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Joy means something steady, quiet, divinely wonderful... it means gladness, delight—a sense of assurance.
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Does the reader recognize this situation? Something is lost at home. Let us say it is an envelope, and the contents are important. Everybody says it should be in a certain place, but it is not found there. The search goes on throughout the house without success. Then, at last it is found – in the very place where it was supposed to be at first. It had been passed over a dozen times, unrecognized. It was unrecognized because the searcher had a wrong idea of the envelope’s shape and color. For the time being, he had forgotten what it really was like, and so it was undiscovered. This is a parable.

One of the criticisms sometimes leveled against us is that, as a community, we lack joy. But it could well be that joy is there, but it is undiscovered because it is unrecognized. That is to say, the critic has a wrong idea of what he is looking for. It may be that he has confused cheerfulness with joy. He says that our services are formal; our hymns are dull; our methods are perfunctory, and therefore there is no joy.

We contend that people can have joy without shouting, dancing, or falling about. Let us not make a mistake here. There is nothing wrong with cheerfulness—at home or in the ecclesia. The writer has to confess that he prefers the person who comes to cheer him up rather than the one who comes to read him the Riot Act. Under the right conditions, cheerfulness is excellent, but it is different from joy.

Understand also that sometimes joy is expressed in songs and dance and radiant faces. But if these are absent, we must not conclude that joy has gone. Joy may be expressed in the ordinary and the orthodox. David danced, and so did Habakkuk; Mary sang a great song; the Emmaus disciples went back on the double, and Hannah went home with a lilt in her step.

Let us anticipate a question. Did not Jesus say, “Be of good cheer”? The answer is that he said it five times, always to people in some form of trouble: to the palsied man who was let down through the roof; (Matthew 9:2) to the disciples in peril on the sea; (Matthew 14:27, Mark 6:50) to the woman with an issue of blood; (Matthew 9:22 NKJV) to the disciples about to lose their Master; (John 16:32-33) to Paul in prison at Jerusalem. (Acts 23:11)

Their troubles were different, but to each came the same answer: “Be of good cheer.” We can be sure of one thing: the King was not telling them to cheer up. To suffering troubled people, that is but a short expedient. The benefit lasts for an hour, and then the old sorrow returns.

This was not the Lord’s method. Turn up your Bible dictionaries to see what he really said. “Be of good courage” was his word of consolation. This call to courage was not just a piece of advice, empty of reason. The reason for the courage was discovered in the fact of Christ himself; what he was doing and would do for them, now and hereafter. To the palsied man, pardon and healing. To the broken woman, comfort and relief. To the frightened sailors, “It is I; be not afraid.” To the perplexed disciples, having to face the world, “Be of good courage, I have overcome the world.” To the Apostle in prison, confined and frustrated, a promise that he would be free and would testify at Rome. In every case, it was because of Christ and his power that they were urged to have courage.

Joy At The Last

Our purpose is to stress that cheerfulness is good, but it is circumstantial. Cheerfulness exists when conditions are favorable, but when conditions are the opposite, cheerfulness is absent and indeed would be inappropriate. That is why Christ did not tell the troubled, suffering folk to cheer up—and why he did urge them, in the midst of their trouble, to have courage, because in that direction, they would at last realize joy.

When the heart is heavy, and the spirit is sad, and the shadows are long, then cheerfulness, good as it is, will not be possible. The mystery is this—that where cheerfulness is impossible, joy remains. The proposal is that joy transcends adverse circumstances and may even transform them. Remember Paul’s words: “As sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing.” (2 Corinthians 6:10).

Following the suggestiveness of the proposal, think of Acts 16. Two men are in prison. Their backs are torn and lacerated. They are chained in the lowest and darkest dungeon, cramped in the stocks—and they are singing. We can be sure they are exercising their discipleship on the highest level. They are not singing just to keep their spirits up; they are singing for joy.

The song was the outcome of their gladness. It was the song of the resurrection. The stocks hurt them; their bloody backs pained them, but for some reason, they were impelled to offer praise to God. Somehow, the joy in their hearts had to find expression in the song, and no pain could muzzle it. The other prisoners heard it because no bars could fetter it.

Rejoicing in Tribulation

Later on one of these men will write some strange and wonderful words: “Let us rejoice in our tribulations, for tribulation worketh patience.” (Romans 5:3 RV) Somehow the affliction was being used for good. The foe becomes an ally. This is why, perhaps, one day, he will write to the Corinthians: “I overflow with joy in all my afflictions.” Or again: “Our light affliction worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.”

The adversity is transmuted into the force of victory. Surely the soul of man shrinks from tribulation. Surely pain brings grief. If and when these things have to be faced, men steel themselves and, with stoic fatalism, endure the pain and bow to the adversity.

Let us not tone it down. It is brave and heroic how people submit to tribulation. They say: “What cannot be cured must be endured.” This was the philosophy of stoic paganism, but it is not the philosophy of Paul, the servant of Christ.

