With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. ~Isaiah 12:3
What exactly is joy, anyway? The Bible talks a lot about joy, but it’s not a word we use much outside of “church” circles, so we’re often fuzzy on what the word means. So before we see what connection joy has with the cross, it might be a good idea to first do a little Bible survey to see what God says about joy itself. We don’t want to be content with vague, fuzzy ideas; vague ideas lead to vague lives. Remember: the Holy Spirit uses his inspired words in Scripture to transform us, so we want to know what he says specifically and precisely. So, what is joy?
JOY VS. HAPPINESS
One thing that I’ve heard frequently is that there is a big difference between joy and happiness. I’ve heard whole sermons based on this premise. Usually it goes something lie this: “Happiness is an emotion based on temporary, changing circumstances or possessions; joy is a state of heart based on a relationship with God.”
Okay, I understand that. That’s probably an accurate description of the distinction we draw between joy and happiness in our everyday conversations. And certainly, there is a great difference between basing your emotional wellbeing on stuff you own or on changing circumstances, versus standing secure on the unchanging rock of Christ Jesus.
The problem is, that distinction between joy and happiness is not found anywhere in the Bible. In fact, the Bible uses the words “happiness” and “joy” completely interchangeably, with apparently no distinction. They’re synonyms in the Bible. I’ll bet you’ve never realized this, probably because you’ve never seen the word “happiness” in the Bible. The reason for that is that our modern Bible translations almost always translate the biblical word “happy” (the Greek word is makarios) as “blessed.” But that’s exactly what that Greek word makarios means; it means “happiness or wellbeing.” Why translators choose to take an easy-to-understand word like “happiness” and render it as a thoroughly religious and opaque word like “blessed” is a mystery to me.
So when you read the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, for example, this is what Jesus is saying:
Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Happy are those who mourn (there’s a conundrum if ever there was one!), for they shall be comforted.
Happy are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Happy are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Happy are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Happy are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Happy are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus is saying, “You want to be happy, don’t you? You’ve been going about it all wrong. The pathway to real happiness is the exact opposite of what you thought it was.”
Actually, it’s in the Beatitudes that we are shown how “happiness” and “joy” are synonymous. Jesus continues, and in verse 11-12 blows our artificial categories out of the water:
Happy are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.
Do you see how he uses “happiness” and “joy” and “gladness” interchangeably? He says, “If people persecute you, be happy, rejoice, be glad.” Those aren’t three different things; those are three ways of saying the same thing. It’s a classic example of Hebrew parallelism where the same idea is repeated in a slightly different form.
So right at the outset of this study on joy, we need to get the idea out of our heads, that joy and happiness are somehow different. Again, I do understand how we tend to use those words differently in our everyday conversations. But I want my thinking and speaking to be shaped by the way the Bible thinks and speaks, not the other way around. And the Bible uses the words “joy,” “happiness,” and “gladness” interchangeably. “Delight” and “exult” are two other very closely related words. “Delight” means to find your joy/happiness in a specific thing (as in, “Delight yourself in the Lord”), and “exult” means “to rejoice triumphantly” (I love that word; ponder what it means to not just have joy, but triumphant joy).
Therefore, when the Bible talks about the joy that Christians should have, don’t draw a distinction from happiness that the Bible doesn’t intend. Rather, what Scripture is getting at is where our happiness is supposed to be found– not in material things or changing circumstances, but in the unchanging God of grace and His blood-bought promises.
THE COMMAND TO BE HAPPY
All of this leads us to a conclusion that may be startling to you: joy is an emotion, just like happiness is an emotion. We can sometimes skirt around that truth by trying to draw false distinctions between the two, but the Bible won’t let us. Joy is an emotion.
The reason that this is somewhat startling is because God commands us to have joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). That’s not a command to have your soul confident in God or some other vague, spiritual-sounding notion like that; that’s a command to be happy, and to find your happiness in the Lord. Or consider the psalms: “Let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy.” Again, that’s a command. To take refuge in God in a glum or downcast or uptight or pessimistic manner is a contradiction.
