O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
Joy. It is impossible to read the Christmas story without being struck by the response to the birth of the long-awaited Messiah. He was looked forward to with joy. He was awaited with joy. And for many, he was received with joy. The third candle of Advent, pale pink, is the Joy Candle.
Built right into the fabric of our culture is this pursuit of happiness, this reckless chasing after pleasant emotions, and it might be that Christmastime is the biggest evidence of that in our culture. The December full of parties and gift giving and entertainment and good food and vacation and this, that, and the other thing, all with the excuse of “celebrating Christmas,” or maybe just celebrating “the holidays” in general.
People tend to conflate joy and happiness, and also to lean on happiness (and so in their minds, joy) as the end result, as the thing to be pursued. But the sad fact of the matter is, happiness is fleeting in this life. If we make that our goal in life, we are going to fail, and fail miserably. We may be able to conjure up happiness that lasts for days or weeks or even a year, but something will happen that will shatter that sense of happiness, and then what?
For Believers, we need to have a more robust understanding of this all-too-misunderstood word. We need to understand that joy, Biblical joy, isn’t the flat and fleeting emotion of mere happiness, but it also isn’t a forced smile when the world is falling apart around us. Joy isn’t conjuring up fluffy, giddy emotions in the face of horror. While there is nothing innately wrong with happiness, happiness is circumstantial, an emotional response to something, whereas joy is a heart-level contentment and peace and gladness and so much more. It is unrelated to circumstances.
For the Believer, it also is worth stating, joy shouldn’t be the goal. If joy becomes the aim, joy will be ever evasive. The goal is Christ. The goal is the pursuit of righteousness and holiness. The old catechisms nailed this from the outset of their questioning: “What is the chief end of man?” they ask. “To glorify God and to love Him forever,” is the reply.
For the Christian, joy comes when we are viewing God, ourselves, and our life correctly. “Count it all joy, my brothers,” James writes, “when you meet trials of various kinds. For you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” (James 1:2-3) Joy is independent of and contrary to circumstance. Joy happens in the hearts of those who can look beyond the painful circumstances they are in, and see the expected result. Steadfastness. Greater faith. Ultimately, perfect fellowship in Heaven. A joyful heart is a hopeful heart. And a hopeful heart is a joyful one.
Biblically, we see joy as a response to God, to His blessings, and to His salvation in our lives, and we see it paired again and again with thanksgiving to and worship of God. We see joy as a gift, given by God to those He loves. The Psalmist credits the LORD with the joy in his heart: “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.” (Ps. 4:7) And we also see joy as a fruit, a natural result of faith. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Gal. 5:22-23)
But I think there are two facets we fail to really understand.
First, that joy, while it is a gift and a fruit and a natural response, is also a command. Throughout Scripture, God’s people aren’t asked or recommended to rejoice. They are commanded to do so!
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! (Phil. 4:4)
Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous, and give thanks to his holy name! (Ps. 97:12)
Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart! (Ps. 32:11)
“You shall rejoice. You shall rejoice. You shall rejoice!” echoes through the Old Testament Law.
The command to rejoice is similar in tone to the command to give thanks, sometimes happening simultaneously, but both overflowing with a sense of overflowing wonder and awe and exuberance: “Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good and His steadfast love endures forever!” is a refrain that occurs numerous times in Scripture and should be the refrain of the Believing heart.
A joyful heart is a thankful heart. And a thankful heart is a joyful one.
The second facet I believe we miss is that while it is a gift, a fruit, a response, and a command, it is a decision. Sure, there are times in our life when the joy just comes naturally. There are times when we are joyful and the only reason we can give is that God put that joy in our hearts and it is just overflowing. But more often than not, in my experience, we aren’t just bubbling over with joy we can’t explain. I love this passage from Habakkuk:
Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places. (Hab. 3:17-19)
I can just hear him saying, “I will. I will. I will rejoice. I will take joy. Though everything around me should turn to dust and ashes, I will rejoice. God is good.” This is a decision we make with intention, starting when life is going well, but to the end that we are tuned to rejoice so when life gets hard, as it will. “Come thou fount of every blessing,” the song goes, “tune my heart to sing thy grace.” We make a decision to rejoice, and over time we can tune our hearts to a song of rejoicing that holds its sweetness even in the midst of the worst of circumstances.
But how? How do we do that? How do we listen to the command to rejoice and then truly rejoice? And why do we fail?
All too often when we fail to accept the gift of joy, or fail to produce the fruit of joy, when we fail to respond with joy to our Heavenly Father, and fail to accept His gift of joyfulness…it is specifically because we are failing to lift our eyes above our petty circumstances, failing to see beyond our own fickle emotions, failing to look above these circumstances that are so temporary to something sure and certain. We let our gaze be pulled out of Heaven’s glory and into the mire and muck of this world that can be by turns so ugly and so beautiful, and we fail to count it all as filthy rags in comparison with beholding Christ the King in His beauty.
Whatever is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, whatever is commendable and excellent, let your mind dwell on THOSE things! (Phil. 4:8) Christ is true! He is honorable and right and pure and lovely! He is excellent and commendable! We must set our minds on Heavenly things, not earthly (Col. 3:2), “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb 12:2)
Because joy isn’t about circumstances. It isn’t about persuading ourselves to feel happy. It is about a Person. It is about that king, humble, bringing salvation, the one who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey’s foal. It is about that king, not yet born, whom Mary was carrying when she rode the donkey to Bethlehem and there gave birth in a stable. It is about answers to prophesy and longing hearts restored, it is about God choosing to redeem a broken world for His glory. It is about that God, who humbled Himself to be born our Savior. It is about that Savior, that Baby, that angels proclaimed and shepherds rejoiced to see, whom Magi worshipped with kingly gifts, rejoicing that they had found Him. It is about receiving a gift, and responding in praise and thanksgiving, and growing in our contentment and confidence in our King. It is about obedience, it is about choosing to wake up every morning with these words on our lips: “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!” (Ps. 118:24)
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zech 9:9)
So look to Jesus, friends. If your heart is heavy, look to Jesus. If your soul needs comforting, look to Jesus. If joy seems fleeting, look to Jesus. The same King who numbers the stars and knows their names is the same who heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. (Psalm 147:3-4) He is the same King who taught that those who mourn are blessed, because they will be comforted. (Matt. 5:4) And as we approach Christmas Day, look to the Child in the manger. Marvel with the shepherds. Rejoice with the Magi. And then look forward confidently to a Second Advent, when
the ransomed of the Lord shall return
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain gladness and joy,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 35:10)