Learn to practise Joy always by J I Packer
All the passages below are from J. I. Packer’s book, “God’s Plans for you,” published in 2001.
Joy of Paul’s kind—holy, strong, supportive, unquenchable—is actually commanded! “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again [for emphasis, as when we ourselves repeat things]: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). This is not an option; it is an order. This is what Paul, as Christ’s official spokesman, directs us to do. The command comes from the Lord himself. The New English Bible’s “I wish you all joy in the Lord,” the Good News Bible’s “May you always be joyful in the Lord,” and Goodspeed’s “Good-bye, and the Lord be with you always. Again I say, good-bye,” miss the point being made here. Paul words express not just a pious wish but a practical imperative, requiring and obliging us to cultivate joy (Granted, the Greek allows this watering down—just!—but the earlier use of “rejoice” in its full sense, plus the flow of thought in the context, makes the pious-wish exegesis most unlikely) The practice of joy, then, is an art that we are required to learn.
The first task is to discern what Christian joy actually is, and the first step towards that is to focus our ideas about the nature of joy. Many seem to stumble here, so I start with some negative statements to clear the ground.
Negation number one: joy is not the same thing as fun and games. Many people “have fun,” as we say, seeking and finding pleasure without finding joy. You can “enjoy yourself” and remain joyless. The restless, relentless pursuit of pleasure (sex, drugs, drink, gadgets, entertainment, travel) is very much a mark of our time, at least in the affluent West. This quest clearly indicates a lack of joy. Christians who know the joy of the Lord find that a great deal of fun comes with it, but joy is one thing and fun is another. By contrast, Paul in prison had no fun (that seems a safe statement). Yet he had much joy. You can have joy without fun, just as you can have fun without joy. There is no necessary connection between the two.
Negation number two: joy is not the same thing as jollity—that is, the cheerful exuberance of the person who is always the life of the party. This person can be relied on for jokes and general effervescence, and there’s never a dull moment when he (or she) is around. Some Christians are like that; others are not and never will be, but this is a matter of temperament that has nothing to do with joy. One may have a bouncy temperament and yet miss joy, or one may be a low-key person with a melancholic streak, whom no one would ever call “jolly,” and yet have joy in abundance. That is good news, for if joy depended on having a jolly temperament, half my readers, and I with them, would have to conclude ourselves debarred from joy forever. But the truth is that however our temperaments differ, the life of “joy in the Lord” is available to us all.
I remember as a young Christian hearing a venerable pulpiteer insist with great emphasis that good Christians have teapot faces rather than coffeepot faces. Standard English teapots are spherical, and the teapot face is round with a big, broad beam and four-inch smile. Standard English coffeepots, by contrast, are long and thin, and the coffeepot face is the same—grave and somber. Much impressed by this, I was considerably depressed when next I looked in the minor! But I reflected that what the preacher had been talking about was bone structure, and bone structure will not be changed till God gives us our new bodies. So, willy-nilly, my coffeepot face would be mine for life.
Did that mean that I could not experience or express Christian joy? Not at all! The preacher’s point, that every Christian should radiate joy, was right, but he had made it in the wrong way (Perhaps he was betrayed by having a chubby teapot face himself—who can say?) Anyhow the point is that though some people will never be jolly and whoop it up in the way that other people do, both the exuberant ones and the quiet ones may know the joy that is the gift of God.
Negation number three: joy is not the same thing as being carefree. Advertisements that picture nubile young adults sprawling all over the Bahamas seek to persuade us that “getting away from it all” on vacation is the recipe for joy. Many people agree. But if that is so, as soon as the vacation ends, and you return to the responsibilities and burdens and abrasiveness of life—the depressing workplace, the uncongenial company, the repeated disappointments—joy will end. Joy, on this view, will only be available to us during our two-or three-week vacation each year! This is the escapist idea of joy; we should be thankful that it is not true.
On the evening of his betrayal and arrest, perhaps twelve hours before his crucifixion, Jesus, who had already indicated that he knew what was facing him, said to his disciples: “I have told you this [i.e., that obedience will keep you in my love] so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11 NIV). These words tell us that joy was his at that moment, though he was not carefree. Similarly, Paul in prison, living with the possibility of summary execution, was not carefree. Yet he had joy in abundance. Joy despite killing pressure was reality for Jesus and Paul, has been reality for tens of thousands of Christians since, and can be reality for us also.
