It’s common to hear writers claim that joy is unemotional. A Bible study says, “Spiritual joy is not an emotion. It’s a response to a Spirit-filled life.” But if this response doesn’t involve emotions of happiness or gladness or delight or good cheer, in what sense is it “spiritual joy”?
Many Christians spiritualize the word joy, contrasting it with happiness and portraying it as independent of emotion or pleasure. Some claim that joy is a fruit of the Spirit and therefore not an emotion. But in Galatians 5:22, love and peace sandwich the word joy. If you love someone, don’t you feel something for them? And what is peace if it doesn’t involve feelings of contentment and satisfaction?
Understanding that God Himself is happy is foundational. “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). As love and holiness are found in God’s presence because God is loving and holy, so joy and happiness are found in God’s presence because God is joyful and happy. How could it be otherwise?
The Father said twice, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17; 17:5). To be well pleased means to feel pleasure. Whether you call those feelings joy, happiness, gladness, or delight—and I think any and all are appropriate—the Father certainly felt them toward Jesus, and so should we.
When the Father said of His Son the Messiah, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights” (Isaiah 42:1), did He have feelings toward His Son? Have you ever delighted in someone without having strong feelings about that person? Weren’t the Father’s feelings toward His Son joyful?
In The Treasury of David, Spurgeon said it well: “There is enough in our holy faith to create and to justify the utmost degree of rapturous delight. If men are dull in the worship of the Lord our God they are not acting consistently with the character of their religion.”
Yes, it’s possible to obey and serve God without feeling joy. We should do what’s right and honors Christ, even when we don’t feel like it. But God rebukes those who serve Him joylessly (see Deuteronomy 28:47-48). In other words, He emphatically says He wants us to feel joy! Just as parents of children want them to not only obey, but to obey with happy hearts, God also wants our joyful obedience and trust. He knows that’s ultimately in our best interest.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). When God calls us to rejoice in Him, does He care only about what we think and do, not how we feel about Him? No. He commands us to love Him not just with all our minds but all our hearts (see Matthew 22:37). Feelings are not the entirety of joy, but since God’s joy involves His emotions, shouldn’t our joy involve ours?
The psalmist said, “I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God” (Psalm 43:4). Can you imagine saying to someone, “You are my exceeding joy,” without feeling strong emotion?
Yahweh created both our minds and our hearts. Sure, emotions can be manipulated, but so can intellects. God designed us with emotions, and He doesn’t want us to shun or disregard them. We’re ill-advised to redefine joy and happiness and pit them against each other rather than embracing the emotional satisfaction of knowing, loving, and following Jesus.
Mike Mason writes in Champagne for the Soul: Celebrating God’s Gift of Joy,
When I’m joyful, I’m happy, and when I’m happy, I’m joyful. What could be plainer? Why should I want anything to do with a joy that isn’t coupled with happiness, or with a kind of happiness that is without joy? Happiness without joy is shallow and transient because it’s based on outward circumstances rather than an attitude of the heart. As for joy without happiness, it’s a spiritualized lie. The Bible does not separate joy and happiness, and neither should we.
Consider J.C. Ryle’s reference to “happy feelings”—something often dismissed today as unspiritual. He spoke of these feelings as utterly compatible with joy: “Above all, Christ can give us peace of conscience, inward joy, bright hopes, and happy feelings.”
Surely knowing the Creator of the universe—our Savior, Friend, and Redeemer, who has rescued us from the grip of sin—evokes feelings of happiness!
The Holy Spirit’s permanent indwelling in our lives allows us to continually access a supernatural happiness, so we can “confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace whenever we need help” (Hebrews 4:16, NET). Our God of happiness has made the way for us to come before Him freely and draw deeply from His mercy, grace, and help at any and all times, including when we’re feeling drained of joy.
May we always remember that following God’s ways and seeking Him first brings great heart-felt happiness.Browse more resources on the topic of happiness, and see his other related books, including Does God Want Us to Be Happy?
Photo by Olya Harytovich