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The Fruit of the Spirit: Joy in a Broken World (Part 3 of 9)

We don’t have to look far to see that our world is broken—desperately ill and seemingly falling apart at every seam. Indeed, the Bible tells us that since the time of Genesis 3, creation has been “subjected to futility” (Rom. 8:20).

In the face of such futility, what are we to make of Galatians 5:22’s identification of joy as part of the fruit of the Spirit? Is genuine joy just a pipedream? Apart from God, the answer is a resounding yes. But one who has come to know God in Jesus Christ is able to speak of a cure for the ailing, despairing soul.

For the Christian, joy’s foundation is found not in something we feel but in something we know. It is to know that Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, has forgiven us. It is to know that He loved us and died for us so that we can be free of accusation. It is to know that when our consciences accuse us, when we’re aware of our weaknesses, failures, and lack of power to live as God intends, we are driven again and again back to the rock of our salvation. When we know these things, then and only then can the very joy of the Lord be our strength (Neh. 8:10).

Let us take some time, then, to consider further what the hymn writer refers to as the “solid joys” and the “lasting treasure” that “none but Zion’s children know.”1

Our Only Hope

The Heidelberg Catechism begins by asking, “What is your only comfort in life and death?” It then provides a stirring answer:

That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.

This response points us toward what we know of God and His salvation as the source of our everlasting comfort. Question 2 then goes on to consider how this reality leads to our joy: “What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” The answer: “First, how great my sin and misery are; second, how I am delivered from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance.”

If we are to find ourselves on a journey to joy instead of a road to ruin, we need to consider the three elements of this reply, which we can sum up as guilt, grace, and gratitude.

1. Guilt

Guilt is not a comfortable subject. After all, discussions of remorse, penitence, shame, and the like often cause us to feel—well, guilty! But without an understanding of the reality of guilt, there can be no awareness of grace or expression of gratitude.

Sin, according to the Bible, is our shared condition, the default state of every human soul. Expressions of sin—envy, lust, racism, pride, arrogance, and so on—are symptoms of that condition, which, the Bible says, is both universal (Rom. 3:23) and terminal (Rom. 6:23). It is also, as the Heidelberg Catechism points out, “miserable” (Q. 6), the very antithesis of the joyful living to which God calls us and for which our hearts long.

In sin, we are absolutely and completely lost. Our condition before God is worse than bleak. We may manage, through temporary pleasures and evidence of our own success and progress, to anesthetize ourselves against our predicament. But in the end, apart from Christ, we remain “dead in [our] trespasses” (Eph. 2:1; Col. 2:13), as incapable of discovering true joy as a corpse is of drawing life-giving breath.

We may manage, through temporary pleasures and evidences of our own success and progress, to anesthetize ourselves against our predicament. But in the end, apart from Christ, we are dead in our trespasses.

2. Grace

In response to sin’s misery, many are tempted simply to try harder to be what they cannot be. But the answer to sin is never self-effort; it’s always God’s grace. When we were stone-cold dead in our sins, God elected to rescue us from that horror and “made us alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:5).

To receive God’s grace is to be the beneficiary of a joyful miracle. By it, those who are dead and in need of resurrection freely find it in Jesus. That Christ died for us is a wonder—one that we can lose sight of all too easily when we treat Jesus as a mere supplement.

3. Gratitude

If the only answer to guilt is grace, then the only right response to grace is gratitude. Such gratitude doesn’t display itself in a fake smile or some silly notion of being removed from life’s rigors, fears, and failures. No, gratitude is far more substantial than that, grounded in a recognition of the gravity of Christ’s work on the cross, which saves us from sin and death.

Christ’s finished work is why the Bible is replete with joy. Consider just a few places where it such joy is expressed:

  • “While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” (Luke 24:51–52)

  • “The ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (Isa. 51:11)

  • “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.” (John 16:20)

There are countless other examples, of course, and even commands to rejoice, such as Psalm 37:4 (“Delight yourself in the LORD”) and Philippians 4:4 (“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice”).