What is joy? We have seen what it is not. A positive definition is now overdue. Though spiritual joy is our special interest in this study, we shall understand it better if first we focus on joy in its generic form. Here is my definition. Joy is a happiness of the heart, linked with good feelings of one sort or another. The word joy covers the entire spectrum of what may be called the rapturous, ranging from the extreme ache of ecstasy to the quiet thrill of contentment. Webster defines joy thus: “Excitement of pleasurable feeling caused by the acquisition or expectation of good; delight; exultation; exhilaration of spirits.” Joy is a condition that is experienced, but it is more than a feeling; it is, primarily a state of mind. Joy, we might say, is a state of the whole man in which thought and feeling combine to produce total euphoria. The preciousness of joy, the integral place of joy in the ideal life, and the pitifulness of joylessness are apparent from the definition.
SOURCES OF JOY
Still thinking in generic terms, we now ask: Where does joy come from? What causes it? What are the perceptions in which it is rooted? If we consulted a professional counselor on this point, we could expect to be told that joy springs from four sources.
First, joy flows from awareness of being loved. No one has joy who does not know that there is someone who values, accepts, and cares for him (or her). To feel that as a person I count for nothing in people’s eyes, that I do not matter to anyone, and that what happens to me is not going to bother a single person is a great joy-killer. It makes impossible any sense of personal worth or well-being. The Western world is full of lonely people who never taste joy for this reason. The experience of being loved is a fountainhead of joy.
Second, joy flows from accepting one’s situation as good. As morphine kills pain, so discontent kills joy. People who are always fretting about the way things are, wishing they were different, and longing for things to happen that are not likely to happen thoroughly disqualify themselves from joy.
Third, joy flows from having something worthwhile. We speak of our spouses, our children, our homes, our books, our hobbies as our joys. This, that, or the other, we say is “a joy to me,” “a real joy” “a great joy.” What we mean is that in these relationships and activities we have something that is precious and makes life worth living. If nothing you have seems worthwhile, you will not have joy.
Fourth, joy flows from giving something worth giving. Our self- centered age can hardly grasp that giving might be a way of joy, but it is. Every normal mother knows that giving is a way of joy; she works tirelessly to give her children a home and a life they will enjoy, and when they are happy she is happy too. There are, broadly speaking, two sorts of human beings: those who are constantly giving and those who are constantly taking—acquiring, manipulating, exploiting, draining other people dry in their own insatiable self-absorption. There is no question about which category knows the most joy. Many go through life without ever learning that joy is like jam, sticking to you as you spread it, but that is the truth all the same.
I have been generalizing about joy in all its many modes and forms, both secular and sacred. But Paul in Philippians is exemplifying and prescribing Christian joy—joy “in the Lord,” joy that flows from one’s relationship to Jesus Christ. This will be our specific theme from now on. Any who have not yet committed themselves to the risen Christ as their Savior and Master will find themselves left behind. For now we are to see, in terms of our four-source formula, how the knowledge of one’s saving relationship to Christ can bring unquenchable joy into believing hearts. Only Christians can understand this joy. “Rejoice in the Lord” means rejoice in being Christ’s, in having Christ’s Father as your Father, in being right with God the Father and an heir of his glory through Christ’s mediation, in possessing salvation and eternal life as Christ’s gift. We are to let joy flow from this source. How will that happen? Through the fulfilling of the four-source formula, as stated above.
The first source of joy is the awareness that one is loved. Christians know themselves loved in a way that no one else does, for they know that God the Father so loved them as to give his only Son to die on the cross in shame and agony so that they might have eternal life. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 NIV). “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? . . . I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:32, 38-39 NIV). In this love that paid so great a price to save sinners, the Father and the Son were at one, for “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy” (Eph. 5:25ff.). Every Christian should follow Paul in drawing out the personal implication—“the Son of God. . . loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20 NIV).
Amazing love! How can it be
That thou, my God, should’st die for me?
The measure of love, human and divine, is how much it gives. By this standard the love of God is immeasurable, because both the greatness of the gift and the cost of giving it are beyond our power to grasp. All human parallels fall short; all comparisons are inadequate.
Never was love, dear King,
Never was grief like thine.
