The Joy of Righteousness

The following is a brief exposition of the biblical concept of joy, originally prepared for Dr. Julie Moeller’s ‘Biblical Ideas’ class in the spring 2011.  It may be a bit longer and more ‘academic’ than the typical blog post.  (If you are like me, then that should strike you as a good thing.)  I selected the topic because, as I have remarked elsewhere, “I am just really bad at joy most of the time.”  My study served both to inform my understanding of biblical joy and encourage my application of joy to the Christian life; it is therefore my hope that you might find similar profit in it.

[Note: Due to a quirk in the copying process from Word, the footnotes are marked with hyperlinks that lead to nowhere (though the footnotes themselves can still be found at the end of the post).  I have retained them for the simple reason that fixing them all would be super obnoxious.  My advice to you in this regard would be to deal with it. ;)]

For the average Christian, few biblical concepts are so simultaneously understood and misunderstood as joy.  Every churchgoer seems to have some idea of what joy is, but it appears that few of them are able to articulate their understanding in any comprehensive or definitive terms.  At times, the idea of joy can seem startlingly simple, and perhaps rightly so; however, other instances can lead believers to think of joy as something largely esoteric and impossible to grasp.  At the slight risk of overgeneralizing, one might venture to express the average Christian layman’s understanding of joy—or perhaps the “lowest common denominator” of joy definitions—as “a positive disposition of the mind and heart that we as Christians have, or at least can have and should have, because of Jesus.”  Outside of the proverbial armchair, of course, the question of what exactly joy is leads inevitably to the question of how the Christian is to actualize or experience joy in his everyday life:  “‘The joy of the Lord is your strength’[1]… but what about when I do not feel ‘joyful’?  ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’[2].…  So does that mean I can make myself experience joy?  That sounds great, but how do I do that?”

Granted, any earnest attempt at a summary account of the entire biblical witness regarding the idea of joy would require a much more extensive treatment than the present discussion allows, but nevertheless there is much to gain from a brief investigation into the character of biblical joy.  First, a survey of the potential sources or prompts of joy cited in the Bible points to the basic principle that true and lasting joy can only be found in and through God.  From this point, one can move into a study of man’s primary occasion for joy: his salvation at the hand of God.  However, though one’s acceptance of salvation in Christ marks the beginning of his relationship with God and even secures this relationship unto eternal life, one must yet consider the intricacies of the Christian’s experience of joy during his post-conversion sojourn in this present life.  It is here that one encounters a striking connection between joy and righteousness, as the Bible portrays obedience to God’s commands and the pursuit of conformity to his will as the constitutive means of experiencing true joy.

One of the most quickly-mentioned and oft-repeated assertions about biblical joy by those Christians who purport to take their Scriptures quite seriously is that “joy is NOT happiness.”  Such Christians might be surprised, then, to learn of the wide variety of normal “secular” objects and circumstances cited in the Bible as evoking joy.  There is nothing especially sacred or spiritual about enjoying a good wine or celebrating a birthday,[3] and one need not be a dedicated Christian to take delight in receiving a word of kindness or meeting with a loved one,[4] yet these and other common life scenarios appear alongside the Hebrew root for joy (transliterated samach) in the Old Testament.  In Acts, Paul and Barnabas describe the Lord to the people of Lystra as “he [who] provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.”[5]  If the pagans receive joy from God, then it must be available to some degree through natural revelation and God’s common grace and given through “unspiritual” means.  Furthermore, joy is even associated in some instances with the experiences of those whose actions go against the will of God, such as Israel’s victorious enemies in Judges 16:23 and the foolish man of Proverbs 15:21.[6]  It is clear, then, that “joy” is not a sensation that is limited to explicitly spiritual contexts such as corporate worship or Bible study.