When we remember that God has erased our guilt through His matchless grace, we will experience gratitude. When He grants us “strength to comprehend … what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Eph. 3:18–19), we won’t be able to help but spill over with joy at the wonders of the riches that we have in Christ.

Three Hindrances to Joy

Still, for all the joy that God’s grace inspires, we know that robust joy doesn’t mark our every moment. Three obstacles to our joy seem to plague us especially.

1. Foolishness

In Romans 1:19–22, Paul writes that while God has revealed Himself both in conscience and in creation, people in their foolishness have turned their backs on Him. Our hearts are darkened, and we embrace all kinds of things that work to unravel what God intends.

In his essay “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis memorably describes this kind of foolishness:

We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.2

This sort of diminished existence isn’t just a pre-Christian experience. Believers, too, sometimes find themselves wandering down dead-end streets, even when they know they lead nowhere.

In Jeremiah 2:13, God says of His people,

They have forsaken me,
 the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
 broken cisterns that can hold no water.

Even having come to know the fount of all true joy, we can still look to empty wells to give us what only God can give. But to do so is the epitome of foolishness.

2. Forgetfulness

True, deep-seated joy is also hindered by forgetfulness. In Psalm 103:2, the psalmist exhorts himself, “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” You’d think we wouldn’t have such trouble remembering Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, but distractions abound, and we, like the hymn writer, are “prone to wander, … prone to leave the God I love.”3 Abundance and lack, trial and ease, anything and everything can further mislead our straying hearts.

Against such spiritual and theological amnesia, the psalmist instructs us by his own example in Psalm 77:11–12:

I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
 yes, I will remember your wonder of old.
I will ponder all your work,
 and meditate on your mighty deeds.

We have no better work or mightier deed to recall than the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. We must remember and meditate on the precious gift of Christ, lest we find ourselves misremembering or misplacing the joy of our salvation.

3. Faintheartedness

Just as our joy can be depleted when we forget what we ought to remember, so it can wane when we remember what we really should forget. The Evil One is our accuser (Rev. 12:10); he wants to leave us rooting through the garbage bins of sins long forgiven and rob us of our joy. If we look into ourselves rather than outward to Christ, then he will succeed, and we will lose heart.

Even having come to know the fount of all true joy, we can still look to empty wells to give us what only God can give. But to do so is the epitome of foolishness.

There is no question that we must pursue holiness and let our “manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27). But at the same time, we must remember that Almighty God has already removed our transgressions from us “as far as the east is from the west” (Ps. 103:12). He has blotted out our sins (Isa. 43:25; Acts 3:19). There is therefore no use in dwelling on our failures, mistakes, and shortcomings. Instead, we must run to Christ in our time of need and ask Him to restore and preserve the joy that He bought for us with His own blood.

Everlasting Joy

Because of Christ, the just reward of every believer is no longer eternal punishment but everlasting joy. In Isaiah 61:7, God’s Anointed One (whom we know to be Jesus; see Luke 4:18) proclaims to His people,

Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion;
 instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot;
therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion;
 they shall have everlasting joy.

We will not always feel joyful. The Bible, always realistic about life’s struggles, even has a category for “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10). Still, there can be no question in the end that Christians have a God-given, Christ-bought right to know and experience joy on a regular basis.

If you don’t feel joyful right now—even if joy seems like an impossibility—ask God to give you a taste of it. It is His call to us already: “Taste and see that the LORD is good!” (Ps. 34:8). There can be no doubt, then, that as you seek Him in faith, He will give you glimpses of gladness and help you take another step, however small, on the journey to everlasting joy.

This article was adapted from the sermon “Joy” by Alistair Begg. Subscribe to get weekly blog updates as this series of new articles is published.

Sermons on Joy

1 John Newton, “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” (1779).

2C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: Macmillan HarperOne, 2000), 26.

3Robert Robinson, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” (1760).

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