The joy of the Lord is a strange thing. It is not the same as the happiness that the world gives. That happiness depends on circumstances, but the joy of the Lord depends on nothing but Him.
The Old Testament prophet Habakkuk knew this joy. He had prayed for God’s intervention because His people were living in sin, but was startled when God told him His solution; He would use an evil nation to bring them to their senses. Habakkuk questioned God using a nation to punish “those more righteous than themselves,” yet expressed his faith that God would do the right thing. His book ends with this declaration of faith:
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. The Lord God is my strength; He will make my feet like deer’s feet, and He will make me walk on my high hills. (Habakkuk 3:17-19)Notice that for Habakkuk (and countless other people who trust God), the joy of the Lord does not depend on circumstances.
I can remember the first time I discovered this. I had a terrible backache and couldn’t get out of bed. As I rested, I began praising God. As I did, I was filled with an almost unbearable joy, a joy without description. My back still ached. No miraculous healing, nothing else happened, but that joy sustained me through my pain, even lifted me above it. To this day, I cannot remember how long the pain lasted or when it left me, but I do remember that amazing and surprising joy.
We were given the same joy during a crisis with one of our children. An early morning call informed us that our daughter and her friend and the company van were all missing. These girls were only thirteen and we lived in a city where child predators were known. The other girl’s parents were frantic, but Bob and I were filled with joy—right from the moment the telephone rang and woke us up. It was absolutely weird, yet we were calm and calmed the other parents.
It turned out that the girls were only a few blocks away. They could not drive that big van and their adventure turned into a long, cold night sitting in a huge vehicle parked by a curb. They were afraid to walk home and terribly chagrined when they arrived. Sustaining joy remains in our memory as a tribute to the power of God.
This joy is not my own doing. It bubbles up when I least expect it. How else could I feel joyful in pain or joy with a child in peril? (And, no, I was not on drugs!) That joy comes from Jesus Christ, not from me trying to put on a happy face or making an effort to be strong or cheerful. It is just there.
Actually, it has a foundation. It is based on a deep knowing that God is in control, yet I sometimes forget that He is, or am distracted by tragic circumstances. When that happens, the One who lives in my heart gives joy to me anyway, and that is beyond my comprehension.
There are times when expressing this joy is not appropriate. Imagine the reaction of others if the joy of the Lord became a big smile on my face when talking with them about terrible things. I may know that God is in control (because Jesus in me knows), but others may not. If it bubbled over, my joy over that assurance would be totally misinterpreted.
Also, I’m not sure I can say with Habakkuk that I would be joyful if everything good was gone, but I do know that even if that happened, joy is possible because God gives that joy, not circumstances. Joy is a by-product of faith and has very practical results. As Nehemiah 8:10 says, “Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Joy might be a bit easier when life is going well, but God made us so that when we feel joy, we can handle almost anything. For that, He gives me His joy and that joy carries me through my trials and challenges as I “rejoice in the Lord . . . and joy in the God of my salvation.”