I write a quarterly column for Preach magazine, in which I explore a significant word or phrase in the Bible and the ideas that it expresses. I have written for them on:
- the phrase ‘Word of God’
- the theme of ‘Mission’
- the meaning of ‘Apocalypse‘
- the ministry of ‘Healing’,
- the question of ‘Welcome’,
- the biblical understanding of ‘Justice’,
- the biblical view of creation
- what the Bible means by the term ‘church’.
- what the Bible says about grief and grieving.
- what is so good about the Old Testament?
- Why should we welcome the stranger?
This column explores the question of joy—why is it so important, how does it relate to suffering and imperfection, and what is our joyful hope?
The Bible is full of joy! If you search for the term ‘joy’ you will find hundreds of mentions—the Bible is a very joyful book! But it often talks about joy in unexpected ways, and these make all the difference. As C S Lewis put it, in his Letters to Malcolm, ‘Joy is the serious business of heaven’.
Starting with joy
The creation account is permeated with joy, even though the term is not used explicitly. As God speaks creation into being, forming the cosmos and then filling it, we find the repeated refrain ‘And God saw that it was good’. There is a powerful sense of God rejoicing in what he has made, and it is a joy he invites us to share. When the first human sees the partner God has made from him and for him, he burst forth in a song of joyful recognition—a joy that is to mark all human relationships.
In the Psalms, we find the creation rejoicing in God—and God in his creation (Ps 104.31). And within that, his people rejoice in both his care and his power, and two great psalms of rejoicing (Pss 95 and 100) have formed the backbone of Anglican worship for centuries.
Joy in the Lord
But what is striking here is that joy comes primarily, not from the world in its own terms, but from the world as the creation of God. More specifically, it is the action of God in the world that brings joy—‘the boundary lines have fallen in pleasant places for me…therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices’ (Ps 16.6, 9). In fact, joy springs from relationship with God and being in God’s presence:
In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore (Ps 16.11)
It is therefore when the psalmist is drawn into the temple presence of God in worship that he rejoices (Ps 122.1). This perspective is summed up perfectly in the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
Q: What is the chief end of man?
A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever
The Paradox of Joy
This now leads to a puzzle: if we find joy in God, how to we live well in a world that is far from him? The answer begins to emerge in the return from exile: those who sowed in the tears of exile will reap with joy at their deliverance and return (Ps 126.5–6); even nature will join in this celebration as the ‘trees of the fields will clap their hands’ (Is 55.12).
Yet until God’s deliverance of his people is fully realised, the joy that God brings sits alongside the suffering his people experience in the world. In his startling teaching in Matt 5, Jesus repeatedly claims that those who are ‘blessed’ (happy?) are the ones who experience both their deep longing for the kingdom of God, and live out its counter-cultural qualities in the face of consistent opposition.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad… (Matt 5.10–11)
St Paul finds just the same. The life-giving fruit of the Spirit, ‘love, joy, peace…’ are contrasted with the death-dealing ‘works of the flesh’, the ‘sinful human nature’, in Gal 5.16–26. And Paul experiences this contrast and paradox in his own ministry.
Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all (2 Cor 4.17).
Joy in the end
This contrast is seen most starkly in the Book of Revelation. John is certain that he has received both ‘kingdom’ and ‘suffering’ in Jesus (Rev 1.9), and the reason is that Jesus has won the victory, yet ‘for a short time’ the Enemy is still at work in the world.
Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you!
He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short (Rev 12.12)
As William Blake put it, until Jesus returns, ‘Joy and woe are woven fine—a clothing for the soul divine’. For this reason, in amongst the dark visions in Revelation, we have bursts of praise and cries of ‘Alleluia’ as God’s people celebrate not just what God has done for us in Jesus, but what he will do for us in the end, when all evil is destroyed, and God’s people dwell in the presence for evermore.
He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’a or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (Rev 21.4).
There we will, at last, enjoy him forever.