On more than one occasion I have been sitting in a small group and someone has asked, “Why don’t I feel the joy of the Lord every day?” I’ve asked myself this question over the years as well. If I’m saved, why is the joy of the Lord so elusive? Shouldn’t it just be there? This is a simple question with a complicated answer.
In the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector praying at the temple the Pharisee got his reward there in the temple as approval from those listening to his flashy prayer. The humble tax collector got his reward in approval from God. (Luke 18:9-14) So what? That’s approval, not joy.
In the last year alone I have had at least four conversations about joy in relation to food. For example, the joy of the first sip of hot coffee in the morning. The joy of cookies, not every day, just knowing that at some point I will have another cookie and the joy of that knowledge keeps me going some days. Or diet restrictions of little to no dairy and no salt, which caused me to ask, “Where’s the joy?”
Food and joy are closely related in my mind. So I wondered, “Am I getting my joy from food or from the Lord; is food-joy getting in the way of God-joy?” This question lead to me to a new question about the joy of the Lord: Can joy be like the approval in the parable, something you get from earthly sources or something you get from God? As far as I can discern, the biblical answer is: yes.
In Ecclesiastes we read this, “Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart rejoiced in all my labor; and this was my reward from all my labor.” (Ecc. 2:10 NKJV) Solomon describes how he rewarded himself after hard work with everything his heart and eye desired. He found joy in the stuff he gave himself. If you read Solomon’s story in 1 Kings 1-11, he led a pretty swanky life. Ecclesiastes was written at the end of Solomon’s life and he evaluates his years of unrestrained pleasure, “Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done and on the labor in which I had toiled; and indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. There was no profit under the sun.” (Ecc. 2:11 NKJV) In the end, Solomon recognized that his profit and self-rewarded joy was empty, as fleeting as the wind.
This is the problem, isn’t it? Any joy we find through earthly things in temporary. It doesn’t last. So we keep going to those earthy sources again and again until they captivate the attention of our hearts and become idols. So food-joy, football-joy, fashion-joy, etc. gets in the way of God and therefore God-joy.
Solomon’s temple-joy, riches-joy, and foreign-luxury-joy became the joy-idols of his successors and the rest of the people of Israel. Ezekiel was a prophet to Jerusalem in the time leading up to the Babylonian invasion. God addresses the idols of the temple and Jerusalem and promises to remove their power over the Israelites through defiling the temple and destroying Jerusalem. Listen to the way God describes these idols, “In the day when I take from them their stronghold, their joy and their glory, the desire of their eyes, and that on which they set their minds, their sons and their daughters.” (Ez. 24:25 NKJV) Solomon was known for his wisdom, his riches, and the temple he built to replace the tabernacle in Jerusalem. God grabbed these idols and exposed them to their root: the desire of Solomon’s eyes that started a trajectory which led everyone to take their eyes off God and onto earthly joy.
The danger with filling our deep need for joy with temporary sources is that it often escalates. Temporary joy wears off so we need more and more from the earthly sources, the joy-idols, to feel joy again. Sometimes this need drives us to violence towards others in order to feed the temporary joy.
After Israel was conquered by the Babylonians, some of the neighboring nations rushed in to sack what was left. They wanted some of that material joy that Solomon made famous for themselves. They were jealous of Israel’s joy-idols and tired of their own joy-idols, so they were violent and cruel to the Israelites left behind by the Babylonians. God noticed this, and warned them of their future consequences through Ezekiel, “Therefore thus says the Lord God: Surely I have spoken in My burning jealousy against the rest of the nations and against all of Edom, who gave My land to themselves as a possession, with wholehearted joy and spiteful minds, in order to plunder its open country.” (Ez. 36:5 NKJV) Listen to how God describes their attitude towards their violent behavior “wholehearted joy.” They were joyful, not only that but wholeheartedly joyful. They set out to reward themselves with the plunder of a vulnerable Israel, they succeeded and rejoiced. From our perspective, that looks like the wrong kind of joy.
God doesn’t want this wrong kind of joy for our lives. Sometimes when he sees joy-idols growing in our hearts He sends famine into our lives to starve the idol out. “The vine has dried up, and the fig tree has withered; the pomegranate tree, the palm tree also, and the apple tree – all the trees of the field are withered; surely joy has withered away from the sons of men.” (Joel 1:12 NKJV) Joel describes a famine blighting the vineyards and various orchards until earthly joy is “withered away” too.
Apart from starving the joy-idols out of our hearts, famine can also be an opportunity to refocus attention on God. When that happens we can again find our joy in God. There is an awesome example of this refocusing that answers the lament in Joel. “Though the fig tree may not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines; though the labor of the olive may fail, and the fields yield no food; though the flock may be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls – yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation.” (Hab. 3:17-18 NKJV) We can look at the famine around us and say, “Yet I will praise Him.”
If releasing joy-idols and refocusing on God is the right response to famine, then the wrong response is to act like nothing’s wrong. The bible warns against forcing a false joy to cover over the loss from times of famine. False joy when we should be mourning is not the solution. As we see in Isaiah, “And in that day the Lord God of hosts called for weeping and for mourning, for baldness and for girding with sackcloth. But instead, joy and gladness, slaying oxen and killing sheep, eating meat and drinking wine: Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!” (Is. 22:12-13 NKJV) When Israel was given warning after warning to mourn their sin and repent they turned fatalistic and said, “Well if we’re going to die anyway, let’s have a hell of a party before we go.” They created false joy to cover their doom. (Interesting fact, Israel was talking like the hedonists a hundred and some years before hedonism was founded by the Greek philosopher Aristippus. Hedonism is known for the phrase: Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.)
In Jesus we have the hope of reconciliation. “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning, and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.” (James 4:8-10 NASV) In the NKJV it says, “He will lift you up.” In other words, when we come face to face with joy-idols (or any other sin), rather than turning to false joy, mourn and refocus our hearts. We can find renewal and healing in repentance.
After repentance and healing, we are reunited with God and He trades our sorrow for joy. “For the LORD has redeemed Jacob [another name for Israel] and ransomed him from the hand of one stronger than he. Therefore they shall come and sing in the height of Zion [another name for Jerusalem], streaming to the goodness of the LORD –for wheat and new wine and oil, for the young of the flock and the herd; their souls shall be like a well-watered garden, and they shall sorrow no more at all.” (Jer. 31:11-12 NKJV) When our hearts are made right with God the famine ends and God restores joy to our hearts, but this time it is not temporary joy. “The ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing, with everlasting joy on their heads. They shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (Is. 35:10 NKJV) Not a temporary joy that eats away at our hearts, but an everlasting joy that fills us.
In the end it is not butter or coffee or cookies that bring true joy, because they are temporary. It is not false joy that sabotages healing. It is everlasting joy from the Lord that fills our hearts and our worship. All those earthly sources can remain in their proper context but whether we have them or not, they don’t define us and we can join Paul in saying, “The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Rom. 14:17 NKJV)
To be continued…