Greek expression: chara
Pronunciation: kahr AH
Strong’s Number: 5479
Key Verses: Luke 15:7, 10; John 16:20–21; Galatians 5:22
Being filled with joy is far better than having sorrow. Joy makes us feel good and uplifted; sorrow makes us feel down. Joy is a feeling called forth by well-being, success, or good fortune. A person automatically experiences it because of certain favorable circumstances.
Jesus said that our joy would be full. Consider your life, does joy define it? Are you overflowing with it? I believe that biblical joy is gladness; it’s dancing, clapping and laughing. Biblical joy is celebration and feasts. Biblical joy is gladness on display.
A friend once disagreed with me that biblical joy and gladness are synonymous. “Joy isn’t a feeling”, he said.
“Well then, what is it?”, I wondered.
I think my friend thought a person could be grouchy and morose and could still have biblical joy; or at least one need not ever be happy to have Jesus’ overflowing joy. What then is biblical joy? Is our vision for it too superficial or is it too gloomy? And whatever biblical joy might be, how do we get it and keep it?
Joy inhabits our bodies
Emotions—sad, glad, hungry, angry—are physiological. This means that they are, in essence, biological responses to stimuli. Something happens and this affects our body. The body responds with endorphins and other chemicals that produce an emotion. In the case of joy, the body releases dopamine and serotonin.
Biblical joy might inhabit the body but just having the chemicals of joy does not mean that you have biblical joy. This is self evident. There are conditions other than biblical joy where the body will produce ‘joy’. Cocaine comes to mind. Cocaine increases both dopamine and serotonin levels, the same chemicals that produce joy. Cocaine makes ‘joy’ but no one confuses a cocaine high with the joy promised by Jesus. Biblical joy might end up in the body but that is not where it starts..
In God’s world, feelings play a key part in having a life of joy
While emotions happen in the body and can often happen without our conscious awareness, a feeling is our subjective experience of a physiological emotion.
This experience called feeling happens in our mind. The mind is the spiritual (non-physical) part of a man. While emotions can be measured scientifically, our experiences of those emotions—feelings—happen in a non-physical space that cannot be accessed or measured. Feelings has several parts that make it up.
First, feelings have what philosophers call qualia. At the subjective level the ‘I’ experiences feelings in a unique, and completely private way. Think about the last time you really laughed; there is a biological system at play but that tells you nothing about your enjoyment of the laugh—the warmth, transcendence, clarity and strength you experienced in that one moment. This experience is yours and yours alone.
Attention is the second way we feel. When we feel something, we pay attention to it. This attention includes consideration. As we pay attention, we consider it and we decide if we like it or not. The more we pay attention to a feeling, the more intensely we will feel it; even if at first, the feeling is insignificant.
Third, feelings include thoughts. Thought can be imagery, ongoing internal dialogue, present experience, fragments of the past and/or subjective opinion concerning x, y or z. For example, if I experience a sad meeting, it might remind me of another time I was sad and that I don’t like sad things. This is a thought. Thoughts can be unbidden, contradictory to our personal ethics and can destroy God feelings in the unordered mind. But in a well ordered mind, our thoughts serve our will; the ordered mind only has thoughts that cultivate the feelings it desires.
Finally, feeling includes living from our ideas. Ideas are ways of understanding our world. Our ideas are made up of thoughts and often operate independently of our conscious awareness. Our ideas are the way things are (subjectively speaking). For example, if I am happy because my boss gave me a raise, then if I remember other incidences of being rewarded at all my jobs in the past, and if I have a healthy self esteem along with a strong work ethic, I might live under the idea that my joy comes from the confidence of working hard at something I’m good at. This idea is a web of experiences, assumptions, judgements about life, positive thoughts and bodily stimuli that is experienced as reality. This is an example of a well-ordered mind. But there is a deeper, better joy.
