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The Nine Essentials: Joy
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joy titleWhat is it that gives you joy?


When I was working with the group to plan my sabbatical this summer, that was the question posed by the Lily Foundation on the grant application. As they put it, “What will make your heart sing?”


I thought about a lot of things that give me joy: spending time with family and old friends (telling old stories and laughing like I haven’t in a long time), hiking with my wife, traveling, eating some great meals (Bob’s Subs, Sticky Toffee Pudding), visiting historic sites and hunting for obscure monuments, hanging out in libraries, praying, and doing a lot of reading about faith and life. It was also joy in anticipation of coming home and about the future. Those are some of the things that really make my heart sing. I’m sure you have your own list. I was blessed to be able to do all of those things and to experience some things that made me joyful.


But one of the main things that I thought about in returning from sabbatical was, how do you sustain that joy? After all, it’s rare you get to do all the things that make you happy. Life doesn’t always give you a block of time and money to plan and execute your ultimate bucket list. Indeed, we tend to spend a lot of our time doing mundane things, and then there are the times when things are just plain difficult. We’re often affected by circumstances beyond our control. It’s easy to feel good and even be spiritual when things are all going your way, but how do you cultivate joy when they don’t?


Much of what we think of when we think about joy is really better defined as “happiness.” I think there’s a difference. Happiness is really more of a feeling while joy is more of a state of mind, an orientation. Happiness is something that I can easily conjure up when the circumstances are right, but joy, real joy, requires a deeper inner resource. I think that’s why Paul lists it as one of the fruits of the Spirit. Without the Spirit, we’re more apt to naturally swing in and out of happiness rather than have a consistent life of joy.


In fact, much of what the Bible talks about when it references joy has to do with joy in negative circumstances. James, for example, says, “Count it all joy, brothers and sisters, when you encounter various trials” (1:2). Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you, and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven.” Yeah, that sounds fun. Woo hoo! I mean really: do you feel joyful when you’re facing a tough time or when people shout you down for being a follower of Jesus? That’s not natural—that kind of joy can only come from the supernatural. It can only come from the Spirit.


And I think that’s the kind of joy Paul is talking about here in his list of the fruit of the Spirit—the supernatural kind that isn’t dependent upon circumstances. Joy and Peace (which we’ll get to next week) are often linked in the letters of Paul. He uses the word “joy” 21 times and “peace” 43 times in his letters, and most of the time he isn’t just talking about happy feelings. Take Romans 15:13, for example: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Here we see Paul outlining what real joy and peace are about:

  • They are signs of God’s kingdom—joy and peace are what happens when God is in charge.
  • They are essential ingredients to Christian hope—we are to be filled with them.
  • They are evidence of the power of the Holy Spirit overflowing in our lives.

Joy is not being “hooked on a feeling” as the old 70s song says, but an essential character trait of the Spirit-filled Christian.


One of the places were Paul demonstrates this kind of joy most powerfully is in his letter to the Philippian church. Philippians is Paul’s most joyful letter, which is interesting given that he wrote it from prison. The apostle had had everything taken away from him and was now facing execution at the hand of the Romans, and yet he writes about and with pure joy, clearly influenced by the Spirit. It’s joy that can only come from the Spirit, and it’s joy that causes him to see his circumstances differently than he might through the lens of mere “happiness.”


What is that gives Paul joy in the midst of a prison where he is chained up? Actually, his list would look a lot like ours: it was joy about family, about faith, and about a future; but Paul reframes these in a way that pulls them out of any dependence on circumstance and, instead, sees them as signs of hope in the power of the Holy Spirit. Let’s take a closer look at Paul’s reasons for joy in the Spirit.



First, joy is having a family. Many of us would list family as a reason for joy. It’s evident when we see prayers of praise lifted up for new children and grandchildren, or when we celebrate a graduation or take a vacation. But not every family circumstance is a reason for joy. Sometimes, it’s a source of deep pain. And what about those who don’t have a family? Our culture kind of forgets about them.


But here’s where Paul redefines family joy in terms of the Holy Spirit. For Paul, it is the Spirit that creates a new human family that transcends our families of origin. Remember as Paul writes this that he is single—he has given up everything for the gospel, forgoing the normal way of life for a Jewish male. And yet when Paul writes to the Philippians, we see him addressing them as family. “I thank my God every time I remember you,” he says in the opening of the letter, “constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all you…For God is my witness how I long for you all with the compassion of Jesus Christ” (1:3-4, 8). Even though these people are physically far away from him and are Gentiles unrelated to him, Paul considers them to be like family. But that reminds us that one of the central theme of his letters to various churches concerns the new family of Jews and Gentiles together that God has created in Christ. People who would previously have never sat down to a meal together because of cultural, social, and religious barriers are now one family of faith; the family of Christ. No matter what situation or family circumstance we might find ourselves in, Paul invites us to remember that we are part of the larger family, the family of the church, in the power of the Spirit.


