“I’m clinically depressed,” she said. One of my family members, who is a lifelong Christian, spoke these words to me one Christmas several years ago. I was surprised to hear her admission because she always seemed so joyful. She and I have been close since childhood. Not once would I have described her as sad, anxious, or disappointed. She was unfailingly positive, seeing the good in everything and in everyone. She explained: “I’ve been putting on a show. I always believed it was sinful for Christians to be depressed. I never felt like I could let my true feelings be known.”
The dilemma she described is one that has deep roots among American Christians and my experience as a pastor confirms this. I regularly tell our congregation that it is okay to struggle, that they need not put on a mask when they walk through the doors of our church. Yet time and again, I see people suffering quietly and secretly. I see it even in my own heart. Sadly, I have several masks that I wear to church that disguise my true feelings.
The Christmas season seems to highlight this problem. We know that Christians should be marked by joy and, on top of this, we know that Christmas is a season that should be characterized by joy. And yet, it seems that true joy eludes us. The very season that reminds us of the possibility of joy can become a reminder of our failure to possess it as we think we ought. This produces a false guilt that hinders us from sharing our suffering and bearing one another burdens.
Could it be that one reason for this struggle is that we have failed to understand joy as it is presented in the Bible? This article aims to help us think biblically about both a realistic view of joy and how to cultivate it.
Adjust Your Expectations
It can be easy to forget this, especially when in the New Testament we find so many promises of joy. Paul wrote that the kingdom of God is a matter of “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 12:7). Jesus said that the kingdom is like treasure hidden in a field which a man, “in his joy,” went and sold all that he had to buy it (Matt. 13:44). Joy is a frequent emphasis in the birth narratives in Luke’s Gospel. The news of Messiah’s birth was heralded by the angels as “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10). After seeing the infant Jesus, the shepherds went away “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20).
Joy, it seems, is the Christian’s birthright, and in a sense, this is true (John 15:11). Yet if we fail to understand that the fullest experience of joy is a kingdom blessing that is still to come, our expectations will be far too high, and we will quickly become discouraged. For the reality is that we live “between the times.” Jesus inaugurated his Father’s kingdom – He brought it near (Mark 1:15) – and in him, the light-giving reign of God has invaded this present darkness. But until Christ’s second coming, the kingdom of God on earth remains enemy-occupied territory. Only then will the consequences of the curse be completely removed.
In the meantime – and this is crucial to understand – our experience of joy will always be mingled, to some extent, with sorrow. This was Paul’s experience: “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything” (2 Cor. 6:8-10). Though most of us have not come even close to experiencing what Paul describes here, nevertheless all of us can relate to the tension he describes. We are at the same time hope-filled citizens of the heavenly city (Phil. 3:20) and dust-bound sons of Adam (Gen. 3:19). This means that if we are to experience joy, we must adjust our expectations: “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”
Suit up for Battle
But this does not mean joy can’t get the upper hand in our experience. In Galatians 5, Paul described the fight for joy as part of a larger battle between the flesh and the Spirit. In the heart of the disciple, the indwelling Holy Spirit has laid down a new set of desires that conform to the fruit He desires to produce in our lives (vv. 22-23). But the works of the flesh are destructive, chaotic patterns of life and thought that inhibit the fruit of the Spirit (vv. 19-21). The result is a daily spiritual battle between the desires of our new nature and the desires of our sinful nature, the flesh, exacerbating the tension described above and can make the experience of joy even more difficult.
But Paul provides the solution in verse 16: “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Gal. 5:17). Because God created our hearts to have but one master, there can be only one winner in this battle. When we gratify the flesh, we quench the Spirit and what fruit He has produced in our lives will grow dim. But if with the Spirit’s help we “put to death the deeds of the body” (Rom. 8:13), we are tilling the ground for the Spirit to yield His fruit in our lives. In one sense, then, the fight for joy is a fight to mortify the deeds of the flesh and yield ourselves to the work of the Spirit. This means that not only must we adjust our expectations if we would experience joy; we must also suit up for battle.
Jesus promised His joy to His disciples, and it is the ministry of the Holy Spirit to continually draw our focus back to Jesus – what He did and all that He is for us (John 14:26, 16:13-14). This means that searching for joy itself is a misguided strategy and will ultimately fail. Rather than seeking joy itself, we seek Christ. And finding Him, we find joy.
Look up in Hope, Not down in Shame
Suffering Christian, don’t look down in despair. Look up to the Lord Jesus Christ whose love for you is so great that He took a human nature and a human body that he might suffer and die in your place as the God-Man. The eternal Son suffered in your place and in mine, bearing and absorbing the wrath of God that was due to us, that our suffering might be limited to this life. For the joy set before Him, He endured the suffering of the cross that His joy might be ours (Heb. 12:2). This means we can look up in hope in the midst of our suffering, not down in shame. Jesus never turns away a struggling believer who approaches Him for help.
But not only can we look up in hope when we suffer, but we also can look around in fellowship in our local churches. Knowing we were never promised unfettered joy in this life, we can admit that even on our best days, our joy is mixed with sorrow. And we can be honest with others when our sorrow overwhelms us to the point of breaking.