Without diminishing this fact of God’s giving “common joy” to common man through common means, one must note that the joys of creation are as insufficient and unsatisfactory as the rest of general revelation in that man was never intended to seek total fulfillment from the creation but rather from the Creator.  The Teacher of the book of Ecclesiastes relates the frustration and failure of his pursuit of joy in earthly pleasures alone:

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure [Hebrew from samach].
My heart took delight in all my work,
and this was the reward for all my labor.
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun.[7]

Even if the created order and the hearts of men were not tainted by the blight of sin, men were never intended to seek abiding joy from material goods (though they are indeed good); by virtue of man’s design, and by virtue of the very nature of joy itself, there is only one wholly appropriate and truly satisfactory source of total joy: God, whom the psalmist calls “my joy and my delight.”[8]  It comes as no surprise that the Lord’s character of love and eternal disposition toward kindness would inspire rejoicing from those who call upon his name.

Here the issue of ultimate motivation is worth dwelling upon, for the implication of God’s being the source of joy in the “strong” or “full” sense is that one must seek him to get it, rather than simply seeking it.  The jealous God of Jacob is not interested in being anywhere but the center of man’s purposes and affections; setting one’s enjoyment as his primary goal is tantamount to idolatry, as God is consequently considered of secondary importance next to personal benefit.  Therefore joy is revealed to be a condition that cannot be attained by striving for it directly.[9]  Christ tells his disciples thus: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.”[10]  Additionally, Christ promises his followers that the life he provides is abundant and instructs them to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [material blessings] will be given to you as well.”[11]  In a pleasant and ironic turn of providence, a proper valuation and enjoyment of God not only invites more “common joys” into the Christian’s life but also enables him to more fully enjoy them while keeping a right perspective.[12]  This perspective, as previously stated, centers always on the character of God and his divine works in history.

Of course, there is no event more central to the grand metanarrative of God, man, and indeed all creation than the redemptive work of Jesus Christ; it comes as no surprise, therefore, that the biblical idea of joy is repeatedly and intimately tied to God’s salvation of his people.  The Anchor Bible Dictionary so strongly emphasizes this point that its entry on joy begins thus: “The experience of deliverance and the anticipation of salvation provide the most significant occasions for rejoicing among the people of God in the OT.  The coming of the Messiah, who delivers his people and brings salvation, becomes the basis for rejoicing in the NT.”[13]  In fact, the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament affirms that of all the reasons for joy given throughout the Bible, “The Lord and his salvation are cited most frequently.”[14]

The rejoicing of the people of Israel in the Old Testament features both gratitude for God’s past works of redemption and anticipation of God’s future eschatological redemption.  The Israelites were given yearly feasts and festivals to commemorate several critical occasions on which the Lord had delivered them from bondage, such as the Passover and Pentecost, and occasions when he had intervened to protect them from their enemies, such as Purim.[15]  In granting them to the people, God refers to the feasts as “your times of rejoicing,” thus affirming that his salvific work on their behalf should be met with joy.  In particular, their miraculous deliverance from Egypt becomes one of the key elements of their identity as a nation as well as the primary reference point for their relationship to God throughout the Old Testament.  As the prophets begin to speak of an eschatological redemption, these feasts continue to serve as regular reminders of God’s perfect faithfulness and encourage the people to continue to trust in the Lord.

Regarding the prophecies themselves, the intensity of the joy occasioned by salvation is nothing short of remarkable.  Several passages from Isaiah well illustrate this.  First, in Isaiah 44, the prophet calls upon creation itself to rejoice for Israel:

Sing for joy, O heavens, for the LORD has done this;
shout aloud, O earth beneath.
Burst into song, you mountains,
you forests and all your trees,
for the LORD has redeemed Jacob,
he displays his glory in Israel.[16]

Later in the book, Isaiah personifies joy as if it were actively chasing down God’s people as a result of their salvation:

The ransomed of the LORD will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.[17]

Finally, the Lord speaks through Isaiah about the glorious joy of his coming new creation, saying that the people themselves will be a joy:

