Dan in Wheaton, Illinois writes in to ask: “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 are 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. And 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.
Danger of Talking Emotion
One is that words that refer to emotions are so flexible because they carry meaning, but the meaning, the name of an emotion, has to correspond with your experience of the emotion, because that is the nature of emotions. And our experiences of emotions are so different. So the words that we say to each other may not correspond to exactly the same thing.
For example, if you have never experienced anger, and I use the word anger, it just won’t carry meaning for you. Same thing 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 nor may not have, and that you might have very differently than someone else. So it is hard to give simple answers regarding emotions when people’s meanings for the word corresponding to their experiences are so different.
And another reason that I feel like I am 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. So I might say something in answer to this question, and a sensitive person might feel like I am pointing out a defect in them that sends them into a tailspin of despondency, while another person might hear the very same word, and it is like water off a duck’s back because they are not even touched by comments about their emotions at all.
And so a person who tries to answer a question about emotions has to be so discerning if you are in a situation of who is listening and, of course, I have zero control over that. And I hope the people take to heart this complexity and cut me some slack.
So, anyway, here is the simple answer and then endless qualifications. Since the Bible commands us to rejoice always, I think it is sinful not to. There is 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). So not just when it is easy, but when it is flat-out seemingly impossible, do that.
And Peter commands us to rejoice: “Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings” (1 Peter 4:13).
And Paul commands us to rejoice: “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).
So I take it that Christ wants us at all times to rejoice in him. It is a Christian duty. If we fall short of that duty, it is a sin.
Four Nuances for Emotions and the Christian Life
Now there is my simple answer, and here come some qualifications and these are so crucial.
1. Joy may run under the surface.
The Bible says, for example, “Weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). In other words, compassion or 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 are weeping with those who weep, but you don’t sing chipper songs to the grieving saint.
And James 4 — 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 that sometimes 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 have been such a rat toward your employees that you need to repent to God and to them. So 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 if Paul were having a conversation with James about this, I don’t think they would wind up disagreeing. I don’t think that 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 are totally convinced that God is all-satisfying, and we haven’t acted like he was. And so there is this seed of joy in God that is even giving rise to my broken-heartedness that I haven’t experienced it to the full the way I should. So that is my first qualification.
2. We resist rejoicing for different reasons.
Here is 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. So here is 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 is one kind of disobedience. Here is 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.” And another person might say, “I do. I do rejoice, but it is so weak.” Now all those three people, I think, are falling short of, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). But what a difference, right? What a difference between the kinds of falling short.
3. Our personalities differ.
And here is another 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, grey 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.
4. God is pleased with us — even when there’s room for growth.
And here is the last and most important qualification of all, perhaps. It is not really a qualification; it is an encouragement.
First Thessalonians 4:1 says that the Thessalonians are walking in a way that pleases God. And then he adds, “Do so more and more.” So they can do better. They can do more, and yet they are already 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. Isn’t that what it means? They are pleasing God. Now do so more. Please him more. Go on more. There is more than you can do.
There are more things about the way you are living that could become more fully pleasing to God, which means (and here is 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 God is displeased with us: he is just folding his arms and rolling his eyes and clucking his tongue and is just fed up with us. That is not true. That is not the way he relates to his children.
So back to the beginning: Yes, let’s rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice. And even in our shortcomings there is reason to rejoice.