We seem to have an in-built need for joy. Many direct us to look within us to find joy. We are told to navigate our lives by asking whether things will bring us joy. But Christian joy is not a self-centred principle offering false, short-term happiness that leaves us empty and frustrated. It comes from outside of themselves, from Christ Himself and He does not give it as the world gives. Because it is His joy it is true and lasting and has a vital impact. It has an altogether different quality, because it is heavenly. It is vital for living the Christian life in this world with all that this means.
Christ’s great prayer for His people was “that they might have my joy fulfilled in themselves” (John 17:13). What is the nature of this joy? Anthony Burgess says that it comes from God only as part of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). It is centred on God through knowledge of Him and faith in Him as He is revealed in His Word.
As a person is so is their joy. We must be spiritual and heavenly people to have spiritual joy. The heavenly heart delights in heavenly things. The soul must be renewed and sanctified before it can delight in that which is good. The people of God being made new creatures and made partakers of the divine nature, they now come to love and delight in the things they once hated. God is now their delight (Psalm 16:5; Psalm 73:25). They already possess something of this joy. Even in this life, God is the God of His people. They are said to have Him and enjoy Him. Christ is said to dwell in their hearts; the Father and the Son are said to be in them and dwell amongst them. Thus, even in this life they may have unspeakable joy.
But Christians often experience sad trials, it cannot be their duty to be always rejoicing can it? There are particular times when God calls us to mourn (Isaiah 21:12; Ecclesiastes 3:4; Psalm 126:5). In such cases it is our duty to be humbled and to mourn under His hand. They may make us abstain from the natural and lawful joy we might take in created things (such as in fasting), but not to abstain from spiritual joy. In days of humbling ourselves it is a duty to rejoice in the Lord, and such joy will like fire melt and thaw the heart. This joy is so useful that it must not be laid aside. Spiritual joy may abound most when the soul is humbled and there is godly mourning. No grace of God’s Spirit is contrary to another. The same Spirit that works joy is also the Spirit of supplication and mourning. Joy and trembling can go together (Psalm 2:11) as can joy and fear (Acts 9:31). So godly sorrow and joy are also consistent with each other. It is never unlawful to rejoice in God any more than it is to love or to believe in Him.
In this updated extract, Anthony Burgess shows the remarkable effects of Christian joy.
1. It enlarges the heart
The saints glorified in heaven enjoy more of God than ever they could here because their hearts are widened and prepared. Our souls are narrow until joy expands them. A person of a joyful spirit is like a vessel with a large opening. They receive far more of God and Christ than someone who is dejected and unbelieving. We are commanded to open the doors of our heart that the Prince of glory may enter into us. Joy will prepare us. Many of God’s children complain of their narrowness of heart. Fears and worldly cares fill the heart so that they have no room for Christ. They have great difficulty in praying or doing any heavenly duty. Joy is excellent at opening and removing these sinful obstructions. This should make you endeavour after a joyful life; it will make you increase in all dimensions of grace. You will be a Christian in a higher degree.
2. It makes us useful to God
“The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). Weak hands and feeble knees (by which we act and move) are caused by fear. On the contrary, joy makes strong hands and firm knees. Any service done to God which is accompanied with dejections and sorrow has a kind of uncleanness in it, as it was with mourning in the Old Testament (Hosea 9:4). All sinful sorrow and dejection, makes your duty unclean, it pollutes you. God not only loves a cheerful giver but cheerfulness in all duties (Deuteronomy 28:47). You may say, “God is of such infinite purity and holiness that because I am full of infirmities I have reason to tremble before Him”. Granted, but remember the psalmist’s advice, “rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11). You complain of your lukewarmness and lack of liveliness in God’s service. Consider whether your lack of heavenly joy is the cause of this. Consider whether you might have fulfilled all relations and opportunities more fruitfully, if this joy had been fulfilled in you.
3. It weans our heart from the world
It will make you undervalue all those earthly things which the world admires so much (Psalm 4:7). If then the soul has more joy and gladness in God’s presence and favour than in all earthly contentment whatever, no wonder if the heart sits loose to the one and is fixed on the other. The heart that has been ravished with the sweetness and glory that is in God and Christ, does not know how to stoop to these inferior fading joys. No one sits so loose in their heart from earthly comforts as those who have this heavenly joy.
4. It expels sinful joys
Those that rejoice in the Lord cannot rejoice in sin, because they are so contrary to each other. If you complain of the proneness of your heart to rejoice in earthly and worldly things; there is no medicine like heavenly joy to cure that. What made David express so much joy in God except the heavenliness of his heart. This greater joy must put out the lesser. Pray and endeavour that the joy of the Lord may take up your heart, when this sun is in your soul, the stars cannot be seen. Those who have this heavenly joy may be said to be in heaven while here on earth. No life comes so near to that of the glorified saints in heaven as a holy life accompanied with this joy.
5. It facilitates holy activities
Heavenly joys make us think that the time serving God is short, and to grudge that the work of God is over so soon. The sabbath is their delight (Isaiah 58:13), they are not like worldly people who ask when it will be over so they can go back to the world (Amos 8:5). Nothing makes the duties of holiness so burdensome as lack of joy. If they were your delight you would with joy wish that the sun would stand still and be grieved to stop. The worldly man thinks the day or week is not long enough to enjoy his delights, the godly man thinks the time for enjoying God is too short. Eternity will not make the saints in heaven weary of God.
6. It will sustain us through all afflictions
They are to account it all joy when they fall into trials (James 1:2). It is possible to greatly rejoice in manifold trials with “joy unspeakable and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8). How happy it is when your trials do not devour your joy, but your joy takes away the sting of your trials. If we had the joy the martyrs had it would be no more for us to endure their sufferings than it was for them.
7. It increases our desires for heaven
If we have not been able to completely enjoy anything in which we delight our appetite is stirred up to have more of it. David’s incomplete enjoyments of God made him restless and impatient for further communion with Him. Thus, David exhorts us to taste how good God is, if we tasted by experience the sweetness of the excellency of His love, we would still be breathing after Him like David (Psalm 119:20). Heavenly joy makes us look for the coming of Christ and seek to hasten it by our prayers and desires. This is because it is that which will complete our joy. Here sorrow and joy will always be mixed together, but there there is pure and unmixed joy to all eternity.
Spiritual joy is the life and marrow of religion, it is the spur and goad to all holiness. How deceived the world is in looking for joy and consolation any other way whether through reputation and honour, wealth or greatness. These will not give you true solid joy, all these things will become bitter. Whatever joy is treasured up in reference to heaven will always abide, it will never forsake you. But joy that only has reference to earthly things will vanish.
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