The Fruit of the Spirit 3: Joy

John Webster
Parts one and two of this series can be found here and here ~ the Editor

Christian joy is an element in the renewal of human life and affections which is purposed by God the Father, accomplished by God the Son and brought to completion by God the Holy Spirit.  Followers of Christ are appointed and summoned to participate in this renewal, and to do so intelligently and actively, that is, with the knowledge of faith which derives from divine instruction and which issues in conversion of life. This participation requires understanding something of our created nature: its original form; its devastation by sin; its renovation and reestablishment; the afflictions and consolations which accompany its progress to completion; its future satisfaction in God.
Joy is a kind of pleasure or delight, and pleasure is basic to the way in which created human nature is exercised and brought to realization.  Human creatures have life in a specific way. Their aliveness is not given to them as something already completed; rather, they have life in a movement towards the full realization of their nature, as they extend towards an as yet unachieved state in which they will be fully themselves. To be human is not to be perfect but perfectible; it is to be caught up by and active in a history which advances us towards certain goods which are not already possessed and whose attainment will establish and complete us.

These 'goods' (good things) are of many different kinds: bodily, material, social, intellectual, spiritual.  Some are transient, others enduring.  It is part of our created nature to have an appetite for these goods, to desire them.  When the appetite is satisfied, and the good which we desire is enjoyed as a present reality, we experience pleasure.  Pleasure is the expansion or dilation of our being in the presence of a good which is agreeable to and in conformity with our nature.  The presence or possession of such a good contributes to the fulfilment of our created nature.  As it gives pleasure in this way, the presence of a good bestows rest - completed movement, tranquility, the settlement of desire through satisfaction.  

Some of the pleasures which our created nature seeks are largely instinctual and unreflective - those of touch or taste, for example.  Joy is pleasure of a different order.  It is not simply that joy is more intense or enduring or exalted.  Rather, joy is 'rational': it is bound up with the fact that we are creatures who have been endowed with powers of thought, deliberation and judgement.  Because we have been given reason and exercise it, we are capable of reflective awareness of ourselves and the world; we are able to stand back from immediate circumstances, appetites and needs, to consider our lives as having a certain bearing, to be purposive, and intentionally to direct ourselves to ends.  We are rational creatures, and so our lives are not only pushed along by bodily impulses or by unshaped movements of will and emotion.  Rather, we take up a stance towards ourselves and our situation, we discriminate between goods and in some measure we make our lives follow a course.  Joy is the name which we give to the pleasure which arises when we take delight in certain goods rationally, that is, when we are not simply caught up in the vehemence of pleasure but discriminate between its various sources, have knowledge of the goods which are fitting to our nature and pursue those goods purposefully.  All animals experience pleasure; only human animals know joy.

By way of elaboration on this joy which is proper to human creatures, three further things may be said.  First, joy arises by the grace of the Holy Spirit who preserves our created nature and causes it to flourish.  Human life, including human joy, is not a field of purely human self-movement.  It is a creaturely domain, brought into being and sustained by the divine love which alone establishes our happiness.  Second, joy is delight in what is fitting to the nature which the creator has bestowed on us.  That nature is not indefinite or infinitely malleable; even though it possesses a certain plasticity, it has a divinely-given shape and a set of ends, and so it is directed to particular goods.  Joy is the pleasure which is afforded by the presence of those goods which are in accordance with our created nature.  Joy is true creaturely joy when it arises from the objects which in his goodness God assigns to us for our fulfilment.  

Third, these proper objects of joy are, first, God himself, and then by derivation certain created goods.  'Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart' (Ps. 32.11).  God himself is the principal object of joy because the fulfilment of our created nature consists in perfect (uninterrupted and unimpeded) fellowship with God, in full, enduring enjoyment of his presence: 'I am continually with thee' (Ps. 73.23).  We are with God in this way only because he is with us, antecedent to any movement on our part.  God's presence may be sought, but it is only found because it has first sought and found us, or rather, because it did not need to seek and find us, for we were never beyond its infinite compass.  The presence of God is the object of supreme joy, because it is the presence of the one who loves his creatures and wills their good.  God 'delights in the welfare of his servant' (Ps. 35.27), and is at work to secure and maintain it.  'Thou, O Lord, hast made me glad by thy work; at the works of thy hands I sing for joy' (Ps. 92.4).  Joy in God is inexhaustible, incorruptible, wholly proper to our nature, entirely adequate and satisfying: 'there is nothing upon earth that I desire besides thee' (Ps. 74.25).  When that desire for God is fulfilled, our created nature opens and expands to its fullest extent.  'In thy presence there is fullness of joy' (Ps. 16.11).

