Saturday, 13 August 2016

Jesus and joy

The fruit of the Spirit is... joy... Galatians 5:22

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Philippians 4:4
Would you describe yourself as a joyful Christian?

That can be a hard question to answer, because joy isn't something that comes naturally. Yes, some people seem to be born with a cheerful, sunny, optimistic disposition, and that’s good - just as others seem naturally glum and Eeyore-like, and still others suffer from depression and other psychological conditions. But that sunny disposition is a different thing from joy. Which, of course, is why Paul describes it as "the fruit of the Spirit".

When the New Testament talks about joy, then, it’s talking about a supernatural thing. Left to our own moods, most of us probably swing every day from feeling pretty good and happy, to feeling dejected, worried and possibly quite miserable. But Paul's words imply that if we are Spirit-filled people then joy should be part of our daily experience.

"Joy" is different from "happiness". There's nothing wrong with happiness - of course not. But the problem with it is that it depends almost entirely on circumstances or temperament. Say your life is going well - you have a warm home, a full stomach, a fulfilling job, a settled family life, a good circle of friends, reasonable health... well, why wouldn't you be happy?

But all that doesn't necessarily have much to do with God or the Holy Spirit. Anyone can be happy when life is treating them kindly. But if suddenly things begin to go wrong, then happiness has a habit of flying straight out of the window.

Remember the prodigal son? - I bet he was happy when he broke free from the shackles of home and headed off to the big bad city with his wallet stuffed with money: Wahay, world! - here I come! But once he'd run through all that money it was a very different story. It's not easy, I imagine, to be happy in a pig-pen.

Joy comes from within us. Why? Because the Spirit is within us. However we may be feeling as a result of our external circumstances, nothing can alter the fact that we are children of God, that our sins are forgiven, that eternal life is secure, that our lives have a direction and purpose. That is what joy is all about - it’s a deep, settled knowledge that because I am safe in the tender love of God I need fear nothing.

And nothing can alter the fact that even our problems and difficulties are within the will of a God who loves us more than we can ever know, and that he can turn them to our good if we consciously trust in him. The assurance that God is our Father gives a stability, a foundation, to our daily lives.

In fact, joy is very closely related to peace, even that famous "peace of God that passes all understanding" (Philippians 4:7). I don’t know who said this, but I’m glad they did: peace is joy resting; joy is peace dancing. Good, yes?

CS Lewis had a big thing about joy, though I’m not sure he ever formally defined it. He described his experience of finding God as being “surprised by joy”. And joy itself, he said, is “the serious business of heaven”. I think I know what he meant. After all, Jesus said that “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who don’t need to repent” (Luke 15:7). So when Paul urges us in Philippians 4 to “rejoice always”, he is in effect urging us to echo the voices of the angels themselves.

What it all comes down to is this: joy depends on the closeness of our relationship with God. If we drift from him we may well be "happy", at least for a time, but we will never be joyful in the Christian sense. It's no good sticking a plastic smile on our faces, so to speak - that’s about as convincing as a false moustache.

No, you can’t magic up joy; either you have it or you don't. The challenge is to get ourselves into such a place with God that joy is just - well, there. Are you in such a place? Am I?

Oh God our heavenly Father, as we seek to walk with you today, may the joy of the Lord fill our hearts - and then overflow to others. Amen.

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