If life is to be full of biblical joy, that life must be built upon something deeper than our effort, our past and experiences. These things can (and will) change for the worse, at least sometimes. Biblical joy must weather life as it is; biblical joy is only possible if it makes sense in the reality of our experience. We must have a compelling enough idea that our experiences, assumptions, judgements about life, thoughts and our body come together as a life of overflowing joy.
Our work then is to find and integrate the idea that will produce joy
Perhaps it is self evident, but it is our idea of God that is the pathway to biblical joy. Consider Psalm 27:4–6 (ESV):
For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock. 6 And now my head shall be lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy;
“Trouble” is located in the world; we ought to expect the writer’s body would have experienced this with negative emotion. But trouble is not what the writer feels. It is his ideas about God that gives him confidence beyond trouble and are the seeds of joy.
God will hide the writer from trouble; God will lift him above trouble upon a rock; God will raise the writer to a place of victory. This is all based upon the writer’s idea about God. God cares about him and can act to deliver him. It is through this view of God that gives the psalmist confidence that God will act in the world. This action will effect his body. He will have the emotion of joy and will experience it in feelings that produce shouts of joy.
Now in normal human affairs, our feelings are often a slave to our emotions. Here, trouble would be the central source of feelings. The person’s body would be effected causing negative emotions that then fuel feelings that are negative both in experience and in the ideas that are produced. Here, we see a fundamental difference between a joyous person and one who is not. The joyous person is grounded in a big idea about God. While the person who is not grounded in a God-sized idea is a slave to his emotions.
Biblical joy will effect our emotions instead of our emotions dictating our joy
In Psalm 4:7, the psalmist writes. “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.” This comparison of the joy God gives and the joy of abundance is helpful. When something good is experienced—wine and food abound—the body responds with joy. It is then experienced as joy in the mind. This joy is body centered based upon outside realities.
The psalmist says the same qualia of joy experienced in abundance happens when God places joy in the heart. In the Bible, the heart is synonymous with the mind. So, what does God place in the psalmist’s mind? He places the feeling of joy—attention towards God, thoughts of his greatness and an all encompassing idea that God is a good sovereign—in the psalmist’s heart. Joy then is God initiated and empowered. God acts and by faith, we see it. This seeing is the glue that holds a right idea about God together. It will also effect the body. The emotion of joy bubbles up into awareness and it then colors our ideas and thoughts about God. This then causes us to focus more upon him. Once ignited, a life of joy will be our ‘normal’ experience.
Is biblical joy outward dependent?
Finally, remember that non-biblical joy is outward dependent but what about biblical joy? Consider this statement by Paul: “In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy” 2 Corinthians 7:4. Here, Paul has affliction. Affliction is a reality that acts upon his body. This stimuli will produce negative emotions. Yet, Paul has overflowing joy. There are a couple of really interesting things going on here. First, affliction is placed into Paul’s worldview—his overarching ideas that make up his subjective world. Affliction is not meaningless but necessary in the life he lives for the gospel. So, far from being negative, it is a sign of being with God and builds his confidence of God. God is with Paul and Paul knows God—all things work together for those who love him and are called according to his purpose.
Paul’s joy is grounded in his idea about God and joining in His mission. There is affliction but there is even more fruit! His emotions might be sad but his feelings are joyous. This allows us to say that experiencing negative things is no barrier to joy. In fact, in a well developed mind, the negative stimuli can be integrated into joy.
Biblical joy is a quality of experience in the mind grounded in ideas about God. These ideas connect to and interpret what happens in the world. Is there victory? God has done it! Is there affliction? God is working for your good! A mind focused on God will experience the feeling of joy. This overflowing joy will invade your body; all together, this is the system of joy that maintains biblical joy.
If you want joy, you must think rightly about God. Then, you must live as if your ideas about him are true (faith); as you do, He will, so to speak, show up; you will ‘see’ him act. There, you will experience God and feel joy. You will overflow with it.