The supremacy of joy in God does not exclude created objects of joy; rather, it frames them and accords them their proper worth.  Chief among these objects of joy are those of society and culture.  We delight in well-ordered life together - in friendship, in domestic and civic common existence and activity.  And we take pleasure in exercising our created powers to make a human world of language, art, science, commerce, husbandry, craftsmanship; we take joy in such work and its products.  And in these things we anticipate the completion of our joy in the presence of God.
Such is our created nature and the fulfilment to which it is directed by its creator.  Sin has assaulted that nature and reduced it to ruin, and so deprived us of the joy which is proper to us.  What has gone wrong?

The specific way in which God's human creatures are appointed to enact their nature requires active consent.  Because we are created free, rational and moral, being the sort of creatures that we are requires deliberate alignment of ourselves with our given nature.  The form which this alignment takes is glad assent to the commands of God, that is, to God's direction of our lives in his law.  God's law requires that we follow and act in accordance with our created nature in order to flourish and so to find fulfilment and delight.

Sin refuses to give this active consent to our given nature.  Sometimes this may be by ignoring or spurning God's direction, sometimes by inventing a spurious new nature for ourselves and setting ourselves on a different course to fulfilment.  As we do these things, we dishonour God - we fail to acknowledge God's infinite worth as our loving and faithful creator - and we inflict disaster on ourselves, depriving ourselves of our good and bringing down upon ourselves guilt and misery.

Guilt is culpability, the objective condition of having done wrong and being incapable of erasing it from the past or resisting its present power.  Misery is that state of wretchedness and distress in which we find ourselves in the absence of the fulfilment of our nature, distant as we are from our true good.  Dispossessed of joy, we become abject, not exalted; our lives do not expand but contract to a narrow span.

We inflict misery on ourselves in three ways.  First, we fail to desire those things in which true human fulfilment is to be found, or we fail to seek pleasure in those objects which conform to, preserve and perfect our given nature as God's creatures.  Second, we set our desires on what is false and unfruitful.  There arises that universal but scarcely understood situation in which we desire what is undesirable and hurtful, glimpsing its unsuitability, yet somehow incapable of setting it aside - indeed, determined to possess and enjoy what is profitless and unstable, and what will rob us of ultimate satisfaction. Third, we set our desire on legitimate goods in an excessive way, debasing ourselves by inordinate longing.  The result is alienation from God and our true good, and so dejection:  
You felt secure in your wickedness,
    you said, "No one sees me";
your wisdom and your knowledge
    led you astray,
and you said in your heart,
    "I am, and there is no one besides me."
But evil shall come upon you,
    for which you cannot atone;
disaster shall fall upon you,
    which you will not be able to expiate;
and ruin shall come on you suddenly,
    of which you know nothing. (Isa. 47.10f.)
It is part of the goodness of the gospel that it announces an end to this wretched state.  The gospel counters this evil 'I am, and there is no one besides me' by declaring the presence of God our saviour who restores creaturely joy in a twofold work of mercy.  God restores creaturely joy, first, by the Son's objective recreation of our nature.  The Son of God identifies himself with sinners, appropriating the false nature which we invented for ourselves.  In his passion and death he takes upon himself the guilt and misery of that counterfeit nature, so taking it away: 'you have died ... you have put off the old nature' (Col. 3.3, 9).  He does this with incontestable might and authority, manifest in his resurrection from the dead in which a new creaturely nature is introduced and enlivened: 'you have been raised with Christ ... you have put on the new nature' (Col. 3.1, 10).  By the Son's saving presence and work, there is established a condition in which joy is possible: 'my spirit rejoices in God my saviour' (Lk. 1.47).

Christians rejoice because they find themselves irremovably placed in a situation in which they are united with the object which their nature desires above all things: God.  That object is no longer alien to them; they are reunited to it (to him), standing in his presence by the gift of himself in his Son: 'we rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have received our reconciliation' (Rom. 5.11).  Through him, the cramped and miserable existence of the sinner begins to unfold, and there arises joy 'in the Lord' (Phil. 3.1, 4.4, 10), joy which has him as its cause and content. 