In fact, it turns out that God is deadly serious about our joy. In Deuteronomy 28, the experience of Israel gives us a sober warning: “Because you did not serve the LORD your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, therefore you shall serve your enemies.” Serving God without “joyfulness and gladness of heart” makes a mockery of our service and communicates that God is boring and that serving God is drudgery. Therefore, God takes our joy seriously. Because he is the most valuable, beautiful, glorious, desirable Reality in the universe, he intends to be seen as valuable, beautiful, glorious, and desirable in our emotional response to him. As Jeremy Taylor said, “God threatens terrible things if we will not be happy.”
One clarification is in order, lest we misunderstand what the Bible is saying. The fact that God commands us to be happy/joyful in him does not mean that we are supposed to be some sort of chipper, smiling, upbeat, obnoxious optimists who aren’t allowed to be sad about anything. There is a place for weeping in the Christian life; there is a place for grief. The difference is that Christian weeping and grief is always laced with hopeful joy and intent on loving others through the pain. “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep,” we are told in Romans 12. That means God commands that our emotions serve others in love. “Weep with those who weep” doesn’t mean “Despair and be depressed with those who are in despair and depression.” It means, come alongside those who struggle; empathize with them; be willing to feel their pain and enter into their situation and see things through their eyes; so identify with their pain that it becomes your pain, and you weep along with them. That’s a hard command– and the only possible way to sustain that kind of love is if you have deeply rooted joy and gladness in God that says, “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation” (Habakkuk 3:17-18). In this fallen, broken world, our joy will not be a naive, chipper grin that is oblivious to the pain around us. Rather, we will be “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). Our joy should always be laced with an empathetic, loving, longing-for-heaven sorrow, and our sorrow should always be laced with a yet-I-will-rejoice, God-is-my-salvation joy.
Does it bother you that God commands your emotions? You might think, “I don’t have control over my emotions; how can God command me to feel a certain way?” But God doesn’t just command us to do certain things, and believe certain things, and think certain thing; he also commands us to feel certain things. God’s commands aren’t limited to what we, in our fallen condition, think we’re capable of; God’s commands reflect his holy character and perfect requirements for us. If you think you’re not capable of controlling your emotions, you’re right. The Christian life is not something you can do on your own resources; it is supernatural. It takes daily miracles of grace for us to feel what we are supposed to feel. Seeing a command in the Bible like, “Serve the LORD with gladness” should make us desperate supernatural aid, for the Holy Spirit’s help to change our hearts and empower a radical obedience that penetrates all the way down to the very center of who we are– our emotions.
WHERE DOES YOUR JOY COME FROM?
So then, the question pressed in on us by God’s word is not whether or not God commands our emotions. He does, and he commands us to be joyful. The question is where we will find that joy– what will be the basis of our happiness?
The world certainly has an answer to that question. We tend to find our joy in two places: in the present– our current possessions, circumstances, and relationships; and in the future– our anticipations, hopes, and dreams. We find happiness in owning that new car or new computer; there is something about buying new things that touches a longing deep inside of us. We find happiness in our present circumstances; having an early morning cup of coffee overlooking a misty woodland scene as the sun rises over a mountain lake– those kind of peaceful, quiet moments touch that same longing. We find happiness in our present relationships; celebrating with our friends, an earnest late night conversation with someone close to you, holding your newborn son in your arms for the first time.
We also find joy in contemplating the future (well, sometimes, at least; the uncontrollable future also has a way of provoking anxiety). When you were younger, waking up on the first day of summer vacation, with its seemingly endless golden days stretching ahead of you with all their promise of fun, prompted deep emotions of happiness. Looking forward to your upcoming vacation is almost better than the vacation itself. The reason Christmas is such an enjoyable season (apart from all its accompanying frenetic busyness) is in the anticipation; we are looking forward to Christmas morning. The day itself always arrives with a certain sort of letdown; we have been anticipating it for so long that once it’s finally here, it can’t quite deliver on its promise of happiness.
That problem right there starts getting to the heart of the world’s offer of happiness. All those things I just described are good things. They should bring us a measure of joy. In fact, God created them to bring us a measure of joy– we’ll unpack that more a little later.