“Behold, I will create
new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
nor will they come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I will create,
for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight
and its people a joy.”[18]

Anchor notes that the angels’ announcement of Christ’s birth in Luke is a perfect continuation and indeed fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies of a coming joyous salvation: “‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord’ (Lk 2:10-11).  The appearance of the Messiah providing salvation for all humankind permeates every NT book with the mood of joy.”[19]  Christ himself promises his disciples that after his death, “I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy….  Until now you have not asked for anything in my name.  Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.”[20]  Later, the apostle Peter affirms that this joy extends beyond the original disciples unto all those who believe in Christ: “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”[21]

Though many would be satisfied to contain their investigation of joy to the primary point of God’s redemption, and though a more thorough examination of this point could fill many papers, the questions of practical application raised at the beginning of the discussion demand that another step be taken—a step into the ongoing daily realities of those who believe in Christ and seek to live as his disciples in light of this redemption.  While resisting the temptation to treat one’s redemption as merely a past incident and not an abiding reality, one must acknowledge that the fact of his redemption does not automatically produce joy in all circumstances (even though one may well argue that it should) and that therefore the dynamics of Christian sanctification are deserving of attention as regards their potential import for the joy of the believer.  Throughout the Scriptures there can be seen a repeated linking of joy with acting righteously through obedience to the good laws of God.

Perhaps the best place to begin a discussion of the joy of righteousness is the Psalms.  Simply put, the psalmists express such immense delight in God’s laws that readers with modern sensibilities may be initially confused or offended by the authors’ eagerness to follow rules.  First, Psalm 19:8 says,

The precepts of the LORD are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the LORD are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.[22]

Psalm 119, an enormous alphabetical acrostic poem that almost reads like a love letter to God’s commandments, says similarly,

I rejoice in following your statutes
as one rejoices in great riches….
Your statutes are my heritage forever;
they are the joy of my heart.[23]

Psalm 97 takes these sentiments and extrapolates the general principle that

Light is shed upon the righteous
and joy on the upright in heart.[24]

From these excerpts two main points can be drawn.  The first is that God’s laws are a source of joy for the believer.  While most professing Christians would be reluctant to explicitly deny this claim, it must be admitted that many Christians struggle to identify with the attitude of the psalmist(s).  To some, it seems truly foreign.  The idea that laws, or forced restrictions of any kind, would be catalysts of joy runs counter to the basic sinful instinct as well as the prevailing Western zeal for maximal freedom from rules.  However, the testimony of the passages stands, and since they are Scripture, any who fail to seriously consider the truth of this principle do so to their own detriment and hermeneutical peril.  The second main point, as seen primarily in the latter passage, is that joy is a direct result of righteousness.  While this expression is probably slightly more palatable than the first point, they are really very similar; for what is righteousness if not right action, and what is right action if not obedience to the commands of God?

A number of other passages corroborate these points drawn from the Psalms and demonstrate an intimate relationship between righteousness and joy.  Galatians 5 lists joy among the “fruit of the Spirit,” alongside such characteristics as goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.[25]  Paul writes in Philippians that he will continue his ministry with them for their “progress and joy in the faith”—progress which would undoubtedly entail growing in conformity to Christ through acts of righteousness.[26]  Ecclesiastes 2 declares that “to the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness [from samach], but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God.”[27]  In his discussion of strong and weak faiths in Romans 14, Paul reminds his readers that “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”[28]  Jeremiah treats the words of God like a scrumptious morsel:

When your words came, I ate them;
they were my joy and my heart’s delight,
for I bear your name,
O LORD God Almighty.[29]

Proverbs 10:28 claims that “the prospect of the righteous is joy”; in contrast, “the hopes of the wicked come to nothing.”[30]  John records Jesus telling his disciples, “‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.  Now remain in my love.  If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.  I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.’”[31]  James exhorts his readers to receive their trials as “pure joy,” because the perseverance they develop from them “must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”[32]  The Apostle John writes in his third epistle that “it gave me great joy to have some brothers come and tell about your faithfulness to the truth and how you continue to walk in the truth.  I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.”[33]  Finally, Paul tells the Colossians of his prayer for them: “That you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father….”[34]