Humbled and awed, Christians should bask daily in the awareness of God’s overwhelming, incomparable love.
The second source of joy is the acceptance of one’s situation as good. Christians can do this everywhere and always because they know that circumstances and experiences, pleasant and unpleasant alike, are planned out for them by their loving heavenly Father as part of their preparation for glory. “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 NIV). God’s purpose is that those whom he calls should be remade so that they become like their Savior, the incarnate Son Jesus Christ. Their good is the fulfilling of this divine purpose for them, and God works unceasingly in and through everything that happens so that it becomes in one way or another a means of bringing them closer to the goal.
It is a mistake, as we saw earlier, to imagine that the good for which God works is our unbroken ease and comfort. God’s goal is, rather, our sanctification and Christlikeness, the true holiness that is the highway to happiness. Constant ease and comfort, therefore, are not to be expected. Yet Christians may nonetheless derive constant contentment from their knowledge that God is making everything that happens to them a means of furthering and realizing their glorious destiny. “Whatever is good for God’s children, they shall have it,” wrote Richard Sibbes the Puritan, “for all is theirs to further them to heaven.If crosses be good, they shall have them; if disgrace be good, they shall have it, for all is ours, to serve our main good.” To understand this statement is to have the secret of abiding contentment in one’s grasp.
Paul exemplifies such contentment, telling the Philippians: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything”—everything, that is, that the ongoing flow of my God-governed life requires of me—“through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:llff NIV). This contentment is the soil in which Paul’s joy is rooted and grows.
A single lady of about fifty, a career woman of some eminence in her profession, came to a conference in a condition bordering on nervous collapse. Her parents, who were both still living, had never treated her as anything other than their little girl whom they expected to dance attendance on them. (The story of unimaginative parents failing to adjust to the fact that their children have become adults is unfortunately not uncommon.) Her resentment of her parents’ attitude had built up to such a pitch of intensity that it was tearing her to pieces.
During the conference, however, another woman showed her Christian love and care and helped her to understand how Romans 8:28 applied to her home situation. The single woman learned to see her circumstances as shaped by the Lord for her good. She went home rejoicing in the certainty that if she continued faithful in honoring her parents and ministering to them in Christian love, God would give her peace and further his work of grace in her life.
Rarely have I seen so complete a transformation in so short a time. The secret was that she accepted her circumstances from the Lord as sent for her good. This is not always an easy lesson; it was not easy for her. But it is a basic lesson that all who would know Christian joy must learn.
Joy’s third source is possession of something worth possessing. Here, too, the Christian is supremely well placed, as we see from Paul’s further words about himself. In Philippians 3 we find him celebrating the incomparable worth of the saving relationship with Christ that he now possesses—or rather that now possesses him. “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things” (v. 8). (So he had; he was an up-and-coming rabbi, a top-class Pharisee, a man marked out for distinction as a leader in Judaism. When he became a Christian, he forfeited his status and all prospects of advancement and found himself having to cope constantly with Jewish plots against his liberty and his life.) “I consider them [i.e. all the things I have lost] rubbish” (literally, dung—worthless stuff that can be jettisoned cheerfully), “that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (vv. 8-9). (Righteousness is a salvation-word in Scripture, meaning a relationship with God that is right and as it should be, having been reestablished and set right after prior disruption. Righteousness is never a human achievement brought about through law-keeping, as the Pharisees supposed, but is always a gift of God’s free grace, received in Christ, through faith in Christ—that is, by means of union and communion with the living Savior. In that fellowship Christ’s own perfect righteousness, both active [law-keeping] and passive [sin-bearing], is imputed to us—that is, is accounted ours in the sense that God the Father now pardons and accepts us fully for Jesus’ sake. Paul is celebrating this righteousness that the Father gives in and with and through Christ, glorying in it as his present and permanent possession.)
“I want to know Christ” (that is, to keep extending my knowledge of him, ever coming to know him better than I knew him before); “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:10, 14 NIV). That prize is essentially more of the precious relationship itself.
To paraphrase Paul: “I have lost a great deal, but I have gained more. What I have gained is something supremely worth having, something that is glorious and that will grow, broaden, deepen, and become richer to all eternity—namely, an ongoing love relationship with Jesus Christ the Savior, and through him with God the Father. The more I have of it, the more I want of it; thus it establishes itself as the best and most valued thing in my life.” This is Paul’s emphasis, and his words will find an echo in every healthy Christian heart.