But the problem with all these things is that they are too fleeting to really provide lasting joy, and too small to satisfy those deep longings in every person’s heart. Those things were made for us, to bring us joy; but we were not made for them– we were made for more. When we look to them to really fulfill our longings, they can never deliver. We eagerly anticipate Christmas morning, only to find that the experience itself is a letdown; it can’t deliver on its promise of real and lasting joy. Those new cars and new computers that brought us so much delight are quickly break down, or get lost, and soon our attention is focused on that next new thing that will finally make us happy. This is the reason Jesus told us to store up our treasure somewhere else (“storing up our treasure” is just another way of saying, “find your joy”); even the best things you love are “treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19). We were made for deeper, more lasting pleasures than what this world can offer. In Job 20:5, we’re told that “the joy of the godless is but for a moment.” There is joy to be found in this world apart from God; but it’s only a fleeting happiness that will betray you the moment you try to make it your real satisfaction.
And so, in their quest for joy, most people end up making idols out of the things that God has made, and making those things the center of their lives. Not only does this lead to futility, but also, when those things command our devotion, we quickly end up using them in ways God has told us not to. Everything God created is good, but God has placed loving restrictions on many of those things. Sexual pleasure, for example, is good and created by God, but is designed to only operate fully and effectively in the God-appointed bounds of marriage. But when God is not the center of our joy, we quickly start pursuing pleasure outside of his appointed bounds, and disaster follows. No happiness pursued outside of God’s will can last or truly satisfy.
I love this line from one of John Newton’s hymns, which lays out the problem and points us to the solution:
Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
All his boasted pomp and show;
Solid joys and lasting treasure
None but Zion’s children know
In our quest for happiness, we’ve too quickly settled for the fading pleasure that this world runs after. Better by far to press on to what God’s children have tasted and seen: solid joys and lasting treasure.
So where do we find these “solid joys” that we were made for? It turns out that our pursuit of worldly happiness wasn’t too far off the mark. Like we’ve seen, we tend to look for happiness in the present and the future– our present possessions, circumstances, and relationships; and in the anticipation, hopes, and dreams of those things in the future. One reason that approach is so close, and yet so far, is that those things do give a measure of joy; but they were made to serve in bringing us to the greatest end for which we were made– joy in God– not to be ends in and of themselves. And secondly, looking for joy in the present and future is how we have been wired; we’ve just been looking to the wrong things. We were made to find our joy in the present experience of God and future promises of God, rooted in the past grace of God.
WIELDING WORLDLY PLEASURE IN THE FIGHT FOR JOY
So how should we use all the things in this world that bring us happiness? How can friends, and pizza, and cars, and vacation, and Christmas help us to better obey the command, “Rejoice in the Lord always?” The Apostle Paul touches a massively significant truth when, almost in passing, he gives us a worldview lens through which to see worldly pleasures:
[these pleasures] God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. ~1 Timothy 4:3-4
There are some spectacularly massive realities that emerge in this simple passage. First, notice what Paul says about these pleasures and who they were created for– “God created [them] to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” This means that every good thing in the world– in other words, everything God made– exists for the enjoyment of believers, and believers only. God did not create material blessings so that he could be robbed by unbelievers who exchange his glory in order to worship and serve those created things. Only Christians have a right to enjoy what God has made, within the bounds that he has set for them. The fact that everyone still can have enjoyment and pleasure in what God has made– even when abusing those pleasures outside of God’s appointed bounds– is grace, not a human right. Every good thing in the world that unbelievers enjoy is “kindness meant to lead to repentance,” not something anybody deserves.
Do you see how this relates to the cross? If every food you’ve ever eaten, every peaceful moment you’ve experienced, every happy emotion you’ve ever had, is only yours because of grace and is the opposite of what you deserve, then every second of your life has been lived on the mercy of God. Remember the Jerry Bridges quote from the introduction? “The best kept secret among Christians is this: Jesus paid it all. I mean all. He not only purchased your forgiveness of sins and your ticket to Heaven, He purchased every blessing and every answer to prayer you will ever receive. Every one of them- no exceptions.” Every one of those undeserved blessings– every feeling of happiness, every moment of joy– was purchased for you by Jesus’ blood on the cross.
The second thing we can learn from 1 Timothy 4 about wielding worldly pleasure in the fight for joy is that God intends for all our worldly blessings to be received with thanksgiving. That sounds obvious, right? Your mom taught you to thank God for the food every meal before you started eating. What does that have to do with joy?
