Biblical Joy 101
What is joy? Does it exist in my mind or my heart? What causes it? And why are Christians commanded to have it?
Christians need clarity on those questions because the Bible says, “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, rejoice,” (Philippians 4:4). That is a command. If our thinking is fuzzy about the meaning of the command, our obedience will be fuzzy, too.
Let me begin with a passage that can help us:
A joyful heart makes a face cheerful,
but a sad heart produces a broken spirit.
A discerning mind seeks knowledge,
but the mouth of fools feeds on foolishness. (CSB)
Although I like many things about the CSB translation, it lacks clarity in this passage.
First, consider what the term “joyful” means. It is a common word in Hebrew, sameach, which means “happy” or “filled with joy”.
The word sameach is also used in other places in the Old Testament. Sameach describes the complete joy God’s people have in his provision in Deuteronomy 16:15. Sameach also describes the delight King David’s enemies felt when they saw him in distress (Psalm 35:26). In Esther, the villain Haman is sameach when he receives Esther’s request to join her for a banquet (Esther 5:9).
What is the equivalent of sameach in the Greek New Testament? Similar words include chara (glad, joyful, happy), euphraino (I make glad), and makarios (blessed, fortunate, happy). Like Hebrew, these Greek words describe positive human emotions.
Many Christians have been taught that they can have joy without feeling emotionally happy. This may seem like a noble attitude, but it doesn’t have a basis in Scripture. There is no verse that divorces emotion from joy. Biblical joy is an emotion that comes when the mind finds something to be favorable.
Some evil people, like Haman, find sin to be joyous, albeit temporarily. But the kind of joy commanded by the Bible is a positive emotion that results from our minds dwelling on God and his favor toward us. As the Psalmist writes, “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of scoffers! But his delight is in the law of Yahweh, and in His law he meditates day and night.” (Psalm 1:1-2) This teaches that people who dwell on Yahweh’s law are blessed by a sense of delight in what they learn.
All that to say, if we are going to understand joy from a biblical perspective, we must first realize that joy is an emotion, a delightful one, in fact.
Second, let’s examine what is meant by the terms “heart” and “mind” in the above passage, Proverbs 15:13-14.
Verses 13 and 14 seem to be referring to two different things, the heart and the mind. But they’re not. In Hebrew, the same word is used in both verses, lev. A joyful lev makes a cheerful face. A discerning lev seeks knowledge.
So what does lev mean?
Literally, lev is the organ in our bodies we call the heart. But here’s the kicker: ancient Israelites believed lev was the place where humans did all their thinking (for a good video explaining this, click here: https://youtu.be/aS4iM6KpPYo).
Thus, the ancient Israelites did not use the word “heart” like a modern love song. They didn’t conceive of humans having something that controlled the emotions (heart) and something else that controlled thoughts (mind). They used the word lev just like we use the word “brain”.
Long story short, when the Old Testament writers wrote about the mind, they used the word lev.
So Proverbs 15:13-14 is saying that a person’s mind can be cultivated to become “happy”, “sad”, and “discerning”. This connects back to one of the most fundamental points Proverbs makes: we must conform our thinking to God (Prov 1:7; 9:10; 23:17). As we do that, we will cultivate godly affections. These godly affections cause our emotions to be decreasingly dictated by our circumstance and increasingly responsive to God and his goodness.
So far, we have answers to three of our four questions:
1. What is joy? In the Bible, joy and happiness mean the same thing: a sense of emotional satisfaction from something one perceives to be favorable.
2. Where does joy exist? It exists in our minds as a product of what we think about and what we perceive to be favorable.
3. What causes joy? For Christians, joy is caused by recognizing the ways God is good to us, as taught in Scripture, and by living a life of humble submission to him.
Now to the last question:
4. Why are Christians commanded to have joy?
There’s a verse in Deuteronomy 28 that John Piper introduced me to several years ago. Chapter 28 starts with a lengthy list of all the blessings God will pour out on Israel if it is obedient to the terms of God’s covenant.
After this, God gives an even lengthier list of curses for disobedience in verses 15-68. This list of curses contains an explanation for why joy is a necessary response to God:
“Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness, and lacking everything.” (28:47-48)
Our joy honors God because it acknowledges that he is the cause of the abundance of all goodness.
Every good thing comes from God (James 1:17). Because of this, joyful gratitude to him is the right response. To ignore that obligation is to disregard him. To credit that goodness to something or someone else is to commit idolatry. Our joy is the necessary acknowledgement of what a good, gracious, and generous God he is. To find our joy in God not only fulfills the longings of our own heart, it brings him the honor he deserves.
The path to joy is not always easy; but for a Christian, it is always possible. At the bare minimum, there should always be a reserve of joy in our hearts because we know Jesus saved us from hell and destined us for glory. As Bryan preached on Sunday, we have no idea what glorious future God has planned for us. But we know it will exceed all our expectations.
As we continue to study Scripture daily and meditate on its truths, we invite the Holy Spirit to lift up our minds in wonder at all the ways God blesses us and will bless us, thereby causing us to genuinely rejoice all the more.