When we say that joy is not optional in the Christian life, we don’t mean that we ever have it in full in this life.
We can promise joy in all its fullness, but that doesn’t mean we minimizing the significant hurdles, barriers, and infringements we face this side of heaven. And it doesn’t mean that we taste it all now with no explosive increase still to come.
Yes, God commands that we be happy in him, and he stands behind it with his omnipotent help. But no, we are never fully happy. Not utterly. Not yet. Not as long as we remain in these bodies of sin, in this world of suffering, with an Enemy and his armies plotting against us. And not as long as we’re still yet to see Jesus face to face. There is no fullness of joy without the fullness of Jesus.
“There is no fullness of joy without the fullness of Jesus.”
Only in God’s presence is there fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11) — and we’re not yet in his presence. Only at his right hand — where Jesus sits enthroned as the divine-human sovereign over all the universe — do we have pleasures evermore. Here we have tastes, by his Spirit and through faith — at times great tastes — but we’re not yet seated at the banquet of new creation with plates piled high in his presence.
Partial Joy Still Glorifies God
Now we see in a mirror dimly; then we will see him face to face (1 Corinthians 13:9–12). Now we know in part — and experience joy in part — but when the perfect comes and the partial passes away, we will know him without obstruction and have fullness of joy, a fullness that never stops growing.
That does not minimize the joy that is offered to us now. The pleasure in Jesus we pursue and have in this life may never be full, but it is real. Delight in God does not need to be untainted to truly honor him. He really is glorified in every real measure of our joy in him, from the moment we believe until the moment we see him. When we choose the pleasure of pleasing him over pleasing sinful desires, we make much of him, even with our remaining impurities of heart. There is no wasted joy in Jesus in this life, even though it’s not yet what it will be.
Joy Now Is Just a Taste
The incomplete joy in Jesus we have now — with its roller-coaster ups and downs, its twists and turns, its frustrating enigmas and pleasant surprises — is not separate from the fullness of joy that is coming. Today’s seeds and stalks are organically related to the coming flowers and fruit.
Joy here is a taste of the joy to come. When we rejoice now, even and especially in suffering, we do so knowing that greater rejoicing will come when Jesus comes. “Rejoice insofar as you share in Christ’s sufferings,” writes the apostle Peter, “that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13).
“There is no wasted joy in Jesus.”
Our joy, like our holiness, remains incomplete until we see him face to face. God has reserved this signal honor for his Son at his second coming. “When he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:2–3). The joy we have now is not disconnected from the joy to come, but in anticipation of its arrival (1 Peter 1:8).
Complete Joy Is Coming
“You have sorrow now,” says Jesus, “but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22). When we see him face to face, our joy will finally be full and unencumbered. And it will be indomitable. No one will take your joy from you.
Our human souls ache not only for the divine, but for the divine-human. Our God-shaped vacuum is actually cut for the God-man. Jesus is the visible, human image of the gloriously invisible God (Colossians 1:15). He is the radiance of the Father’s glory (Hebrews 1:3) that streams to light our human eyes. He is the exact imprint of his nature (Hebrews 1:3) and stoops so far as to take on ours (Hebrews 2:14; Philippians 2:6–8). In Jesus “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). To see and enjoy the God-man is what it means for man to see and enjoy God (John 14:9). For all eternity, Jesus will make the Father known to us (John 1:18).
“To see and enjoy the God-man is what it means for man to see and enjoy God.”
For those of us joined to Jesus by faith, he has already cut for us the path to fullness of joy. He has opened our mouths, and puts glorious drops of honey on our tongues. But there is a great feast to come. Fullness of joy is not here yet. The best tastes in this lifetime will one day soon be swallowed up in a fullness of pleasure beyond what we can even fathom now.
The greatest joy is still to come.
Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist | God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Look here for more on the possibility and essentiality of joy in the Christian life — even and especially in the midst of great suffering. (book)
Joy Is Not Optional | It is good news that joy is not optional in the Christian life, because the final weight falls not on our weak backs, but on the almighty shoulders of God himself. (article)
How Do I Pursue Joy in Christ? | Theologian Michael Reeves answers the question, How do we pursue our happiness in Jesus? (interview)