God restores creaturely joy, second, by the Holy Spirit's work of application, in which what is accomplished by the Son bears in upon creatures with divine power and fruitfulness, becoming the creature's own reality.  By the Spirit, that which the Son secures - release from guilt and misery, and a new nature and condition - does not simply remain outside us but comes to be in us, to be us.  And so there arises 'joy in the Spirit' (Rom. 14.17).  How is this 'joy inspired by the Holy Spirit' (1 Thess. 1.6) to be characterised?

First, joy is a fruit of the Spirit's renewal of our creaturely nature, in which we have our lives at the hands of God, and are able to enact them by the Spirit's moving power.  As with all the fruits of the Spirit, joy signifies existence in the realm of divine grace.  Second, joy in the Spirit is personal: each of us may speak with the apostle of 'my joy' (Phil. 2.2), each may say 'I rejoice' (Phil. 1.18).  But it is also joy in common, for each participates in the one reality of the body of Christ: 'all rejoice together' (1 Cor. 12.26).  Third, joy in the Spirit is irrevocably established but not yet brought to completion.  This last point demands further reflection...

Joy is established because the Son of God has set aside all that opposes the fruition of our created nature.  Reconciled and redeemed by him, renovated and empowered by the Holy Spirit, introduced into the presence of the heavenly Father, our lives are such that joy is not merely an aspiration or an occasional transient mood: it is natural to those on whom God has bestowed such very great goods.  But joy is not yet entire and complete, because our temporal lives are still to run their full course and our healing is not yet finished.  God's renewal of his creatures is not instantaneous but extended, and so we find ourselves in an intermediate, imperfect condition in which joy is accompanied by affliction.

Affliction is not misery.  Misery is the abasement of spirit which comes from loss of God and good.  Affliction is the sorrow which occurs in our state of pilgrimage and promise.  In that state, Christians face not only the hardships shared by all the children of Adam, but also the distress known only to the people of God: the lingering presence of the old nature and its propensity to disorder and vice; the world's opposition to God and the people of God; above all, the incompleteness of union with the Lord, whose full presence alone can bring entire satisfaction, contentment and rest: 'at home in the body we are away from the Lord' (2 Cor. 5.6).

In this situation, Christian joy acquires a particular complexion.  'We rejoice in our sufferings' (Rom. 5.3).  We rejoice in our sufferings, that is, present joy is not unmixed, it exists alongside affliction.  But in our sufferings we rejoice, because the super-eminent reality which checks the scope of affliction and moderates the pain which it causes is the presence of God: once again, 'we rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ' (Rom. 5.11).

How do believers do this?  Weary of the tawdriness of the world, perhaps at times defeated by their persistent entanglement with what has been set aside at baptism, how are believers to fulfil the apostolic injunction to rejoice in the Lord always?  By Christian society and by contemplation.  Christian society coaxes us out of the self-absorption which is commonly brought about by affliction.  The joy which we cannot find in ourselves we may glimpse in others; seeing it, we may begin to set aside resentment and self-pity and debilitating sadness, and our lives may begin to unfurl and become newly expectant.  To contemplate God is to come to know that - contrary to our fears - we stand in the presence of the one who has made us joyful and who promises yet more joy.  Contemplation, prayerful attention to divine instruction, directs Christian intelligence and affections to that good which steadies and secures us now, and the future possession of which is that towards which our lives are moving.  Knowledge of present and future good generates joy.  

'My God and my Lord', Anselm prays at the end of the Proslogion, 'I have discovered a joy that is complete and more than complete...  I pray, O God, that I may know you and love you, so that I may rejoice in you.  And if I cannot do so fully in this life may I progress gradually until it comes to fullness.  Let the knowledge of you grow in me here, and in heaven be made complete; let your love grow in me here and there be made complete, so that here my joy may be great in hope, and there be complete in reality.  Lord, by your Son you command ... us to ask and you promise that we shall receive so that our joy may be complete...  God of truth, I ask that I may receive so that my joy may be complete.  Until then let my mind meditate on it, let my tongue speak of it, let my heart love it ...  Let my soul hunger for it, let my flesh thirst for it, my whole being desire it, until I enter into the joy of the Lord who is God, three in one, blessed forever.  Amen.'

John Webster is Professor of Divinity at the University of St Andrews. His books include Holiness and Domain of the Word; a two-volume work God Without Measure will be published in the Fall