A guest post by Elaine Stores of This Grateful Mama
. . .
3 words. 3 words stopped me in my tracks; it was immediately clear God was speaking directly to me.
“Be joyful always;” 1 Thessalonians 5:16 (GNT)
Joyful didn’t describe me. I was worn out and downright cranky. My eyes were fixated on overwhelming daily demands and problems I couldn’t solve or ignore. Sickness rotated through our house, demanding energy and focus while detracting from my productivity.
Like a teenager, I felt grounded. I didn’t like this forced pause one bit and felt justified in my sulking.
Yet, right in front of me was God’s command. For me; for you.
We don’t feel joyful always, do we? Therein lies the problem.
Joy isn’t a feeling. Happiness is. Confused, we use them interchangeably. Happiness is an emotional reaction to our circumstances. Joy is a response to the gospel, reconciliation with God and promise of eternity with Jesus.
Happiness is temporary. Joy is eternal.
It’s not surprising we’re confused. The world equates joy with a fleeting emotion. This so-called joy depends on how we feel about our circumstances, with a focus on material things and prosperity.
It’s easy to feel joyful when things go well. But when life gets bumpy, our feelings betray us with reactions not grounded in truth. Like any emotion, happiness comes and goes, making room for others like anger, sadness or fear. Paul, who wrote these words doesn’t say ‘Feel joyful always’ on purpose. It’s no mistake! Feeling joyful always is impossible.
So, if joy isn’t an emotion, what is it? We find the key in two letters.
Paul says to be joyful. While a feeling is fleeting, being is a condition for living. Not a worldly feeling swayed by emotion; Biblical joy.
Biblical joy is a deep seated, unwavering joy. It’s not fickle or dependent on circumstance, nor does it hinge on material things or achievement. Joy depends on the ‘even though’; even though we feel sad, hurt, frustrated, overwhelmed or abandoned, we have joy because Jesus is with us in it all.
This joy cannot be created by human will. We can’t muster it up, or force it. Yet, it is possible to experience joy always. In Galatians, we learn joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.
But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!
Galatians 5:22-23 (NLT, emphasis mine)
Those words, “The Holy Spirit produces” are profound. It’s not our job to produce joy. What a relief! It takes the pressure to ‘figure it out’ off our shoulders.
We can’t be joyful in suffering on our own. It isn’t natural to find joy in difficulty, or when struggling. Or when overwhelmed by laundry, kids and meals. But where we can’t, God can.
We receive and are sealed with the Holy Spirit when we enter into relationship with Jesus Christ, by grace through faith (Ephesians 1:13). Our unwavering, right standing before God and restored relationship with Him is our constant source of joy.
Why do we need joy?
We’re human. We have the tendency to fix our eyes on what’s right in front of us and react.
Without a steadfast joy, fixed on Christ, our circumstances and emotions rule us. Joy goes hand-in-hand with the other fruit of the Spirit; without joy, it’s hard to feel peace or hope, and to respond with gentleness, kindness or patience. When our emotions rule us, we lack self-control, and our emotions leave us unsteady.
Only through the Holy Spirit can our hearts and minds be trained to ‘be joyful always’. Through this process of sanctification, God changes us and promises to complete His work in us (Philippians 1:3-6).
He isn’t done with us yet.
Joy in Action
I’m encouraged God chose Paul to write these challenging words, ‘Be joyful always’. We learn about hardships Paul suffered in 2 Corinthians 11. None of them were happy.
5 times, Paul was beaten with 39 lashes. 3 times with rods. He was stoned (Acts 14:19), shipwrecked 3 times, and spent a day in open water. In constant danger from Jews and Gentiles, he was always on the move. Paul had gone hungry, thirsty, cold and naked.
Terrible stuff. Worse than most of us will endure. Yet Paul ends with “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”
His joy is not of this world.
Paul is a tough act to follow, but don’t miss the hope. If Paul can be joyful in all this, we can too.
God knows many of us will excuse Paul as an anomaly. So our wise and gracious Father gives us plenty other examples, like Job, David, Ruth, Joseph and Jesus. And those who struggled with joy, like Naomi, David, and Job.
