I wonder how many Christians feel that their level of joy/happiness does not match the faith they profess. I was most definitely in that category, though I’ve improved significantly. I thought I would share my journey in this regard and maybe it will help others as well.
Paul repeats the exhortation to “rejoice in the Lord always” multiple times in Philippians.
Joy is mentioned 68 times in the New Testament (NIV), and is connected especially to the announcement of the coming of Jesus, and is specifically mentioned as part of the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22). “Rejoice” is said another 31 times and “happiness” and “happy” another six. The connection between the good news and joy is inseparable.
I don’t have the time or motivation right now to go through the New Testament and note each use of the Greek word chara and see how it is translated in each instance. I do know that the distinction between joy and happiness we often force is just that…forced. Makarios is sometimes translated happiness, but I think the word “blessed” (cf. the Beatitudes) helps makes the distinction from chara. In any case, I don’t think linguistically there is much support for the difference between joy and happiness.
So, are Christians commanded to be happy? Could such even be commanded? Though I don’t think there is a distinction in the Greek between the words, I understand the reason we point to joy as something deeper and more abiding than happiness. Happiness is lost in a moment or season of bad news and grieving. Joy not only survives such seasons, but guides us through them.
That being said, even in the normal seasons of life I’ve been prayerfully convicted that there was something lacking in my experience of Christian joy and I do believe there should be a manifestation of that joy that an observer might describe as happiness. I’m not calling for us to ignore seasons of grief and neglect participation in the ancient practice of lament, but I am asking if our level of Christian joy matches our belief in the glorious good news! Or are we just as sad, grumpy, and cynical as everyone else?
This conviction started a season of focused prayer in search of what factors might be contributing to the compromise of Christian joy in my life. These are not absolute answers, but rather personal discoveries through prayer and timely messengers God has placed in my life. Due to length, I’ve decided to dedicate a post to each “joy factor.” Here’s the first one:
Joy Factor #1: Grace Based vs. Performance (Law) Based Relationship with God
Becoming aware of this dynamic has been the most significant factor in recapturing Christian joy for me. I bet I’m not alone. In my late teens and early twenties, I had a paradigm shift from a pure legal way of relating to God to a grace based relationship with him. Looking back, these were some of my most joyous days. Somehow I had subtly fallen back into a legal/performance based way of relating to God.
It wasn’t back to my old legalism, but it was a more subtle, harder-to-detect legalism. It was a legalism that masqueraded as grace. As I became even more aware of God’s standards for my life, the corollary was becoming more aware of my shortcomings. And the result was feeling God’s continuing disappointment in me. Any spiritual “successes” were short lived and extinguished by the next failure. How can any joy thrive in such a cycle?
God’s law is necessary to helping us understand God’s standards, but it is a poor tool for assessing our relationship with God or his feelings for us. We have all been found lacking in keeping God’s law. God would have been justified in judging us for our failures, but instead he took compassion on us and sent his Son to do what we could not (cf. Rom. 8:1-4).
We are not made right with God through our works, but through faith in the righteousness of Christ. If we are in Christ, then God does not evaluate us by our performance, but through Christ’s performance (righteousness). “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Christian, do you understand that God does not condemn you? Why then do we often live as if he does? You may protest that such an approach does not take sin seriously, but I would counter that the legal approach never solves the problem of sin. Being overwhelmed by the grace of our merciful God, who chooses to view us through the righteousness of Christ instead of our own, is a great blow to the power of sin (as the rest of Romans 8 goes on to demonstrate).
The power of sin is closely linked to the power of guilt. If guilt meets its demise at the throne of God, then sin looses its potency in the life of the Christian. No Christian lives sinless, but the more you embrace God’s grace, the more you will find sin losing its appeal. Joy is restored when we understand God loves us and he has completely forgiven us of our sins. Even more, God is completely engaged in your sanctification through the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. In other words, God is “all in” when it comes to you!
The Holy Spirit does convict of us sin and we need to repent of sin in our lives, but the voice of condemnation and rejection is not from God. Satan wants you to doubt your status as a child of God and at the very least weaken you with the chains of guilt. He will make it so that no one would confuse your life with good news.
We cannot let this happen. The good news says the prisoner has been set free. “If the Son has set you free, you are free indeed” (John 8:36).
More to come…