We talk about joy a lot—wanting joy, choosing joy, seeking joy, being joyful—and yet, we rarely take the time to ask what it actually is. The world offers a lot of different definitions and interpretations, but for one interested in what God has to say about it, a biblical study of the word makes a few things very clear—and for starters, makes clear what it’s not.

Joy is not a suppression of real sorrow. Jesus, who was absolutely perfect and never sinned, wept in anguish (John 11:35) and was sorrowful even unto death (Mark 14:34). This surely means that neither grief nor pain are  a sin for us.

Joy is not optional or only for certain people. It’s commanded of all of us (Psalm 97:12), which makes it far more than a sporadic feeling we only entertain as it spontaneously appears or a demeanor reserved primarily for the “positive thinkers” and extroverts. But this also means it is possible, and that like all of God’s commandments, it is not burdensome (1 John 5:3).

Joy is not dependent on circumstances. We know this because we are commanded by the Bible to rejoice always (1 Thessalonians 5:16), and yet we are also told that in this world we will have troubles of many kinds (John 16:33). Somehow, God intends for these to coexist—for us to rejoice not only in the absence of troubles, but even in the midst of them.

Joy is not something we can work harder to muster up on our own. God’s Word lists joy as one of the nine attributes of the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives (Galatians 5:22-23)—fruit that a plant cannot simply will to produce any more than we can try and fake (joy) ‘til we make it. Just as fruit is produced by a plant’s deep roots and absorbent leaves soaking up and circulating all it needs to grow, so are we wholly reliant on the Holy Spirit we need to grow the fruit of joy.

Joy is a design and instruction for our lives. It is found in God’s dwelling place (1 Chronicles 16:27) and is an attribute of Him whose image we bear, who we were made to continually become more like. It is the evidence and outcome of His presence and work in our lives.

Why Does it Matter?

But honestly, why does God care so much about our joy, so much that he’s commanded it? Why isn’t joy just a self-elected opt-in feeling we can choose to entertain and appreciate when it fits the occasion or the state of our heart?

Perhaps it’s because God, who knitted us together, knows better than anyone that we are wired to seek and worship that which brings us joy. The things that bring us the most pleasure and enjoyment are the things we prioritize, sacrifice for, direct our decisions toward and instinctively tell everyone about—not because we are forced to fulfill an obligation, but because we are compelled to share good news.

What we find joy in is what we seek, what we seek is what we worship and what we worship is what we give glory.

We will orient our lives around our joy, no matter what. And that’s why God, who alone is the Creator and Provider of life to the full and all good things, out of His deep love for us, desires that our joy be found in the One who will never let us down.

Where Do We Find It?

So if joy is so important to God,  where do we find it? And how do we continually find it all along this race of life marked out for us, which He has called us to run with perseverance as we follow Jesus? In its simplest form, we can certainly find it in the joy from which He’s brought us, the joy He has set before us and the joy available at every step in the present.

Joy from the Past

In perhaps the most famous journey of all the Bible, the Exodus, God sees the misery of His enslaved people, hears their cry, is concerned over their suffering and devises a rescue plan to deliver them from their bondage through miracles only He could do, beginning with the miracle of raising up a deliverer from among His people.

Moses, the most humble man who had ever lived on Earth to that point (Numbers 12:3), follows the Lord’s Spirit as the people followed Moses, leading them out from the place in which they were saved from death by the blood of a lamb, through the waters of the Red Sea where their enemies were swallowed up forever, traveling on in a new identity as God’s chosen people—free and sent on to serve and worship Him.

Do you remember all He’s delivered you from, all He’s brought you through and the miraculous way in which He did it—no less awe-inspiring than the parting of the Red Sea? One of the greatest downfalls of the Israelites as they traveled on through the wilderness was their forgetfulness. They did not consider His wondrous works or remember the abundance of His steadfast love (Psalm 106:7, 21). This led to faithlessness, impatience, pride, idolatry, jealousy, fear, ingratitude and disobedience. Our forgetfulness threatens to do no less for us today.

