Joy. We have probably all heard the word, but few probably know what it actually means. We sing about it in Christmas carols, and even use it as a name for our children. Yet for all of our mentions of it, it seems that we have forgotten how to properly use the word. Joy is something that can only belong to a child of God, because it is a gift that only God can give. When the world uses the word they simply do not know what it actually means.
Webster’s Dictionary defines joy as “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness.” However, even this definition fails because joy is not based on a feeling, nor is it happiness. More accurately, the word refers to being calm in the middle of chaos. When everyone around you is losing their heads, you keep yours. The problem is that we have associated joy with happiness so long that we have started to use them as synonyms, and they are not the same thing.
To be sure, pleasure can be a part of the definition, and so can happiness. But neither word fully captures the true meaning of the word “joy.” As a matter of fact, this is a big problem when it comes to translating words from Greek to English. Our vocabulary just doesn’t hold up to the vocabulary of the Bible. We sometimes use one word for what could be five or six words in the Greek. It seems that this is exactly what has happened with the word “joy.”
One of my favorite stories in the Bible shows us the power of true joy. In Acts chapter 5 the apostles were imprisoned because the religious leaders were jealous of the miracles God was doing through them. The religious leaders decided to teach them a lesson by beating them and then releasing them. Technically, this was illegal because the apostles had done absolutely nothing wrong. It is truly ironic that a group that claimed to uphold the law would abuse it so egregiously, but I digress.
What happened next was not only amazing, but it also gives you a window into what the apostles really had. the Bible says that they rejoiced because they were counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus. They rejoiced? That seems odd. But you see, this is where the word “joy” parts with our traditional meaning of happiness. I’m sure the apostles were not walking around smiling and laughing because they had just been beaten.
The reality is that they had an understanding that many people seem to lack. Their focus wasn’t on the pain or the Sanhedrin’s abuse of their power. Their focus was on the fact that they had the privilege to suffer for the King of kings and Lord of Lords. And it was that fact that caused joy to well up inside of them. They weren’t necessarily walking around laughing and high-fiving each other, but they had a calmness throughout the entire situation.
But perhaps an even greater example is the Apostle Paul. In Philippians chapter 4 Paul tells the church at Philippi to “rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, rejoice.” This is even more startling when you realize the fact that Paul wrote this letter from prison, and I can assure you that prisons at that time were not like prisons are today. Think about that. A man sitting in a dark, dingy prison is telling a bunch of free people to be joyful. If anyone knew what joy truly meant it was the Apostle Paul. He had that calm reassurance in the midst of seemingly overwhelming circumstances.
At its core, joy is simply trust. It’s looking at the circumstances surrounding you, but still realizing that God is ultimately in control. That is why the apostles could respond the way they did to a public beating, and why Paul could sit in prison but still be rejoicing and telling others to rejoice (Paul would not have instructed them to do something he was not already doing himself). They understood that God is in control, and that if they had to suffer it was for a valid reason.
I challenge you to try the approach of the apostles. The next time that something unexpected happens don’t turn to fear first, but rather rejoice. Again, I am not talking about some kind of weird, flaky happiness. I am talking about a deep resolve that causes you to be calm when everything seems to be spinning out of control around you. Not only will it help you avoid anxiety, but it will also be a witness to those around you. They won’t understand it, but they will want to know what you have. And isn’t that the whole point of Christianity?