Come what may, we can be joyful.
Although we can’t create joy, we can cultivate our hearts and relationship with God so the Holy Spirit has room to work.
Check Your Gaze
When lacking joy, where is your focus? Thoughts and words reveal our heart. When those words, ‘be joyful always’ jumped out at me, I was caught up in the daily grind of mothering sick kids. My gaze was in the wrong place. I was complaining. Complaining lacks gratitude and keeps our focus off of God.
Circumstances do require our attention, but not all of it. While tackling our to-do lists, serving our people, doing our jobs and even in suffering, we must have God in our sights. An eternal perspective changes everything. We may not feel happy walking though today’s problems, but we can still be joyful in the eternal.
We are assured of our salvation and eternal inheritance in Christ. Our names are written in heaven (Luke 10:20), and no one can take our joy (John 16:22). With eyes on Jesus and the promise of His presence, we can be joyful, regardless of our circumstance.
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love…These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. John 15:9,11 (ESV, emphasis mine)
How do we keep our gaze fixed on Jesus? In John 15, Jesus says joy is experienced by abiding in the love of Christ. We abide by staying in God’s Word and in prayer. Staying in the presence of Jesus results in fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11). Abundant joy.
When lacking joy, we don’t need a vacation, a new outfit or other temporary comfort. Those are good things, but we need to spend time with God. Our need feels obvious in hardship, but the reality is, we need Jesus in good times too.
So, we must abide. In easy or hard, happy or sad. Only then will we be equipped to be joyful. Rooted in His Word, and confident in our identity in Christ, even the most unexpected or difficult events are filtered through the lens of salvation. That’s where joy in suffering comes from.
If you lack joy today, when was the last time you spent quality time with God? Time in His presence is sure to cultivate gratitude, hope, and peace, while reminding us of the joy of our salvation.
Sometimes, I do have joy regardless of my circumstances. One month after my encounter with ‘be joyful always’ I was faced with the same circumstances. Sick kids. Activities cancelled. Grounded. But this time, I wasn’t a big cranky mess.
Why? I spent a whole month abiding in Christ, and asking God for joy.
God is generous and gives His children good gifts. Joy is one of those gifts. When we ask for any fruit of the Spirit, He withholds no good thing from us (Psalm 84:11).
Sweet friends, if you struggle with joy too, you’re in good company. And God knows you can’t do it alone.
Along with the Holy Spirit, and His Word, God gives us the gift of fellowship. We are mutually encouraged and experience joy by spending time with other believers. They point us to Jesus, speak truth, walk alongside in prayer and even grieve with us.
Living In Joy
I’m noticing more joy in the midst of hardship lately, but I’m still learning to put off old habits. Sanctification is a process. We’re still in progress.
The Holy Spirit will equip us to be joyful always, strengthening our faith through suffering (James 1:2-3), and teaching us to be “joyful in hope, patient in affliction and faithful in prayer” (Romans 12:12).
The joy of the Lord is our strength.
What are you facing today? Even though we experience trials, loss, suffering and difficulties, we walk through it all with a certain hope of eternity. We have faith that this is all temporary and we rejoice in the steadfast love of the Lord.
Be joyful always.
Lord, you are a generous Father, who loves to give good gifts to your children. We thank you for your grace and mercy, and desire for our lives to be characterized by your joy. Give us abundant joy for this day. Teach us to abide in your presence and keep our eyes on you, no matter what comes our way. Give us a steadfast joy in the certain hope of eternity and the assurance of our salvation. Help us walk in your joy through all we encounter today so we can glorify you with our lives. May people see our joy and desire to know you. Amen.
. . .
Elaine Stores is a wife and mom of 3 who loves Jesus and has a heart to encourage women, especially moms. She knows what it’s like to desire to serve God and love our people fiercely, but still make mistakes and forget our worth. At This Grateful Mama, you’ll be encouraged to take the truth of God’s uncommon grace into every area of your life. Get to know this coffee-loving, chapstick addicted Minnesotan with an affinity for popcorn and sour candy.