The Fruit of the Spirit: Joy

“But the fruit of the Spirit is… joy.” Joy, that ultimate of teleological pursuits. It is the reason we exist. What is the chief end of man? It is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.[1] More than mere happiness, though not less than, joy is the deep culmination and end of all we were created to know, believe in, and love. We were made to joyfully know, and believingly enjoy the God who is Eternal Joy Himself, Father, Son, and Spirit. Jesus himself prayed, in his high priestly prayer, that the point of eternal life is to “know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). This knowing is more than just a cognitive understanding, just like believing in God must be more than just an acknowledgment that He is, since “even the demons believe in God and shudder” (James 2:19). No, to know God must mean to know enjoyingly – to have joy in the God you know.

Consider Psalm 16 and verses 8, 9, and 11. Here David says that “I have set the Lord always before me.” He knows the Lord and he, by faith, gives his attention, his meditation, and his full devotion to God. He thinks about the God he knows. What is the result of this? Verse 9: “Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices.” Allow that to sink in. There is gladness in the depths of his heart, indeed, his whole being rejoices! Joy reverberates through every ounce of who and what David is. And so he ends his meditation of praise in verse 11 with the profound confession that “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

Here we see the end, the telos, of mankind – full eternal enjoyment of God because of God! For good reason C.S. Lewis stated that “Joy is the serious business of Heaven”[2] because it is there where we will finally exist to be as we were originally created: perfect image bearers of Divine Joy.

Of course, in this life, plagued as it is with thorns and thistles, tears and terrors, any attainment of joy – true joy – is hard to come by, and if we find it, it’s hard to sustain. Indeed, because of the fall our capacity for joy has been perverted and twisted to find it in cheap substitutes. The subtlety of sin is that we get a mere taste of joy, a faint echo of heaven, but never the full thing. And so we pursue those cheap substitutes with greater ferocity but always into deeper depravity. Instead of obedience to what God has said, which is how we find a full and pure and true joy, we foolishly pursue these distorted pleasures. The end for which is sorrow, shame, and sadness. That is our world now, a world of sadness, punctuated by our pursuits of joyless pleasures and fooling ourselves that we’re happy.

But it was into this world that Divine Joy himself entered and took on flesh and lived among us. There’s mystery in God becoming man, but perhaps a deeper mystery still in Divine joy becoming a Man of Sorrows. To what purpose did the Son of God become a Man of Sorrows? It was to take sin-soaked sorrowful men and deliver them from their wayward pleasures and bring them into eternal happiness. “Happy are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted… Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Matthew 5:4, 12).

And so our Savior not only gave his life to become the guilt bearing recipient of God’s wrath – an act in which the experience was the exact opposite of Psalm 16:11 – but in his resurrection he also gave his Spirit to bring us back to ourselves, as it were; our original-created-to-rightly-enjoy-God selves. And so we come to Paul’s grand pronouncement that in Christ, and by his Spirit, we can now “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do… the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.  And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:16-17, 22-24).

The Christian is a joyful being! He’s one who has come to know God and hopes to know him more fully, indeed, to know him face to face in glory where there will be an eternal enjoyment of who He is and who we are in Him. In this world, this kind his joy is contagious. Christian joy stands out among a sad and sullen people. It’s winsome because it’s hopeful, and it’s hopeful because the Christian joyfully knows that the one in whom he trusts is coming to right all wrongs. Which, incidentally, is why legalism is so cold and serious and angry. Religious legalism operates with the understanding that I need to right all wrongs. That’s too heavy a burden to bear and squashes all joy.

Hugh Martin, the extraordinary pastor-theologian of 19th century Scotland, notes that for the Christian there is a peculiar heavenliness to his joy. In his own heart “he discovers there matters of trial and sorrow, which the world in its levity is ignorant of; and he looks forth into the future, and there he apprehends materials of anxiety and hope to which the world is content to close its eyes. He looks upward to the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, and as one who has been awakened to the knowledge of his responsibilities to the King, he realizes that he has business in the court of heaven that the world knoweth not of.”[3]  What is that heavenly business? None other than eternal enjoyment of our Redeeming God! The “levities” of this world no longer entice the Christian like they once did – there is a deeper joy at which his whole being rejoices. It is the Spirit-wrought gift of joy in Christ.

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

[1] “[Happiness] is not only natural to all mankind, but to the angels; it is universal among all reasonable, intelligent beings, in heaven, earth, or hell, because it flows necessarily from an intelligent nature. There is no rational being… without a love and desire for happiness. It is impossible that there should be any creature made that should love misery, or not love happiness, since it implies a manifest contradiction; for the very notion of misery is to be in a state that nature abhors, and the notion of happiness is to be in such a state as is most agreeable to nature.” Jonathan Edwards, “Safety, Fulness, and Sweet Refreshment, to Be Found in Christ,” in Jonathan Edwards on Knowing Christ (Banner of Truth Trust, 1990), 166; I found this quote in Sam Storms, “Christian Hedonism” in For The Fame Of God’s Name: Essays in Honor of John Piper, ed. by Sam Storms and Justin Taylor (Crossway, 2010), 53

[2] C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcom: Chiefly on Prayer (San Diego: Harvest, 1964), 92-93

[3] Hugh Martin, “Joyous Spirituality of Christian Pilgrimage” in Christ Victorious: Selected Writings of Hugh Martin, ed. By Matthew J. Hyde and Catherine E. Hyde (Banner of Truth Trust, 2019), 338


Stephen Unthank