It has everything to do with joy, if we will have eyes to see. Thanksgiving is the key to joy. Without gratitude, every pleasure we experience will be like a drug, giving a fleeting glimpse of what we desire, but eventually turning inward and ingrown and consuming us alive with ever-increasing costs and ever-diminishing rewards. This is, ultimately, the tragedy of a life lived without God; that’s why Job 20:5 tells us that “the joy of the godless lasts but a moment.” Without thankfulness there can be no true and lasting happiness.
But combined with gratitude, every pleasure on this planet can be transformed into worship. C.S. Lewis recounted a story that illustrates this principle. He told the story of how, one day, he walked into his toolshed and closed the door. Through a crack in the wooden walls shone a thin beam of sunlight, illuminating specks of dust floating inside the shed. Standing with the closed door behind his back, all that Lewis could see in that darkened toolshed were those suspended motes of dust, and everything else was pitch black. But then he moved to where the beam was, and instead of looking at the beam and its floating dust specks, he bent down until the beam of light fell on his eye. Suddenly, he was looking through the crack in the wall, out into the brilliant light of day, straight into the sun.
All of the pleasures and joys in this world are like those suspended motes of dust illuminated by a ray of light. In a darkened room, that ray of light is beautiful. But the tragedy is that so many people in this darkened world, in looking for light and joy and beauty and meaning, see those pleasures and fixate on them, instead of letting their eye run up the beam of light to the sun. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17), and all those gifts are given, not so that we would fall in love with the gift, but so so that the eyes of our heart would run up the beam to the Giver, and love him more.
Jeremiah Burroughs, a 17th-century Puritan, learned to wield worldly pleasures in the fight for joy, and to see the gospel in all of them:
“I have what I have from the love of God,
and I have it sanctified to me by God,
and I have it free of cost from God
by the purchase of the blood of Christ,
and I have it as a forerunner of those eternal mercies that are reserved for me.”
Here’s how God intends worldly pleasures to work: you take a bite of food and the flavor explodes in your mouth. Yummy, delicious happiness results. In that moment, don’t focus in on the food and how good it is; let your eye run up the beam of the gift to the Giver; say in your heart, “Father, thank you for such a gift! Thank you for mercy that gives this to me and makes me able to enjoy it. And if this is so good, how much better must you be! Help me to love you more than I love this food.” When pleasure is combined with heartfelt prayer like that, joy will always be the result. It’s what we were created to do.
Equipped with this worldview, every blessing is an arrow pointing to the Father of lights from whom it came. Every pleasure is a springboard into greater heights of gratitude and worship. Every happiness this world can offer becomes a sword to wield in the fight for joy, because they all point to the ultimate well of joy: God himself.
THE WELL OF JOY
Every other pleasure and happiness in the world exists to point us to God as the supreme Joy, the One for whom we were made. Only in him is true, deep, lasting joy found. We were created to know him and be known by him, to enjoy his glory, be enthralled by his beauty, and satisfied by his goodness forever. “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). He is the well of joy that our restless, thirsty souls crave.
The problem is, in seeking our joy elsewhere, we have abandoned the well of joy. We have exchanged the unending fountain for the dust and ashes of this world that, while they might bring momentary relief, can never satisfy. Jeremiah 2 lays out this indictment in graphic terms:
Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water. ~Jeremiah 2:12-13
You might think that your tendency to love and desire pizza, or shopping, or your spouse, more than you love and desire God, is no big deal. After all, you’re only hurting yourself, right? But the prophet Jeremiah, speaking for God, calls this behavior “evil.” It is evil to prefer a created thing over the Creator. It is evil to seek your ultimate joy in that which was only designed to be an arrow pointing to the Source of all joy. It is evil to forsake the Fountain of living waters, which is always full and always flowing, always satisfying those who come to him for life and joy, and turn to those things which are, in comparison, dry and broken cisterns in the desert, which can never satisfy.
