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Joy is one of the most misunderstood fruits of the Spirit. Often it is confused with happiness, but in some ways, it is actually the opposite of happiness. For example, happiness is a fleeting emotion; joy is a permanent state of mind. Happiness is dependent on your circumstances; joy is dependent on God and His work in our hearts and minds.
Joy “does not mean earthly, human happiness: Paul repeatedly exhorts Christians to rejoice ‘in the Lord’” (Fung, NICNT, p. 264). In other words, we should place our joy in the Lord and eternal matters rather than try to find happiness in the temporary things of earth. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with being happy when your favorite team wins a big game or when you get married or every time you eat bacon, but those pale in comparison to the joy that comes from spending eternity with Jesus. The fruit of the Spirit then is finding joy in the midst of everything – good or bad – because we know our future in Christ.
Paul and Silas understood this. After being beaten up and thrown into prison, it would be easy for them to sing a dirge of “woe is me” and wallow in self-pity, but they chose joy. “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.” (Acts 16:25)
Who sings hymns at a time like that? People filled with joy and the Holy Spirit. They did not sing because of their circumstances; they sang in the midst of their circumstances because their eyes were fixed on Jesus and an eternity with Him rather than dwelling on what was happening at that moment. “Because its origin is not human but divine, Christian joy is unperturbed by sorrow and tribulation, and indeed gives proof of its power precisely in the midst of them” (Fung, NICNT, p. 264). Only the Holy Spirit can bring us joy in the middle of difficult situations. That is when you really know you have joy.
Something that often gets lost in the context of Galatians is that true joy only happens in community with God and other believers. You cannot be happy by yourself in a shack in the middle of the woods with only yourself and a couple hundred cats – even if you had an endless supply of bacon. Why do you think even prisoners dread solitary confinement? Because we are not meant to be alone. That is why our greatest hope is heaven – when we will be with God and our believing loved ones forever.
Joy, as one of the fruit of the Spirit, has an added dimension. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, you can be happy for someone else other than yourself since joy isn’t just about you. That is what this list is all about: God working within a community of believers. If something good happens to someone in your small group, everyone shares the joy. If something tragic happens, everyone feels the pain and shares the burden.
Does that mean you are happy all the time? No! There are times of sadness and mourning and disappointment, but the fruit of the Spirit produces joy in the midst of the rainy days because we know the Son will come again.
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