To find joy in all He has done for us in the past, we may need to borrow the prayer of David from Psalm 51:12, that the Lord would restore to us the joy of His salvation, reminding us of how He has brought us out with joy from greater bondage and hopelessness than we know. We can rejoice and sing for joy at the work of His hands (Psalm 92:4), at the glorious and mighty works of Jesus (Luke 19:37), and at the truth that through all our days and in all our wandering, just as the Israelites, our God has been with us and blessed us and carried us and we have lacked nothing (Deuteronomy 1:31, 2:7).

Joy for the Future

Jesus tells us that the call to follow Him is a call to first deny ourselves and take up our cross, just as He did (Luke 9:23). But the Bible also tells us that He endured this cross for the joy that was set before Him, and it is the same joy that is set before us as we do the same (Hebrews 12:2).

Romans 12:12 instructs us to be joyful in hope—the hope of where He is leading us on to and the hope of what all our circumstances are working for us in the meantime. As we journey on to the final rejoicing, we fix our eyes on the joy set before us—a place where there is no more weeping or tears, where our eternal reward awaits (Matthew 5:12) and our names are written in the book of life (Luke 10:20). And we rejoice with faith in the promise that even our sorrow will turn to joy and that no one will take our joy from us (John 16:20-22).

And until we arrive, we rejoice knowing that our sufferings in the meantime are working for us an eternal weight of glory (2 Corinthians 4:17), are making us more like Jesus as we share in His suffering (Phil. 3:10) and are only those that are necessary (1 Peter 1:6), part of the molding and refining of our Potter who promised to bring to completion the good work He’s started in us (Isaiah 64:8, Philippians 1:6).

Joy in the Present

As we look back to all our deliverer Jesus brought us out from and toward all He leads us into, we abide in Him who promised to be with us always, and in that abiding, our joy is made complete (John 15:1-11). We receive Him with the joy of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:6), rejoice over our newfound source of living water offered to us in grace like the woman at the well (John 4:1-30) and share the joy of Jesus’ disciples as they discovered that even the demons are subject to Him (Luke 10:17).

To “abide” means to remain in and not depart from, and this we do as we ask Him to satisfy us in the morning with His steadfast love that we may rejoice and be glad all our days (Psalm 90:14), fixing our eyes on Jesus, who is Himself the very Word of God on which we meditate and build the foundation of our lives as a rock enduring the storms (Matthew 7:24-27). We sing for joy as we take refuge in Him with gladness (Psalm 5:11), we shout for joy that He is great in our midst (Isaiah 12:6), and we praise Him for the joy of His goodness to us with hearts full of gratitude.

How Do We Fight for It?

As all followers of the true King know, we are in a battle every moment of every day against the ultimate enemy of His Kingdom who comes to steal, kill and destroy anything that would lead us to worship the one true God—even, or especially, our very joy (John 10:10).

The longer and more deeply we abide in Jesus, the more distinctly and confidently we begin to recognize the voice of our true Shepherd. 

And so, we resist that deceiver by suiting up in the armor given to us by the One who is already victorious (Ephesians 6:10-18). We journey in joy and to joy on feet fitted with the peace of our good news gospel, warding off every attack against that joy with the shield of faith, and wielding the sword of the Spirit, the very Word of God in whom we abide as He makes our joy complete.

God meant for joy to be a priority for us—the effect of seeking Him who puts that very joy in our hearts, and who teaches us to reap more and more joy by sowing peace (Proverbs 12:20), justice (Proverbs 21:15) and uprightness (Psalm 97:11) – through what we listen to, what we watch, what we think about and what we meditate on in our hearts.

In the process, we become the joy we were created to be (Isaiah 65:18), stunning the world with the reality that we have discovered the secret of being content in all circumstances—in highs and lows, plenty and hunger, abundance and need – we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Phil. 4:11-13), because it is the very joy of the Lord that is our strength (Nehemiah 8:10).