Joy Doesn’t Always Look Happy

Five Lessons for Spiritually Dry Seasons

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“Though we have not always the joy of the Spirit, yet we always have the Spirit of joy.” —Richard Sibbes (Works, 4:136)

The presence of the Spirit is constant. The experience of the Spirit ebbs and flows. The Spirit cannot indwell a believer any more or any less on a given day. But our felt awareness of that indwelling is another matter entirely.

The one reality is objective. It cannot change. The other reality is subjective, and changes all the time. Picture a straight line, with a wavy line over it. The straight line is the presence of the Spirit; the wavy line is our experience of the Spirit.

“The same joy and the same Holy Spirit will look somewhat different believer to believer.”

My son may not always feel his sonship; when he is away at camp for a few weeks, for example, or when he is under the rod of discipline. But such experiences do not affect his actual belonging to our family in the least. He’s still an Ortlund. Likewise, when we find ourselves spiritually dull, when God seems distant, we still bear the family name of Christian.

And so, one way to understand the daily work of a Christian is simply as a continued remembering of the fact that it is the objective reality, not the subjective experience, that defines me.

Our experience of the Spirit’s joy does not define our assurance of the Spirit’s presence.

Why Does This Matter?

This is an important distinction for a number of reasons.

First, fallen human beings are complex. I often hardly understand why I act the way I do and why I feel the way I do. The jumbled mess of thoughts, longings, motives, fears, disappointments, memories, and hopes in me at any given moment can hardly be disentangled. We can sit with a counselor or psychologist for hours and only begin to scratch the surface of why we are the way we are. If left to my subjective experience in determining the reality of the Holy Spirit in my life, I will constantly be waffling and wondering.

Second, the affectional inner life of a Christian does not take the same form in every believer. Some believers are more temperamentally bubbly and buoyant than others. But all believers have the same Spirit indwelling them. And Paul spoke of “the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:6), which means that joy is a basic, and not an optional, element of what the indwelling Spirit gives believers. But the same joy and the same Holy Spirit will look somewhat different believer to believer.

“Joy often does not look like what we expect it to look like.”

Third, joy often does not look like what we expect it to look like. The most sublime joys involve more tears than smiles. Laughter is, at times, not an indicator of joy, but simply an overflow of misery. The Bible says, “Even in laughter the heart may ache” (Proverbs 14:13), indicating that we are often sad on the inside while happy on the outside; and the Bible also says, “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad” (Ecclesiastes 7:3), indicating that at other times we are happy on the inside while appearing sad on the outside. Things are often not what they seem.

Counsel from Richard Sibbes

What, then, does one do when the joy of the Spirit is gone?

The English Puritan pastor, Richard Sibbes (1577–1635), has five pieces of counsel for us.

First, ask if there are other graces of the Spirit evident in your life. Maybe you lack joy. But are you humbled and distressed at this lack of joy? That itself is reason for comfort and reassurance.

A Christian may have a gracious work of the Spirit in him, and yet [lack] the delight and joy of the Spirit. Therefore when that fails, look to your sanctification, and see what resemblance of Christ is formed in you. See if your heart be humble and broken. . . . When the joy of the Spirit ceases, go to the work of the Spirit.

Second, can you cry out to God? Ignore your waning levels of joy for the moment. Can you plead? Can you ask?

Can you cry to God with strong supplications? Or if you cannot pray with distinct words, can you mourn and groan? “The Spirit helps our infirmities, when we know not what to ask” (Romans 8:26). This sighing and groaning is the voice of God’s Spirit, which he will regard wheresoever he finds it.

Third, remember that the trial of joylessness is to be expected. We are to question our salvation not when we face hardship, but when we never do.

Satan uses the afflictions we are in as temptations to shake our faith, as thus: “Can you be a child of God, and be so exercised, so vilified, so persecuted? If you belonged to Christ, would ever these crosses and losses and miseries have befallen you?”

Fourth, look to Christ. Bank on him. Trust in him. By faith lift up all your hopes and plant them afresh squarely on Christ.

For a sinner in the midst of storms and clouds of darkness, then to cast anchor, and quiet his soul in Christ, argues great faith.

“Your joy may be all over the place now, up and down and often elusive. But it will not always be so.”

Fifth and finally, remember heaven. Your joy may be all over the place now, up and down and often elusive. But it will not always be so.

Whatsoever hardship we meet with in the world, yet there is hope in God still. Though we can find little comfort below, yet there are rivers of consolation above. It argues a gracious heart to quiet one’s self in God in the worst times.

Final Piece of Counsel

I would add a sixth word of counsel: read Richard Sibbes. Or John Bunyan. Or Thomas Goodwin. Or Jonathan Edwards. Or Spurgeon or Owen or Calvin or Whitefield or Charnock or Ryle or Packer or anyone whose heart was in heaven while his feet were on earth and who writes accordingly. When your soul is sullen, shock it to life with the defibrillator of old books.

God will restore to you, in his own good way and time, the joy of your salvation.

(@daneortlund) is executive vice president for Bible publishing at Crossway. He serves as an editor for the Knowing the Bible series and the Short Studies in Biblical Theology series, and is the author of several books, including Edwards on the Christian Life. He lives with his wife, Stacey, and their five children in Wheaton, Illinois.