The Spirit's Fruit: Joy
When the Apostle Paul is outlining the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23, he lists joy as the second fruit, directly after love. There seems to be a rather compelling reason for this. In Matthew 22:34-40, when Jesus is asked what commandment is the most important, He responds that the greatest and most important is to love the Lord God with all of one’s heart, soul, and mind (vs. 37-38), and then explains that the second most important commandment is to love one’s neighbor as oneself (vs. 39). When one loves in this way, they subsequently find themselves fulfilling the Law of God, since the first four of the Ten Commandments deal with loving God, and the latter half deal with loving neighbor. Since love is the fulfilment of the two tables of the Law, the one who truly loves God and others both fulfills the Law and glorifies God. This, of course, is only possible for the one who has been indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
God as the Source of Joy
It is in glorifying God that the Christian finds joy because the supreme object of the Christian’s love is God Himself. We delight in obedience to the Lord because we love His Law as a reflection of Himself. We delight when others see our good deeds and thus glorify our God in Heaven (Matt. 5:16) because there is nothing we love more than pointing others towards the true worship of the living God. We delight when God is exalted in our lives because, whether we live or die, we love to live for the Lord (Phil. 1:20-21).
Out of our love for God and neighbor, then, flows a supreme joy that simply cannot be replicated anywhere else, or by anyone else. As a fruit of the Spirit, the joy the Bible describes as belonging to the Christian is peculiarly the Christian’s only. Nonbelievers may be able to experience momentary happiness, or perhaps even sense a glimmer of joy according to the common grace of God, but pure and unadulterated joy comes from God and flows to the believer through the Holy Spirit.
But what makes the joy of the Christian so profoundly different than the happiness of the world that it may be said true joy can only be experienced as a fruit of the Spirit? In one very real sense, this joy is completely different than the momentary and fleeting happiness of the world because the world’s happiness is dependent upon temporal things. For example, the sinner may be happy because they awake to find the day bright and sunny, but later turn to sadness when storm clouds gather overhead.
The Christian, though, has a source of undiminishing joy because Christian joy is centered in Christ, who does not change. Indeed, just as the Lord is the same, “yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8), so the Christian’s joy, anchored in Christ, does not change. The Christian’s joy is not contingent on circumstances. The Christian always has a reservoir of unlimited joy to tap into at any given moment, because the Christian can always turn to God.
Joy in Contemplation
Thus, one may say that Christian joy never diminishes, though one’s sense of it may ebb and flow. This is because, though our source of joy is eternal and unchanging in our Triune God, we are temporal and finite creatures who can only see so far ahead. As long as we are in our bodies of flesh, we find it easy to take our eyes off the Lord and focus them instead on the things of this world. A simple traffic jam can cause our sense of joy to diminish, let alone the truly trying difficulties we experience in day-to-day life. This does not mean the joy has diminished; only our sense of it.
The cure for such disillusionment, then, is an honest contemplation of the Lord. Perfect happiness and joy will not be possible until we experience the eternal joy of gazing upon Christ in His glory. Nonetheless, by contemplating the goodness of God, the attributes of God, the acts of God, the promises of God, the Word of God, and especially the gospel of God, we find we can actively begin to increase our sense of joy, and even happiness and contentment, in Christ. Contemplation of the Lord lifts our spirits in such a way that we are, in a sense, drawn nearer to God, and the closer our proximity to the Lord, the greater our sense of joy. This means then that this joy, as a fruit of the Spirit, is more fully recognized the closer we draw to God through prayer, study of His Word, and contemplation of who He is.
Jacob Tanner is pastor of Christ Keystone Church, a Reformed Baptist church plant in Central Pennsylvania where he lives with his wife and two sons. He is the author of Union with Christ: The Joy of the Christian’s Assurance in the Doctrines of Grace.