Interview with

Founder & Teacher,

Audio Transcript

Is joy a choice, or is joy just a feeling that comes and goes? That is a great question, one our culture asks all the time. And if our joy is a choice, whose choice is it ultimately? That actually was the question I attempted to answer in my book The Joy Project. I know a number of you have read that book. I think joy is a better way to frame the essentials of Calvinism, the doctrines of grace, the five points of Calvinism: God’s sovereign joy in pursuit of us.

But here’s the specific question on the table today, as it comes to us from Susan in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “Pastor John, hello and thank you for this podcast. My question is pretty straightforward. Can you tell me if joy in God is a choice that we make? Or is our joy in God a feeling that comes to us after we do a certain something else first that will lead to joy?”

Here’s an amazing fact to start off with. If you consider all the forms of the word choose or choice or decide or decision, the New Testament never applies those words to the act of choosing God or choosing Christ or choosing Christianity. I think that would come as a shock to a lot of people. (One near exception is Mary choosing to sit at Jesus’s feet while Martha did the housework, but Mary is already a follower.)

In fact, the one place where choosing Jesus is mentioned, it’s denied. In John 15:16, Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” In other words, when the disciples chose to follow Jesus, it wasn’t ultimately their choice. It was God’s choice. He was decisive in that event. God’s choosing us is mentioned over and over and over in the New Testament, but our choosing him is not mentioned, not with the words choose or decide.

Incline Your Heart

Now, if you go to the Old Testament, there’s that famous statement of Joshua 24:15, “Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Joshua is happy to call for a choice to serve God or not.

But then a few verses later, he says this (in Joshua 24:22–23): “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him. . . . Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord, the God of Israel.” Now, why did Joshua add the command to “incline your heart”? He said it because there is such a thing as choosing to serve God while the heart is far from God.

And Jesus said that. He said it in Matthew 15:8, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” They choose to go to church on Sunday morning. They choose to sing, and they choose to pray. They choose to go to the synagogue, or they choose to give tithes. And on the outside, they look like they’ve chosen God.

They have not chosen God. They have chosen religion to hide the fact that their heart wants something else besides God. That’s why Joshua said, “It’s not enough. This is not enough to choose to serve God. Your heart must incline to the Lord. The Lord must be your treasure — not the praise of man, not health, not wealth, not prosperity.”

Deeper Than a Choice

Now, the way all of this relates to Susan’s question is that this inclination of the heart, which both Joshua and Jesus refer to, is deeper than a choice. It’s a kind of joy in God. Joshua was saying what Psalm 100 says; namely, if you’re choosing to serve God, then let that choice be acceptable to God — let it be honoring to God by “[serving] the Lord with gladness” (Psalm 100:2). That’s a command: “Serve the Lord with gladness!” That is, have your heart incline to God; don’t just choose to serve him. Serve him with gladness.

For a choice to be pleasing to God and honoring to God, it must be rooted in the heart’s taste for God, in gladness in God. In other words, a choice for God or a preference for God that honors God must be rooted in the heart’s experience of God as preferable. What makes a choice to serve God real is that the choice expresses the fact that the heart has found God to be preferable, desirable, valuable.

When Jesus said that the people had chosen to honor God with their lips but not with their hearts because their hearts were far from him, he meant that their hearts did not taste God as desirable. They didn’t taste God as valuable. They didn’t taste God as preferable. Their taste was for the praise of man, not God.

So, my answer for Susan is no, joy is not a choice. It is deeper. It is the gift of an experience of God as desirable, preferable, valuable. It’s not a mere choice. It is the God-given, spontaneous response to seeing God as desirable — tasting him as good, as preferable to other satisfactions.

Joy by Looking

That’s what it means in 1 Peter 2:2–3 when it says, “Long for the pure spiritual milk . . . if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” Tasting is not a choice. If you put a lemon in your mouth, no amount of choosing can make it taste like sugar. It’s not a choice. It’s the way your taste buds are designed. And there are taste buds on the soul that are either ruined or alive — which brings us then to the other part of Susan’s question about how our spiritual taste buds might be changed.

She asks, “Is joy in God a feeling that comes after we do something else that leads to joy in God?” Now, the very fact that we’re talking about joy in God — not just joy generically, but joy in God, or experiencing God as our joy — implies that we need to have some knowledge of God in order to have authentic joy in God.

This means that any steps we can take to put ourselves in the way of true knowledge of God may prove to be the very action that leads to joy in God. So, in that sense, yes. Joy in God is a feeling that comes after we do something else that leads to joy in God; namely, listening to the truth about God.

If joy in God is the heart’s experience of preferring God, desiring God, treasuring God, then it’s not surprising that the main thing we can do in order to experience this is look intently at God’s greatness, God’s beauty, God’s worth in his word. Faith and the “joy [of] faith” (Philippians 1:25), Paul says (and I would say), comes by hearing, and hearing (or reading) by the word of God (Romans 10:17).

Joy by Praying

And there is another action — I’ll just mention one more — that we can do and should do in the pursuit of joy in God. We should pray. Pray the following two prayers with the psalmists. They prayed like this because they had the same experience of sometimes feeling what they ought to feel and sometimes not feeling what they ought to feel in regard to the joy we should have in God.

Open my eyes, that I may behold
     wondrous things out of your law. (Psalm 119:18)

Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
     that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. (Psalm 90:14)

We should pray to have eyes to see and hearts to feel. So, in summary, Susan, joy in God is not a choice. It is a God-given, spontaneous experience of the beauty, worth, greatness of God. But there are choices that we can make that may lead to that experience, because the Bible says, “Look. Look and pray. Look at the Lord in his word, and pray for eyes to see and a heart to feel.”