That’s why Jeremiah calls all of heaven to witness this atrocity: human beings, made in the image of God to treasure his glory and reflect it to the world, in love with themselves and with his creation. “Be shocked, be appalled,” Jeremiah says. Are you? Or is the casual way that we pawn off God’s invaluable glory for the world’s trinkets so ordinary to you that it doesn’t shock you? Have you considered that it is this very exchange, which you make on a daily basis, that made it necessary for the Son of God to die for you? High payment must be paid to recompense this treason, and Jesus Christ paid it in full– so that you could gain access again to the well of joy for which you were made. You may have abandoned the Fountain, but the Fountain has not abandoned you.
The death and resurrection of Jesus opens the door for us to know and enjoy the God we were made for. “Christ suffered for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18)– that he might bring us back to the Fountain, back to the well of joy, to enjoy and be satisfied forever. The highest blessings of salvation– peace with God, fellowship with him, access to his throne of grace, assurance of his presence– are exactly what will bring us the highest, deepest, most lasting joy, because these blessings are what we were made for.
That’s what our Cross Connection verse, Isaiah 12, is getting at. “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” Here’s what that picture means: the water from the wells of salvation are all those blessings of fellowship and intimacy with God that Jesus purchased for you on the cross. The gospel is an inexhaustible well of blessings. That’s the water our souls were designed to drink. The key to joy is to come to the well of salvation daily– hourly, even– and continually draw up gospel resources to drink and enjoy. No matter the changing circumstances around you, the well of salvation is always full and always flowing, and God extends his offer of fellowship to you all day, every day.
Practically speaking, this is what that means: when you open your Bible to read it, don’t just read aimlessly; read with a specific purpose: that you would see gospel promises. Look for gospel glory like Isaiah 12:1- “I will give thanks to you, O LORD, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, that you might comfort me.” That verse is water from the well of salvation. Reading promises like that, drawing them up into your heart, meditating on them, praying them, believing them, and then carrying them with you through the day– this is the key to joy.
I don’t want to stop there, though; I think it would be helpful to get even more specific. Remember, earlier I said that we tend to find our joy in present circumstances, possessions, and relationships, and in the anticipation of the future? That really is the way we’re wired; and the problem is not finding our joy in the present and future; the problem is what we’re looking to in the present and future to satisfy us. God intends for his present and future promises of peace and intimacy with himself to be the water that we daily draw from the well of salvation.
So what kind of promises should we be drawing from the well of salvation to fuel our joy? Assurances that connect the gospel of redemption and salvation to your present circumstances: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isaiah 43:1-3). Promises and descriptions of your present relationship with God: “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). Breathtaking statements that, in Christ, God himself is our everlasting possession: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:25-26). And we also look to the future, to the blood-bought promises of future joy that will make every happiness and heartache here as nothing by comparison, and the joy we have chased our entire lives will finally and fully be ours: “The ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with sining; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10). These are the kinds of present and future realities that our souls were made to feed on and delight in.
Making salvation the well from which you draw your joy will help to steady your heart in changing circumstances, through pain and trials, good times and bad times. With the grace of the gospel feeding your joy, then all the other trinkets and pleasures of the world will no longer have to be idols competing for your heart’s allegiance. The all-satisfying gospel gives freedom to finally enjoy all those other things the way they were made– as reminders of the thing that has fully satisfied you: grace.
Father, I confess that I have so often forsaken you, the Fountain of living waters, and hewed out for myself broken cisterns of worldly pleasure that ultimately can hold no satisfying water. Only you can fully satisfy my heart. Help me to believe that, to take hold of the everlasting life of knowing you that you have given me in the gospel, and to press on to know and obey and enjoy you more, so that your joy may be in me and that my joy may be full.
Jesus, Thou joy of loving hearts,
Thou Fount of life, Thou Light of men,
From the best bliss that earth imparts,
We turn unfilled to Thee again.
Thy truth unchanged hath ever stood:
Thou savest those that on Thee call.
To them that seek Thee Thou art good,
To them that find Thee all in all.
Our restless spirits yearn for Thee,
Wherever our changeful lot is cast;
Glad when Thy gracious smile we see,
Blessed when our faith can hold Thee fast.
We taste Thee, O Thou living Bread,
And long to feast upon Thee still;
We drink of Thee, the Fountainhead,
And thirst our souls from Thee to fill.
~Bernard of Clairvaux, 12th century~