Many, LORD, are asking, “Who will bring us prosperity?” Let the light of your face shine on us. Fill my heart with joy when their grain and new wine abound. (Psalm 4.6-7)
Where Real Joy Resides
One of the ditties that never failed to excite us as Sunday school kids went:
I've got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart
Down in my heart, down in my heart!
I've got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart
Down in my heart to stay!
I’ve not given much thought to the song over the years. But now that it’s sprung to mind, I regret not doing so. When I consider how often I’ve forgot where real joy resides, how secure and amazingly durable it is, and why there’s no cause to fear for its survival, I wish I’d kept “I’ve Got the Joy, Joy” handier. It sure would have been helpful when no signs, let alone promises, of joy were visible and no outward evidence of it seemed to exist. I could have used it when I felt bankrupt of joy and unsure how and when it might be replenished. And I truly needed it for times when I’d lost touch with my joy while others—who, from what I could tell, had done nothing to deserve happiness—appeared to be head-over-heels in joy. If only I’d remembered to hum a few bars of that cockeyed little melody, I’d have realized when we have real joy down in our hearts, it remains and sorrow passes. It's safe and secure from temporary trials and emotional storms. We don’t always see joy, because it’s often hidden from sight. But if we open our hearts to real joy—God’s joy—it’s there to stay. There’s nothing anyone can do about it. If that makes them unhappy, well, there’s a seat and tack with their name on it. (Ouch!)
Resistant and Responsive Joy
God’s joy is like all of God’s gifts. It’s unconditional. It comes by way of God’s favor, through no effort or merit of ours. That means joy down in our hearts is decidedly unlike joy we experience from human kindness and good fortune. Indeed, we’d be wise to distinguish the two to prevent our confidence in God’s joy from foundering when we’re troubled by the unreliability of human joy. We might define the joy God gives as “resistant joy.” It’s impervious, implacable, and immune to any and all conditions. There are no causes and effects attached to God’s joy. It just is, because God is, and assurance God is the sole source of God’s joy. Joy we receive from others and by chance is “responsive joy.” Though we position ourselves to receive as much responsive joy as possible, it still depends on factors beyond our control—whereas God’s joy resists anything that interferes with it abiding in our hearts. Because it comes from God, it’s like God. It requires no reason other than God to exist and needs nothing from us to persist. It’s unconditional and eternal!
In Psalm 4 we see two kinds of people seeking different kinds of joy. The first wants responsive, conditional joy. “Many, LORD, are asking, ‘Who will bring us prosperity?’” verse 6 says. These people allow circumstances to define their happiness—in this case, prosperity. When the coffers and cupboards are full, their joy is full. When their means run dry, their joy dries up. David charitably prays for their wellbeing: “Let the light of your face shine on us.” As their king, their happiness is paramount. Yet he doesn’t include himself with them. In verse 3, he attests, “Know that the LORD has set apart his faithful servant for himself; the LORD hears when I call to him.” Then, in verse 7, he differentiates himself again by praying for a very specific kind of joy—God’s unconditional joy that resists temporal factors, joy that delights in blessings without relying on them: “Fill my heart with joy when their grain and new wine abound.” This joy sustains David in any situation. “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, LORD, make me dwell in safety,” he writes, closing the psalm in verse 8. The joy David seeks requires no reason other than God and persists because of God. He asks for joy down in his heart to stay.
Big on Joy
The Gospels go out of their way to emphasize Jesus was big on joy. In fact, joy is the very first emotion we “see” Him elicit. When the newly pregnant Mary visits Elizabeth, her cousin witnesses Christ’s reality by telling Mary, “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” (Luke 1.44) After warning us we’ll be hated because of Him, Jesus says, “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven.” (Luke 6.23) Many of His parables (too many to list) end joyfully—lost treasures are found, babies are born, patience is rewarded. And, explicitly in John, but implicitly in the other Gospels, Jesus pointedly distinguishes God’s joy from earthly joy. He calls it “My joy” and says it will reside in us and be complete (John 15.11), succeed grief (16.20), resist human interference (v22), and be given for the asking (16.24) in full measure (17.13). The distinction between our responsive joy and God’s resistant joy is so vivid to the Apostles that their letters specify which they’re writing about. God’s joy is always “complete,” “glorious,” “in the Holy Spirit,” and “by faith”—i.e., unconditional and eternal. It transcends emotion, refutes logic, and resists circumstances. The joy down in our hearts just is, because God is. It’s more than feeling. It’s fact. And whoever doesn’t believe or like that—well, we talked about what they can do.
God’s joy down in our hearts isn’t the same as joy we feel in response to kindness and good fortune. It’s impervious, implacable, and immune to circumstances. It’s not feeling. It’s fact.