In courtship the goal for both parties is lifelong togetherness in mutual love, honor, and enjoyment of each other. They see their relationship as an end in itself; they intend to keep seeing it that way through marriage, parenthood, and whatever the future holds. They expect it to continue to be what it already is to them—a source of supreme delight and joy
The situation is similar when a sinner has come to know Jesus Christ as Savior. Christ is the great lover and giver whose welcome of us who believe guarantees that for all eternity we shall be beneficiaries of his goodwill and generosity. Gratitude for this amazing grace prompts the Christian to say, with Paul: “I have Christ. I know Christ. I love Christ. He is the pearl of great price. He is all I want. I am the happiest of human beings, for I am his, and he is mine forever, and I will cheerfully let anything go in order to hold on to him and enjoy the full fruits of his love.” These thoughts are a third source of joy.
The fourth source of joy is to give something worth giving. This also is an element of Christian experience in a special and unique way. Christ sends believers into the world to be his witnesses. When they share their knowledge of Christ with others, they know they are giving people the one thing supremely worth giving and also desperately needed. Paul found joy in the privilege of being put in trust with the Gospel. So should Christians today rejoice in this task, even when for the moment the Good News is unappreciated and those to whom one is trying to bring it are rude and offensive in rejecting it.
As was said earlier, Christians can experience both joy and sadness at the same time. There is joy in making known the Word of Life, even when sorrow is also being felt because the gift has been spurned. But what joy there is when someone to whom one has witnessed comes to faith in Christ! Christians sometimes find themselves wondering whether their life is worthwhile, whether they are doing anything that is worth doing. They are sometimes concerned about frittering away precious time and opportunities, wondering whether the serious concerns of adult existence in Christ’s service have not slipped through their fingers. Sometimes these feelings are justified; Christians sometimes really are wasting their lives, and there is no joy in that. But Christians who invest time, effort, ingenuity, initiative, and prayer in spreading the Gospel and helping build the faith of others do not feel this self-doubt. They have no reason to do so. In a dying world, surrounded by fascinating fellow mortals who because of their sins face a lost eternity, nothing is so well worth doing as sharing the good news about Jesus and the salvation he gives. No form of love to our neighbor is so appropriate and, indeed, so urgent as evangelism. Christians who see this and are consciously, wholeheartedly committed to this good work, as Paul was before them, find joy in it, just as he did.
Paul, as we have seen, not only testifies to joy in his own prison experience but he commands his Philippians’ friends to practice joy as a constant discipline of life. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” he writes, and repeats himself for emphasis. It is as if he should say: You must pray, worship, love each other, keep the commandments, bear one another’s burdens, set your moral sights by the Sermon on the Mount, witness, avoid all forms of sin, be Spirit-filled to do battle with Satan and temptation when they assault you, pursue good works, and seek to display the fruit of the Spirit constantly—and along with all that, as a matter of special importance, you are to rejoice in your relationship to Jesus Christ all the time! Joy is to be yours always and everywhere.
Joy is, in fact, one aspect of the fruit of the Spirit. But the habit of rejoicing in the Lord, as the appointed means whereby joy becomes a reality, is as much a matter of divine command and Christian duty as is the doing of any other thing mentioned. It is true that joy, both natural and spiritual, will periodically come upon us as a gust or glow of unsought exhilaration, an unexpected kiss from heaven as it were, for which we should be grateful every time. But we are not on that account to think of joy as essentially a mood of euphoria for which we ask and then sit down to wait. Joy is a habit of the heart, induced and sustained as an abiding quality of one’s life through the discipline of rejoicing. Joy is not an accident of temperament or an unpredictable providence; joy is a matter of choice. Paul is directing his readers to choose to rejoice, because it is in and through the activity of rejoicing that joy becomes a personal reality.
We have seen this truth demonstrated by Paul. He prays for the Philippians “with joy” because of their partnership in the Gospel (1:5) and calls them his ‘joy” (4:1), as he does the Thessalonians, too (1 Thessalonians 2:l9ff; 3:9). What he means is that when he thinks about them, dwelling on God’s grace in their lives, joy flows into his heart. Thus he rejoices in them, or rather rejoices in the Lord because of them, as for instance in Philippians 4:10: “I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me.”
