On Joy

What is “Joy”? So many Christians give it a basic definition of “lasting happiness, one that exists even in times of sorrow”. Joy is the thing that gets us through the hards times. It comes from God and the assuredness that we are saved. It’s a “good feeling” in us. Yes, joy does a lot of stuff, as I said earlier, but what is it? What is the true definition of “Joy”?

In Matthew Elliott’s book Faithful Feelings, he discusses the emotions of the New Testament, including Joy as an emotion. He points out several reasons why people are joyful in the gospel of Luke, the joyful gospel. The coming of John the Baptist, Jesus, the miracles, election, the mercy of God, and salvation are all things that bring joy. But then he switches to talking about how Jesus taught. Jesus told people to be happy about the things in heaven, not on earth. Elliott says that “joy is clearly based on eternal reality – it is based on membership in a new community” (167-168). Yet joy is not an emotion tied solely with eternal things, or even tied to goodness. Elliott brings to mind that people also rejoice over evil (Mark 14:11).

Matthew Elliott's book Faithful Feelings goes through many emotions in the New Testament, including Love, Joy, Hope, Jealousy, Fear, Grief, Sorrow, etc. along with going back to past ideas of emotions in cultures and in a broad Biblical sense

Elliott views joy as an emotion, but one that is not yet complete. It will be made full when the object of our joy, Christ, returns to us. This joy that we have now perseveres in suffering and looks forward to the future. Elliott quotes Hawthorne who says,

They thus came to realize that when he talked of joy he was, in reality describing a settled state of mind characterized by eirene (“peace”), an attitude that viewed the world with all its ups and downs with equanimity, a confident way of looking at life that was rooted in faith.(174)

So this joy is some type of peace? Elliott goes further and quotes Bockmuehl who wrote, “Joy in the Lord is not a feeling but an attitude, and as such it can be positively commanded” (175). Later Elliott calls it a virtue that is “determined by its object” (175). So it’s a cognitive emotion, an attitude, and a virtue? Well, these three can be narrowed into one thing. By cognitive emotion Elliott means an emotion based on a rational thought. He talks about this in length in the section on worship. Worship is to be, “genuine emotion based on genuine understanding” (178). An attitude is based on emotions and can flow from cognitive thought. The term is hardly used, so it can be thrown out if need be. As virtue seems to some out of no where, but to really understand what he means by “virtue” would require a large amount of study. Does he mean Aristotelian virtue that comes out of rational thought and action? Is it a type of Christian virtue like humility, as discussed in an earlier post? This term is very loaded, but he quickly goes back to emotion (within the same sentence) so it seems safe to say that he means that joy is a type of emotion.

Elliot then takes a step back and looks at Joy in the context of the New Testament times. The stoics and Christians sought happiness and “to be happy is to become wise in the eyes of both Stoics and early Christians” (178). Again, “For Stoics it was their pursuit, for Christians a byproduct of their faith. Obviously the idea of joy was also different. For the Christian, joy was the unabashed emotion, not the Stoic idea of eudaimonia” (18-179). This emotion is not a superficial emotion, but a cognitive emotion that comes from the deep foundations of our faith. Elliott says that this emotion is felt both now and in the future, kind of like “now, but not yet” theology. He even quotes Calvin saying that one can only advance as a Christian by joyfully awaiting Christ’s return. Elliott pitches his stake in the idea that Joy is an emotion.

We should not rob the church of the joy of Christian faith by arguin that it is not emotional. To the contrary, it is emotional at its core.(180)

I like Elliott. He seems to balanced, which fits into Aristotelian thought, but better yet he seems to be Biblically sound. He tries to bring emotions back into the Christian life, after being cast own as bad an not theological by some of the earlier church fathers. Even Augustine, bless his soul, did not have a high view of emotions. Reading tons of theology in Torrey left me at a place of asking, “Where do emotions fit? Would it be better to be a Vulcan like Spock than an emotional human?” Fortunately I was able to write a paper about the tripartite soul and where emotions fit. Emotions should be cognitive, as the heart is below the head, though the head only directs the heart. The paper is long and extensive, and I don’t think I’ll post it because it was too good to post so publicly without some kind of protection, like publication. Anyways, Augustine did change his mind and had place for emotions, specifically Felicity which is a type of supreme and complete happiness, which sounds similar to joy. Elliott brings the idea of thoughts controlling emotions, guiding them, instead of destroying them. That’s why I like Elliott. He isn’t too wrapped in either camp (emotions or theology) to see that the two work together.

But it is never wise to use one source to get an idea, unless it is the Bible (but even then you need to make sure you are interpreting it correctly). So let’s look at the original Greek word. “JOY: The NT vocabulary is simple, usually chaírœ, synchaírœ, or chaírœ. Occasionally we find agallíaœ, agallíasis, or euphraínœ, especially in eschatological contexts or OT citations, for these last two words are the most frequently used in the LXX” (from International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, revised edition, Copyright © 1979 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. All rights reserved.) Joy just seems to be a feeling that characterizes the church. It doesn’t give much more of a definition of joy itself, as is common with most people. Elliott himself even notes that there are tons of lists of what gives joy, but not what it is.

So, I decided to do something dangerous: look at wordpress for blogs that answer what joy is. I came across this one by a pastor who gave a sermon on what joy is. He gives a few points that seem different from Elliotts.

  1. Joy is expressed through emotion, but is not emotional itself. Emotions are based on situations while joy is based on what Christ has done (though that is technically a situation, it is far more permanent than one that emotions are typically based on. Based on this statement I would say joy is a high and sure emotion based on something solid and true that cannot be shaken)
  2. Joy is seen [in] obedient action. Yes, this sounds right. Our joy, if it is true, should pass on to other believers, as the pastor relates to his congregation.
  3. Joy is seen in our praise and testimonies. Yes, the Christian that is filled with joy will not have a dark tone as they give their testimony. The same person can give their testimony at a joyless point at one time and then at a joyful point later in their walk. It is not the story itself that denotes joy, but the joy of the believer telling it and their joy in salvation.
  4. Joy cannot be stolen, but it can be given away. Ok, that sounds reasonable. There isn’t any reason for me to go against him and I have nothing in my study to support him, but I’ll take him at his word for he is older and wiser than I.

Overall, this guy seems to know what he is talking about. Yes, my two sources seem to disagree on whether joy is an emotion or something different, but that’s ok. We still have joy. We have the knowledge that supports our joy, that Christ died and rose again to save us and sometime in the future we will be with him forever. And in this God is joyful, and we partake in his perfect joy. This is our Joy, the Joy of the Lord!


Update: I forgot to mention that in Torrey I have a mentor who studied the emotions of Paul and weaves emotion into theology beautifully. Here’s a video of her speaking at chapel.

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