The Ebb and Flow of Christian Happiness

Why ‘Great Joy’ Isn’t Normal Yet

God has designed, for now, that our joy not always be great.

The word joy appears more than 200 times in the English Bible, and more than sixty in the New Testament. Joy is not a peripheral note in God’s word, but a massive, unavoidable theme. Of the sixty mentions in the New Testament, however, only four times do we hear of “great joy.” Careful attention to the word great can help clear up confusion for some and relieve unnecessary guilt for others.

Some of us are prone to mistake the everyday joy of the Christian life in this age — in all its depth and power and sweetness — for the “great joy” that is occasional for now and coming in future fullness. And others overlook the preciousness of the joy God gives us in this age because it’s not yet the great joy that is coming.

Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10), but we do not have it all right now. He came that we might have joy, real joy, wonderful joy, “joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8), and yet a “great joy” remains that we sample for now and will experience without interruption in the age to come.

Four Glimpses of Great Joy

The Messiah Is Born

Both Matthew and Luke tell of “great joy” at Jesus’s first coming. First the magi: “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matthew 2:10). Then, as herald angels announced to certain shepherds, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10).

At long last, Israel’s promised Messiah had come — and not just the anointed descendant of king David, but God himself in the person of his Son. He has taken our flesh and blood, and come to save us. At such moments, ordinary joy will not suffice. Such is an occasion for great joy.

The Lord Is Risen

How much more, then, when the darkness of his torture and crucifixion has passed, and news begins to spread that he is alive?

Again, Matthew and Luke speak of great joy. “They departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples” (Matthew 28:8). “They worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God” (Luke 24:52–53). Resurrection joy is not everyday joy.

The Gospel Goes to the Nations

Also it is fitting when news spreads in the early church that Gentiles — even Gentiles! — are embracing the Jewish Messiah as their Lord. “Being sent on their way by the church, [Paul and Barnabas] passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers” (Acts 15:3).

If there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:10), how can the outbreak of the gospel from the Jews to the nations not be an occasion for great joy?

Finally in His Presence

The first three are past events, but Jude’s mighty doxology gives us a future glimpse of what lies in store for us with the final great joy: “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy . . .” (Jude 24).

The day we stand before our God, and see Jesus face to face, will be no ordinary day. This will be no ordinary joy. This will be a day of great joy that will usher in an eternity of great and ever increasing joy.

Joy Deeper Than Sorrow

For now, though, Christian joy is caught in the tension of the already and not yet. Already Christ has come the first time. Already he has paid for our sins, and is risen as our living hope. Already he is seated in glory at his Father’s side and given us his Spirit. Already God has caused us to be born again, to taste and see his goodness, to experience a joy in him in this life that is deeper and more durable than anything the world has to offer.

But we are not yet home. There is “fullness of joy” in his presence (Psalm 16:11), where we ascend by faith, through the Spirit, but we are not yet fully and finally there. We live with “the sufferings of this present time” (Romans 8:18), devastating as they can be. And we endure not only in the joy we have, but in light of the great joy we’re promised. In fact, the great joy we’re promised is essential to the joy we have. What we endure for now is “not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). Not only does our world groan under the curse of sin, but “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23).

In this age, our joy rarely escapes the burden of regular sorrows, some of them great. But joy and sorrow are not equals. Even our not yet joy is deeper than our present sufferings, and more enduring than our many pains. We are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10).

Gritty, Mixed, Real

When Jesus invites us into joy, he doesn’t promise or expect great joy at every moment. Not yet. And he doesn’t mean for us to expect everyday euphoria and mountaintop elation. We will have our moments of great joy. God gives us occasions that echo the explosive mirth that came with his Son’s birth and resurrection and that anticipate our future appearing before him face to face. These are wonderful; may God increase them.

And yet “great joy” is not the experience or demand of the everyday Christian life in this age. Our lot, for now, is not daily ecstasy. We have not yet come into final bliss. Our joy, for now, is gritty. It’s mixed. It’s not simple. It’s not uncurbed, untainted, undiluted. And yet it is real. And it is powerful for demonstrating the worth and excellency of God, because our joy is challenged from within and without by so many obstacles.

The great joy to come will indeed glorify Christ, but part of why it will be so powerful is because it follows the real but assaulted joy we lived here. Joy and great joy both have their place in magnifying God’s value. First the one; then the other. Either without the other would not be as glorifying to God, and as finally satisfying to our souls, as the two together in their proper time.