It’s the same kind of family that Jesus talked about. “Who are my mother, and sisters, and brothers? Those who do the will of God” (Mark 3:35). A family centered on Christ and empowered by the Spirit invites everyone in to be cared for, nurtured, instructed, forgiven, and transformed. It’s a family that will take you back when you have strayed, as Jesus told in the story of the Prodigal Son. It’s a family where people cut off from their kin can find community and wholeness, like the Ethiopian eunuch Philip encountered on the road. Given his physical situation, he couldn’t have a family of his own, but Philip invited him to be part of the family of Christ—a family that expanded when he returned to Africa with the good news.


Granted, the family formed by the gospel and by the Holy Spirit isn’t always perfect. It’s got it’s share of crazy aunts and uncles and weird traditions, but it is a family without boundaries. It’s a family where anyone can be adopted and have a place at the table. In fact, it’s no coincidence that Christians center their worship spaces around a table—it’s the most important piece of furniture in the house. The table is where meals are taken, discussions had, rituals celebrated. Jesus ate at table with lots of people who had been cast out by their own families and, in doing so, he was forming a new family around himself. Every time we come to his table, we do so as part of that family, no matter what our family of origin looks like.


Gathering here each week is like a family reunion, and that’s reason for joy! It’s all the result of the Spirit’s work, producing in us the joy that comes from knowing we are loved and that we are part of God’s forever family.


Second, joy is having a faith. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say Rejoice,” says Paul in Philippians 4:4. We can have joy no matter the circumstance because of what the Lord has done in Christ. That’s the “good news” of the gospel—the essential character of our faith. We know that God has come into the world to deal with our slavery to sin and death and has given us new life and a new future because of the death and resurrection of Jesus. We need not fear death, nor do we fear being controlled by sin—we have been set free, and people who are free can experience real joy! The Holy Spirit gives us the assurance that we are children of God when we put our faith in him—when we give our allegiance to him.


Paul had been captured by this gospel, and it was faith that enabled him to sustain joy even when things looked bleak. His single-mindedness about the gospel kept him moving onward despite the opposition. In this way, he was following Jesus who, “for the joy set before him endured the cross,” as the writer of Hebrews put it. We can endure much when the joy of faith in Christ is set before us by the power of the Spirit.


“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving make your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (4:6-7). I am the designated worrier in my family, but I have come to realize that worry is what steals joy. “Do not worry” is an invitation to embrace joy, to put our faith in God, to offer our prayers in faith, and to receive his peace and protection over our hearts and minds in Christ. Joy is having a faith that God is setting everything right and will make all things new, no matter how things look at the moment.



Lastly, joy is having a future. Don’t you just love having something to look forward to? It’s a great source of joy. And nothing do we anticipate more than the future God has for us, and I’m not just talking about the future that we might have after we die. It’s a future we can embrace right now. When the Spirit cultivates the fruit of joy in us, we begin to see the world in the way that God sees and we can focus on bringing the future into the present. In verse 5 Paul says, “The Lord is near”—near to us now and also on his way. Therefore, we can imagine the world he is bringing. Look at verse 8-9—“From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, all that is worthy of praise. Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.”


We don’t need to wait for the arrival of God’s kingdom in its fullness to focus on these things. We see them through the eyes of faith. In a world that focuses on negativity, evil, and brokenness, we can see the future God has for us and for his creation.


Family, faith, and future—all of these are things the Spirit reminds us we have and are reasons for joy no matter the circumstance. As Paul puts it in verse 12, because of this joy, “I have learned how to be content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry, or whether having plenty or being poor. I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength.” We can endure and maintain joy through the Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of God.



How do we cultivate this fruit of joy? Here are three suggestions:


1. Spend time with the family of Jesus. We are part of a family and we need to remind one another that we have reason for joy. When we are isolated, we tend to get depressed and robbed of joy. The more we embrace the family in worship, in small groups, and in conversation with other brothers and sisters in Christ, the more we increase our capacity for joy.


2. Immerse yourself in the Word and in prayer. Paul invites us to lift our prayers to God, and the more we are in prayer the more we experience the joy of God’s presence. When we turn to Scripture, we open up a vast treasure trove of reasons for joy. The daily disciplines of prayer and Scripture keep us focused on the ground of our faith and the hope of our future, enabling us to focus on the things that really matter.


3. Return to joy. It’s easy to get discouraged, and when something happens to us we tend to stew in it for a long time. When we are caught up in feelings, we can often wind up distorting the truth and forget that we have reason for joy. Instead of focusing on the problem, ask the Spirit to help you focus on what brings you joy.


That’s why we given you Nehemiah 8:10 as a memory verse this week: “The joy of the Lord is my strength.” Nehemiah said this to a people who were in a bad situation, but remembering the joy of the Lord, the joy that is the fruit of the Spirit, can help us overcome and, like Paul, to be content no matter the circumstance.


That’s the fruit of joy!



Download our bulletin, notes page, and daily devotional guide here:



Wright, Christopher J.H. Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit: Growing in Christlikeness. IVP Books, 2017.

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