Last time we looked at joy. Is joy in God a choice we make, or is joy in God a feeling that just comes and goes? On Monday we saw that “joy in God is not a choice,” but “a God-given, spontaneous experience of the beauty, worth, and greatness of God.” That’s what you said, Pastor John. Joy is a gift, a supernatural gift — a divine awakening to true beauty.
And that leads to Dan’s question today. Dan is in Wheaton, Illinois. He writes, “Pastor John, I have greatly appreciated your emphasis on joy in the Christian life. Indeed, the psalmist tells us to ‘rejoice always.’ Paul describes himself as ‘sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.’ Since the Bible commands us to have joy in God, are we in sin to the degree that we lack joy? Or could our lack of joy sometimes be the result of sin, but not a sin in itself?”
Whenever we’re dealing with the emotional dimension of the Christian life — which is most of it, I think — a simple yes or no answer is seldom adequate. I was thinking about why this is, and it might be helpful for me to just think out loud with Dan for a minute — why endless qualifications sometimes seem to be necessary.
One is that words that refer to emotions are so flexible — because they carry meaning, but the name of an emotion has to correspond with your experience of the emotion because that’s the nature of emotions. Our experiences of emotions are so different, so the words, when we say them to each other, may not correspond to exactly the same thing.
For example, if you’ve never experienced anger, and I use the word anger, it just won’t carry meaning for you. The same thing would be true for pity, fear, guilt, lust, pride, greed, joy, admiration, hope, thankfulness — all of those. The hard words, the negative words, and the positive words — they all refer to experiences that you may not have or that you might have very differently from someone else. It’s hard to give simple answers regarding emotions when people’s meanings for the word corresponding to their experiences are so different.
Another reason that I feel like I’m always making qualifications when I give answers regarding the emotional life of the Christian is that our responses to comments about emotions are so different. I might say something in answer to this question, and a sensitive person might feel like I’m pointing out a defect in them that sends them into a tailspin of despondency, while another person might hear the very same word like water off a duck’s back because they’re not even touched by comments about their emotions at all.
A person who tries to answer a question about emotions has to be so discerning of who’s listening. Of course, I have zero control over that. I hope that people take to heart this complexity and cut me some slack.
Simple Answer with Qualifications
Anyway, here’s the simple answer and then endless qualifications. Since the Bible commands us to rejoice always, I think it is sinful not to. There’s my simple answer.
Jesus commands us to rejoice even in the hardest circumstances. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad” (Matthew 5:11–12). Not just when it’s easy, but when it’s flat-out seemingly impossible — do that.
“Christ wants us at all times to rejoice in him. It’s a Christian duty.”
Peter commands us to rejoice. “Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings” (1 Peter 4:13). Paul commands us to rejoice. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). I take it that Christ wants us at all times to rejoice in him. It’s a Christian duty. If we fall short of that duty, it’s a sin.
Now, there’s my simple answer, and here come some qualifications. These are so crucial.
1. God calls us to weep.
The Bible says, for example, “Weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). In other words, compassion and empathy for others will modify at least the way you express your joy — if not the joy itself. There may be joy beneath your tears when you’re weeping with those who weep, but you don’t sing chipper songs to the grieving saint.
I just saw this for the first time in getting ready for this question, and it was very helpful for me to think about. James 4:9 says, when we sin, “Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.” So, what becomes of rejoicing at all times when you let your joy turn into gloom because you’ve been such a rat toward your employees that you need to repent — to God and to them? There are times — obviously from this text — when for the sake of recovered joy, fuller joy, we put away our cheerful demeanor and really experience a broken heart over our sin.
Now, my guess is that if Paul were having a conversation with James about this, I don’t think they would wind up disagreeing. I don’t think that James ultimately contradicts Paul’s command to rejoice always. Because at the bottom of our repenting — even in the very moment of our repenting — our repenting is owing to the fact that, at the root of our being, we’re totally convinced that God is all-satisfying, and we haven’t acted like he was. There’s this seed of joy in God that’s even giving rise to my brokenheartedness — that I haven’t experienced it to the full the way I should. That’s my first qualification.
2. We fall short in different ways.
Here’s the second one. As soon as I say joylessness is a sin, I realize that the resistance to the command to rejoice may be unbelievably diverse. Here’s a person who hears me say — or hears Paul say — “Rejoice always.” That person might say, “Who do you think you are, telling me to rejoice? Get out of my face.” Now, that’s one kind of disobedience.
Here’s another one. A person may say, “I want to, I really want to, but I can’t feel anything right now but the want to.” Another person might say, “I do. I do rejoice, but it’s so weak.” Now, all those three people, I think, are falling short of “rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” But what a difference between the kinds of falling short.
3. Personality types differ.
Here’s my last one, my last qualification for why the simple answer just can’t be left by itself. There are enormous differences in personality types. Eeyore — the gloomy, depressed, old gray donkey in Winnie-the-Pooh — is a real personality, and Puddleglum in The Chronicles of Narnia is a real personality type, and their experiences of joy are going to look so different from someone else’s, especially on Sunday morning during worship.
God’s Pleasure in His People
Here’s the last and most important qualification of all perhaps. It’s not really a qualification; it’s an encouragement. First Thessalonians 4:1 says that the Thessalonians are walking in a way that pleases God, and then he adds, now “do so more and more.” So, they can do better; they can do more. And yet they’re pleasing God.
In fact, Tony, I noticed — in the whole batch of questions you just sent me — lots of people struggling with what looks to me like a kind of perfectionism and obsessiveness. This text here addresses every one of those questions, I think, because it gives us a paradigm to know we can please God while not being as good as we should be.
“God has a huge capacity for sorting out the good fruit of our lives from the failings of our lives.”
They are pleasing God. Now do so more. Please him more. Go on more. There’s more that you can do. There are more things about the way you’re living that could become more fully pleasing to God. Which means — and here’s the massive encouragement — God has a huge capacity for sorting out the good fruit of our lives from the failings of our lives, and finding delight in the good while being displeased with the bad, and all the while never holding his children in contempt.
I think a lot of us feel like, “If God’s displeased with me, he’s just folding his arms and rolling his eyes and clucking his tongue. He’s just fed up with me.” That’s not true. That’s not the way he relates to his children. So, back to the beginning. Yes, let’s “rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” Even in our shortcomings, there is reason to rejoice.