As we also saw, Paul can choose to rejoice in one aspect of a situation of which other aspects are calculated to depress. He rejoices that Christ is being preached and refuses to brood on the bad motives of the preachers or to indulge in self-pity because he is not able to do what they are doing (1:15-18). This attitude, more than anything else, makes it clear that joy is a choice; one chooses to focus on facts that call forth joy. Such is the secret of “rejoicing in the Lord always,” namely, to choose what you think about. It is as simple—and as difficult!—as that.
Can we really choose what we are going to think about? In these days when we are endlessly over stimulated from outside and the ever- present TV encourages the passive mind-set that makes us wait to be entertained, the idea of regularly choosing themes for our thoughts seems strange to the point of freakiness. But Paul has no doubt that thought-control is possible. He actually commands it. “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8 RSV). Controlling and directing one’s thoughts is a habit, and the more one practices it, the better one becomes at it.
Motivation, of course, helps, and Christians have a strong motivation—a deep-rooted urge, instinctive to them as regenerate persons—to center their thoughts on God’s grace and glory at all times. As a person in love thinks loving thoughts of the beloved one spontaneously and constantly, so does the regenerate Christian think loving thoughts of God the Savior. And as it is common today for travelers to turn on their Walkman and let their attention be absorbed by the music, so it has always been common for Christians to let their thoughts be drawn up to God, magnet as he is to the regenerate mind, and to meditate—that is, talk to themselves and to God silently or aloud—concerning God’s nature, works, and ways. Such meditation prompts praise and adoration and brings endless delight to the heart. Paul’s instruction in what to think about simply gives focus and direction to this regenerate instinct, so as to ensure that our meditation will profit us as much as possible.
But what in particular are the true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, and praiseworthy things on which we are to center our thoughts? They are the doings of God and the fruit of those doings in human lives. They certainly include the fourfold awareness that we have discussed: first, that God loves me infinitely and eternally; second, that everything comes to me from God, at least with his permission and always under his protection, to further my eternal good; third, that my saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus, which will eternally increase, is something supremely worth having; fourth, that the gospel message of salvation that I seek to pass on to others is something supremely worth giving. These thoughts will always prime the pump of joy in our hearts and produce a steady flow of joy, peace (see 4:7, 9), and delight. Try it and see!
The secret of joy for believers lies in the fine art of Christian thinking. It is by this means that the Holy Spirit, over and above his occasional visitations in special moments of joy, regularly sustains in us the joy that marks us out as Christ’s. Our Lord Jesus wants our joy to be full. Certainly he has made abundant provision for our joy. And if we focus our minds on the facts from which joy flows, springs of joy will well up in our hearts every day of our lives. This upwelling of joy will turn our ongoing pilgrimage through this world into an experience of contentment and exaltation of which the world knows nothing. From this experience will come strength for service. Joy—that is, rejoicing in the Lord—is thus a basic discipline of the Christian life, essential to spiritual health and vitality. Few Christians seem to understand this, and fewer still seem to practise the discipline with diligence. But what a difference it makes when we do!
Sixty years ago I was close to a certain Christian family. Spiritually I owe more to them than I think they ever realized. Life was not easy for them. The father died young, after being immobilized for years by heart disease. The daughter never grew normally and died in her teens of rheumatic fever. One son was so retarded mentally that he had to be institutionalized. The mother remarried but died of cancer in middle age. Thereafter her second husband lived alone for some years, totally housebound with crippling arthritis.
When I visited him, his gentle, sunny joyfulness in Christ, free from all complaint and self-pity was a tonic from which my memory still draws nourishment. It is of him that I think when I hear Balaam’s words: ‘Let me die the death of the righteous, and may my end be like theirs!” (Numbers 23:10 NIV). I saw in him the power of joy, and it was a revelation. Now I celebrate the power of joy as part of the Gospel. Beethoven wrote on the score of his Missa Solemnis, “From the heart; may it in turn go to the heart.” I could have put the same words at the beginning of this chapter. God grant that my readers will get the message. I close with two Scriptures for you all who have followed me thus far.
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13 NIV).
“To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and for evermore! Amen” (Jude 24-25 NIV). (114-126)