Out of his own experience, he teaches us that in some mysterious way adversity is part of the cure: that out of the very weakness, the strength of God will be made perfect. In the hand of the Lord, there is healing in the very tribulation. That is why joy is possible in circumstances where cheerfulness would fly away. These men were in the dark, but the darkness did not matter because they were children of light. These men were in prison, but the prison did not matter because, at the same time, they were in Christ.

Do not draw a wrong conclusion. It does not mean that we cannot have joy unless we have suffering. That is false; but it does mean that when suffering comes, joy can remain and be intensified. The King once said to his own: “Your sorrow shall be turned into joy.” It is not simply that one condition is exchanged for another but that the very sorrow itself, in some way, has a background of joy.

Of the suffering Saviour, it was written: “Who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame.” (Hebrews 12:2) We should be wrong to think that his joy was postponed to the resurrection day. As he bent his will to the agony of the cross and the confrontation with Sin, we can believe that there was joy in the realization that he was defeating iniquity and redeeming men from death and corruption. He was able to despise the shame because, in the moment of its worst assault, he had a consciousness of the final and ultimate joy of salvation.

In the great prayer recorded in John 17, Jesus said to his Father about the disciples: “These things I speak in the world, that they might have my joy fulfilled in themselves.” (v. 13). That prayer was answered at Philippi. Men, who through joy, sing in prison, cannot really be imprisoned.

A Fruit of the Spirit

The foregoing should convince us that joy is not one great moment of ecstasy that comes in a crisis, lasts for a day, and then is gone. The point we are stressing is that joy is not circumstantial but is independent of circumstances. One proof of this is in Galatians 5:22. Paul says: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace.” It does not matter whether you believe that the qualities listed are different fruits or that there is one fruit, love, and all that follows are the flavors, colors, and textures of the one fruit.

Whichever way you look at it, joy is part of the fruit of the spirit. Fruit is not a flash-in-the-pan thing. It is permanent, solid, and substantial. The growth is real but often imperceptible. Slowness is not failure. It is there on dull days as well as sunshine days. If joy sings, it never tires. There is a song for June and a song for January. The word for joy is a common word. It is not a red-letter word, flaming with passion. It means something steady, quiet, divinely wonderful, like fruit. It means gladness, delight—a sense of assurance.

Those men at Philippi knew beyond any doubt that they were not alone. They knew in their deepest hearts that all things were working together for good under the providential hand of God. Bodily, they seemed to be in the hand of the jailer, but spiritually, they knew they were in the hand of God. As it turned out, even the jailer was part of the great purpose: very soon, he washed their stripes. They had an unalterable conviction that nothing could separate them from the love of Christ. They trusted in the profound secret that the city was being built and that one day it would come down out of heaven from God. They knew that no power on earth could prevent it, and they were part of it. Sin was defeated; pardon was full and free; death was vanquished. The King was alive for evermore. This gives cause for joy, and joy gives cause for song.

Delight From Doing God’s Will

Another cause for joy is obedience. Remember the words inscribed about the Redeemer: “I delight to do thy will, O my God.” (Psalm 40:8). Delight is joy, and joy comes from doing God’s will. Ask any man who is flirting with sin, who plays the fool with his discipleship, and he will tell you that in the deepest part of him there is no joy. Conscience gives him no peace; neglect spoils his tranquility. For the moment, he may enjoy the satisfaction of the flesh, but afterward, the remorse brings only misery. There is no joy in disobedience.

One proof is in the life of King Saul. Is there a sadder picture in the whole of the Bible than Saul creeping through the darkness of the night, seeking a witch woman in violation of his own edict? A king who once was chosen by God, entering the illegal market of evil. The whole picture is full of fear and foreboding, and one thing there is not—there is no joy.

Joy comes from obedience. Jesus said: “Blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.” That blessedness is rich with joy. Some object to this point of view on the grounds that it will make us self-satisfied and wrongly superior. They confuse joy with smugness. That believers can get smug, there is no doubt, but it is not likely to come through faithful obedience to God’s word and will. It is more likely to come by feverish activity trying to make up for the lack of true spiritual submission.

Finally, think of the impediments to joy. Doubt is one—that spirit that is always without complete conviction; always worrying over problems; nursing a voice inside which every day intrudes on the side of skepticism. Jude says we must be very merciful to those who find faith hard and doubt easy. Joy is difficult for them. Another hindrance is fear. Very often, it is fear of the judgment seat: not that reverential fear, which is an essential part of worship and service, but that fear which tends towards dread.

Those with this burden so often see the eyes of fire and rarely hear the voice of love. The judgment is a solemn thing, but it is not intended to rob us of joy. God is not an ogre who is trying to trap us into perdition. He is a loving Father who has gone to the uttermost to save us for Himself. He wants us to succeed. For those who seek joy, let them cast their burden on the Lord. “He will never leave thee nor forsake thee.”

Dennis Gillett,
Genius of Discipleship,
Chapter 16, Pages  82-87,
Fourth Edition reprinted 2019 


Published with permission from The Christadelphian Magazine and Publishing Association.

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