How Do You Define Joy?

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

As we begin this series on joy in the letter of Paul to the Philippians, it seemed good to me that we should probably begin with a definition of joy. Definitions are simply descriptions of the way people use words. Words don’t have intrinsic definitions. They are given definitions by the way people use them. When I say I want to define joy for you, I am asking, Whose joy are we talking about, or what use of the word are we talking about?

I mean joy as the apostle Paul uses it in his letters, and particularly in the book of Philippians. I am not just asking about the meaning of joy in general. I am talking about Christian joy, as Paul the apostle describes it. So let me give you my definition and then take it apart one piece at a time:

Christian joy is a good feeling in the soul, produced by the Holy Spirit, as he causes us to see the beauty of Christ in the word and in the world.

A Good Feeling

Christian joy is a good feeling. By that, I mean it is not an idea. It is not a conviction. It is not a persuasion or a decision. It is a feeling. Or — I use the words interchangeably here — an emotion. One of the marks of the difference between an idea and an emotion or feeling is that you don’t have immediate control over your feelings or your emotions. You can’t snap your fingers and decide to feel something.

For example, say you are going camping. You wake up, and there is this gigantic silhouette of a bear outside your tent, a grizzly bear. He seems hungry. You don’t say, “Now, let me think about this. There is a bear. Bears are big. Bears are dangerous. Conclusion: I should feel fear here, so I will now decide to be afraid.” Emotions don’t work like that. Thinking works like that, but feeling doesn’t. It happens to you, which means that the Bible is filled with commands that we do things that are immediately outside our control to do — commands to rejoice, to fear, to be grateful, to be tender-hearted.

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

One of the reasons I am the kind of Christian I am, with the theology that I have, is that I know the Bible requires of me things that I cannot myself immediately produce by my own power. I am fallen. I am sinful. And yet I know I should be feeling the emotions the Bible expects me to feel. I know myself guilty.

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 prayed, Oh God, if you are going to command me these things, grant that you would give them when you command them.

So, the first part of this definition is that joy is a good feeling.

In the Soul

The second part of my definition is that the good feeling is in the soul. By that, I am drawing attention to the fact that it is not in the body. The soul, the immaterial part of my personhood, experiences joy. The body may feel the effects of that. I may get butterflies in the stomach. I may have a spring in my step. There may be tears of joy rolling down my face. None of those effects in my body, though, is itself joy. They are all distinct from joy.

The body is chemicals, muscles, and nerves. It’s made up of electrons, atoms, and molecules. And when those molecules move, that is not a moral event. The body doesn’t have right and wrong. A movement of my arm back and forth has no moral significance, until I tell it by my will or my emotion to punch somebody. Then it becomes bad. Or hug somebody in need. Then it becomes good. My soul imparts virtue, right or wrong, to the physical parts of my life. And the Bible clearly says it is right to feel joy in God. Or, it is wrong to be anxious about the situation. There is a rightness and a wrongness to these emotions, and these emotions precede the bodily movements that follow. The feelings are movements of the soul.

Produced by the Spirit

The third part of the definition is these movements of the soul are produced by the Holy Spirit, which is clear because I cannot make these things happen. They are called the fruit of the Holy Spirit. “The fruit of the [Holy] Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23). Therefore, the joy in my soul overflowing towards God is coming from the work of the Holy Spirit.

A Sight of Jesus

The fourth piece is that the Holy Spirit does this work, not magically without my mind being engaged, but by causing me to see the glory and beauty of Jesus Christ.

The Spirit gives us eyes to see the beauties of Jesus that call joy up out of our hearts.

Philippians 3:1 says, “Rejoice in the Lord.” How do you rejoice in the Lord if you don’t know anything about the Lord? How do you rejoice in the Lord if you are not seeing things about the Lord that cause joy to rise up in your heart? That is the work of the Holy Spirit.

He doesn’t just flip a switch, and you rejoice with no mental content whatsoever. The Holy Spirit is given, according to John 16:14, to glorify Jesus Christ, which means the Holy Spirit opens the eyes of my heart to see the beauty of Christ. When I see Christ in all that he is doing, and all that he is, then my heart is drawn out in joy towards him.

The Holy Spirit bears this fruit by causing us to see the beauty of Jesus Christ.

In the Word and the World

The last piece is that we see him in his word and in the world. It is obvious that the most authoritative and clearest place where we see the beauty of Christ is in his word, the Bible. That is why the Holy Spirit inspired the word, so that we could read the word and know Christ. The Spirit gives us eyes to see the beauties of Jesus that call joy up out of our hearts.

It is not just in the word that we see Christ. We see him in his gifts and in people. We see him in his gifts of nature. We see him in his gifts of food and in all of the good things that our Father in heaven gives to us. Every gift of Christ to us is intended to be a communication of something of himself. So we see Christ not only — we taste Christ not only — in his word, but also in his works.

As we take up joy in Philippians now in the next five videos, the definition that I am working with is that joy is a good feeling in the soul produced by the Holy Spirit as he causes us to see the beauty of Christ in his word and in his work.

This video is the first of a six-part series on the theme of joy in the book of Philippians. John Piper walks us through a short study of how to understand joy, pursue it for ourselves, and then apply it in all of life. Here are the other videos in the series:

Part 1: How Do You Define Joy?

Part 2: What Is Christian Hedonism?

Part 3: What Is the Secret of Joy in Suffering?

Part 4: Do We Have to Enjoy God to Believe?

Part 5: How Does Joy Overflow in Love?

Part 6: Does Joy Die in Sorrow?