniper Path, which offers space for discussing issues of life-after-death and of personal transformation and accountability.
They seek to find meaning in life because they haven’t found it. And they won’t find it with these “personal transformation” businesses, either. But the Christian is free of that fear—he knows in whom he has believed, and because the God who reveals himself in Jesus Christ knows him and is known by him, he has found the meaning to life. Built upon that foundation, joy fills his heart. “All realities sing—and nothing else will,” as the poet Coventry Patmore wrote.
The Christian knows God’s love and his miracle-working power, and she cannot doubt. Even in the midst of the worst life has to offer, he still trusts that “God’s in his heaven; all’s right in the world.” A ship may be caught in a terrible storm, with sailors terrified that the ship will sink and they will all drown. Yet the Christian says with St Paul, who endured precisely that in the book of Acts, “Be of good cheer, for I believe God.” Christians are ‘of good cheer’ for that reason alone—they believe God.
John Wesley is famous for remarking of his followers, the early Methodists: “Our people die well.” As Christians, it doesn’t just matter that we’ve started the race, or how we’re running the race at present. It also matters how we finish the race. The secret, of course, to dying well…is living well. The joy-filled life, the life filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit, is the very essence of ‘living well.’
The heart filled with the joy of God is less easily tempted by envy or by hatred, by lust or by greed. Joy is part of the armor of the Spirit, and a heart filled with the Spirit’s joy just doesn’t find reason to envy or hate anyone. She would rather give away that joy she has found in Jesus. That “joy down in her heart” doesn’t go away on the deathbed, either.
When the English missionary Temple Gairdner was dying and in a great amount of pain, people who came to visit him were often struck by the great joy which seemed to emanate from him. Even in the midst of his great pain, it seemed more like he was already in heaven than that he was slowly dying. When he finally passed away, his son looked upon his face, still emanating joy even in death, and said, “Your joy no man taketh from you.”