How can we rejoice in an imperfect world?


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:

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. 



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7 thoughts on “How can we rejoice in an imperfect world?”

  1. Having struggled with clinical depression for many years I have often has to make joy a conscious choice. To rejoice is a decision we make. When younger, i often sang inside my head, I found Sunday schilling choruses uplifting; i needed simplicity. Sometimes I simply say ‘God is good’. At other times I repeat the word ‘glory’. The truths that have come to inhabit these words over the years no doubt create the radiance the word has on repeating it.

    Reply
  2. I need to read over what I write more carefully.

    For many years I have has to make joy a conscious choice…. I found Sunday school choruses uplifting.

    Reply
  3. We can only rejoice in an imperfect (indeed condemned) world by repenting of our sins and submitting to Christ in his atoning death and life-giving resurrection, submitting in repentance, faith and obedience .

    Phil Almond

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  4. Thanks Ian for a very brief introduction. We the readers need to complete the work you have started.
    Joy must be movement towards or in the love of God.
    A sense of peace must be the fragrance of joy so moved.
    Waiting patiently but not statically in the scent of joy by being moved in kindness to be gentle shows how joy is the goodness we seek. Moving in love is joy. ..

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  5. Is the world really far from God? People may have turned their backs on God, but that doesn’t mean He isn’t right here.

    Not only did God create the world, but He sustains it.

    He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together
    Colossians 1:17

    My Father is always at his work, even to this very day
    John 5:17

    No wonder we can take joy in it

    Reply

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