In Galatians 5 we are told that joy is a fruit of the spirit, a virtue that is an important mark of the Christian life. We also know from such passages as 1 Cor 9:24-27 and 1 Tim 4:7-8 that we must train for godliness. The development of such virtues as patience, kindness, faithfulness, self-control and joy is largely intentional, a product of spiritual discipline. So how does one train to be joyful?
Surely, one important part of our training for joy, as for all of the virtues, is imitating Jesus. So what was the nature of his joy? One thing we know for sure is that Jesus’ joy was not based in this world. In fact, Isaiah 53, a prophetic messianic passage, tells us that Jesus was “a man of sorrows.“ Why was he a man of sorrows? Ecclesiastes 1:18 provides a clue: “with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” This disturbing truth follows from the fact that ours is a tragic world where virtue is hated and vice is pervasive. The most righteous people are often the most hated. This is one reason why righteousness is very rare (as Jesus says, the path is narrow and few find it). Being most righteous, Jesus was therefore destined to be hated. And being omniscient and maximally wise, he was also destined to be maximally grieved and sorrowful.
What, then, could be the nature of the joy of Christ given his perpetual condition grief and sorrow? It would have to come down to his hope for the future—an anticipatory grasp of what lay ahead for him. Christian joy, it turns out, is future oriented, a fact that was perfectly personified in Christ. As the writer of Hebrews notes, “for the joy set before himself he endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2).
As fallen human beings we are constantly tempted to seek joy in this world in the form of all sorts of things—job satisfaction, marital happiness, friendships, professional accomplishments, peer recognition, family harmony, physical pleasures, and creature comforts of all kinds. But those are all idols, false gods, since joy is borne of another world. In fact, joy comes only through the denial of the foolish pleasures of this world and embracing (not trying to avoid) its sorrows. This is why C. S. Lewis says joy is actually a kind of longing. Perhaps it is itself a species of sorrow—the sorrow that comes of longing for our eternal home with God. In any case, Christian joy is deeply connected to our Gospel hope.
This suggests another important way of cultivating the virtue of Christian joy and that is by studying biblical eschatology—the Scriptural teaching about the “last things.” It has been said that there is more teaching about eschatology in the Bible than about any other branch of theology. Whether or not that is accurate, it is clear from the abundance of eschatological biblical content that God wants us to dwell on our future hope, to reinforce our faith and to increase our joy. As with Christ, he sets this joy before us that we might be better motivated to endure the crosses we carry in our own lives.
Specifically, it appears that God wants us to know that: 1) the future is written, set in stone as much as are past events (he transcends time and knows the end from the beginning) and 2) the future is good, perfectly good for the people of God. We do know, from such passages as Matthew 24; 2 Thess. 2:1-12; 2 Tim. 3:1-9, and the book of Revelation that the end times will be painful, even excruciating for many Christians. But like childbirth this will all be for a good purpose, as God will be purging sin—punishing the wicked and purifying his people, preparing us for union with our Savior at the great wedding that will take place at the inauguration of his perfect Kingdom. The more we focus on this, the more we will find contentment in this troubled world and truly take hold of Christian joy.