Given the abundance and diversity of such references, it is but a small leap to propose that joy (in the “strong” sense rather than the “common” sense) is a constant companion of righteousness or, perhaps more generally, godliness.  Joy—like love, peace, goodness, etc.—is a gift of the Holy Spirit; as a divine attribute, it acts as a divine response to divine stimuli.  Wherever godliness manifests, joy results in the heart of God and in the hearts of the regenerated believers who are blessed to witness or experience it.

In conclusion, joy is the recognition of an object’s likeness to God, a recognition that characteristically stirs up delight in the Christian’s heart.  To such an extent that God’s righteousness is reflected in a given item, a circumstance, or an action, there may joy be found and experienced.  Obviously, then, God himself and our contemplation of his character and works are the most abundant sources of joy.  Unlike the partial and insufficient joys offered by the finite and fallen natural world, God’s redemptive activity in history on man’s behalf is an inexhaustible spring of joy for believers.  Having received the blessings of redemption in Christ, and keeping this redemption always before them as their most immediate and constant delight, Christians may further experience joy through the progressive alignment of their wills and actions with those of God, that their internal and external conditions may be conformed to his righteousness.  The righteous acts of an obedient life are not merely a means to joy but in fact constitute an essential part of the experience of joy, as the Holy Spirit and his regenerated vessels are naturally delighted by godliness itself.

Therefore, with caution not to oversimplify an admittedly complex issue, the Christian who is failing to experience or actualize joy in his daily living ought maybe to start as follows.  First, he must stop trying to manufacture emotions that are ultimately a flimsy substitute for joy.  Second, he must contemplate the righteousness imputed to him in Christ and the fact that the Lord God Almighty rejoices over his people.[35]  Third, he must begin to train himself to see the echoes and reflections of God’s attributes and especially his goodness in the objects, circumstances, and actions in his life.  Finally, he must commit to acting in righteousness and obedience to God—whether he initially sees the benefit or not—remembering that joy itself cannot be his ultimate goal but trusting that the promises of Scripture will be fulfilled as he “seeks first the kingdom.”

[1] Nehemiah 8:10, Holy Bible, New International Version, Biblica, 1984.
[2] Philippians 4:4.
[3] Friedman, David Noel et al, eds., “Joy,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 3, New York: Doubleday, 1992, p. 1023.
[4] Harris, R. Laird et al, eds., “2268, simha, joy, mirth,” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 2, Chicago: Moody Press, 1980, p. 14.
[5] Acts 14:17.
[6] Harris 15.
[7] Ecclesiastes 2:10-11.
[8] Psalm 43:4.
[9] Ryken, Leland et al, eds., “Joy,” Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998, p. 465.
[10] Matthew 16:25.
[11] Matt 6:33.
[12] Elwell, Walter A., ed., “Joy,” Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996, p. 431.
[13] Friedman 1022.
[14] Harris 14.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Isaiah 44:23.
[17] Isaiah 51:11.
[18] Isaiah 65:17-18.
[19] Friedman 1023.
[20] John 16:22, 24.
[21] I Peter 1:8-9.
[22] Psalm 19:8.
[23] Psalm 119:14, 111.
[24] Psalm 97:11
[25] Galatians 5:22-23.
[26] Philippians 1:25-26.
[27] Ecclesiastes 2:26.
[28] Romans 14:17.
[29] Jeremiah 15:16.
[30] Proverbs 10:28.
[31] John 15:9:11.
[32] James 1:2, 4.
[33] III John 3-4.
[34] Colossians 1:10-12.
[35] Cf. Psalm 149:4; Luke 15:5-10; Zephaniah 3:14-17.


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