Is Your Joy Real or an Imposter?

Do you believe that “real enjoyment is essential to real godliness,” or does that sound more like a tagline for the power of positive thinking? Or maybe a self-serving cliché on the lips of some popular prosperity preacher of our day? I was caught a bit off-guard myself when I discovered that the author of that statement is none other than J. I. Packer.

The more I delved into the mind and ministry of J. I. Packer, the more relieved I was to discover that his “enjoyment” has nothing to do with what he calls “hot tub religion,” and everything to do with a robust delight in God in the midst of the most severe and troubling trials.

Is Christian Hedonism a Hot Tub Religion?

Now, don’t be hindered by the emotional dissonance of the image of J. I. Packer in a hot tub, and consider for a minute the way that this experience explains much about modern Christianity. As he relished the pleasures of a hot tub for the first time, it dawned on Packer that the experience

is the perfect symbol of the modern route in religion. The hot tub experience is sensuous, relaxing, floppy, laid-back: not in any way demanding, whether intellectually or otherwise, but very, very nice, even to the point of being great fun. . . . Many today want Christianity to be like that, and labor to make it so . . .

[To this end, many] are already offering occasions which we are meant to feel are the next best thing to a hot tub — namely, happy gatherings free from care, real fun times for all. . . . [Thus] when modern Western man turns to religion (if he does — most don’t), what he wants is total tickling relaxation, the sense of being at once soothed, supported, and effortlessly invigorated: in short, hot tub religion. (God’s Plans for You, 49)

Packer has no objections to the pleasures evoked by his time in a hot tub, and neither should we. But the life of radical obedience to which Jesus calls us may well, and should, provoke opposition, ostracism, and ridicule from a world that finds the message of our Lord both distasteful and threatening.

These inevitable consequences of Christian commitment, however, are no threat to the sort of exuberant joy and “holy happiness” that are the lot of those who’ve seen the beauty of Christ and basked in the knowledge of his redemptive love. It thus bears repeating that biblical joy is always deeper than and never dependent on physical, financial, and emotional pleasure. To suggest that the former is in any way dependent on the latter wreaks unimaginable havoc on the Christian soul.

Full Joy Fixed on God

Joy has never been an easy word to define, at least in terms of the way it is used in Scripture. When the followers of Jesus are told to “rejoice and be glad” as they are reviled and persecuted and slandered (Matthew 5:11–12), we flinch. Or when Paul says that “we rejoice in our sufferings” (Romans 5:3), and James urges us to “count it all joy” when we “meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2), we squirm and collectively scratch our heads in dismay. Clearly we need a new and more biblical perspective on joy.

Packer bristles, and rightly so, when the spiritually shallow of our day speak casually of joy in terms of religious frivolity, fun, or that sort of light-hearted levity that fails to equip and empower God’s people to suffer well. Indeed, he cuts across the grain of standard but largely misguided Christian opinion when he insists that biblical “joy” is inextricably tethered to our grasp of deep doctrinal truths. I’ll let him speak for himself:

The secret of joy for believers lies in the fine art of Christian thinking. It is by this means that the Holy Spirit, over and above his special occasional visitations in moments of joy, regularly sustains in us the joy that marks us out as Christ’s. Our Lord Jesus wants our joy to be full. Certainly, he has made abundant provision for our joy. And if we focus our minds on the facts from which joy flows, springs of joy will well up in our hearts every day of our lives; and this will turn our ongoing pilgrimage through this world into an experience of contentment and exaltation of which the world knows nothing. (God’s Plans for You, 125)

My reading of the biblical text, with Packer’s considerable help, leads me to regard “joy” as something akin to spiritual euphoria. Joy, then, is a feeling, or better still an affection, a deep, durable delight, if you will, that is the fruit of a mind immersed in the truth of who God is and all that he has savingly secured for us in his Son.

The Joy of Crucifixion

Packer was awakened to this life-changing truth as he read Scripture with the help of the seventeenth-century Puritans. Contrary to widespread misperception of the Puritan vision for life, these men helped Packer see that there is immeasurable joy in heeding the call of Christ to self-denial and the happy (never morbid) embrace of the rigors of discipleship in a fallen and broken world. The counterintuitive call to take up the offense of the cross (Mark 8:34–35) and to lay aside the “sin which clings so closely” (Hebrews 12:1) serves only to intensify and deepen the spiritual euphoria of knowing God in Christ.

What, then, might we learn about Christian experience from the life and thought of this latter-day Puritan (Packer turns 89 on July 22)? Countless lessons, to be sure, among which is the encouraging, Christ-exalting truth that “holiness is essentially a happy business” (Rediscovering Holiness, 87).