After a time of additional study, and working to reconcile additional passages to my understanding of joy, I’ve come to the conclusion that joy is in fact an emotion primarily and not a choice. It is also based on circumstances which do change. I hope you’re as surprised as I am. Thus, I define joy as our emotional response to present circumstances.
That being said, here is what I’m not suggesting. I’m not suggesting that these emotions can be manipulated. This joy does not change based on manipulation by entertainment, clever words and images, and chemical changes. Joy is an emotion, but it is an emotional response to a physical reality.
Joy is based on our present circumstances. For unbelievers, this is the reason why they can be joyful when things are apparently going well for them, and then down when they aren’t. The opposite of joy is grief, which is what is felt in time of loss. It is right for the temperament of someone to change with the circumstances of their lives. But here is the difference for believers – our circumstances are rooted in our relationship to our good God, who has provided us salvation and eternal life, and by whose power we know that all things work to our good.
So in a sense, it is a big qualification, but it is still true that joy is an emotional response to our circumstances. It is important to get this right for a few reasons. First, we can’t tell unbelievers that they don’t have joy. They do, but not in the same quantity and quality that we do. Second, we can lose joy. The circumstances for us may not change, but our emotions can become dull if, for example, we forget about the wonderful position we’re in. We may divert our eyes from the Lord.
There are many practical implications of this, and my exposition of Phil 2:1-18 deals with just that. Paul gives a list of imperatives to the Philippian believers that they be like-minded, have the attitude of Christ, work out their salvation, refrain from complaining, and finally to rejoice. Each of these responds to an area in our lives wherein we may fall short of considering our privileged circumstances as children of God, and instead fall into considering only the apparent physical and temporal realities, neglecting the purpose of it all.
The conclusion for believers is that if you want to experience your joy more fully, you must strive hard for Christ and be reminded of your salvation. For those who aren’t believers, know that your situation may appear enjoyable at the moment, but this facade will last not even a lifetime, let alone an eternity. Your emotions will be tossed about in your lifetime on earth, and for eternity have no source of joy. This is the tragic reality, but it need not be the case for you if you will repent and believe in Jesus.
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