Banking is boring. Or, at least, that is what most people think—that is, unless you’re the son of a banker, which I am. You see, every once in a while, my dad would bring me to work with him and occupy me with whatever he thought a ten-year-old boy would find interesting in a bank. I always ended up staring at the counterfeit money display—a medium-sized case that showed, side by side, real and counterfeit money along with how you could tell the difference.
Being able to tell the difference between real and fake money isn’t just interesting to a kid in a bank; it is also an important illustration, especially when it comes to telling the difference between real joy and fake joy. You may not have directly correlated the value between money and joy, but consider how important joy is. Joy tells us what we value most in life; it defines us as people. So, can you spot counterfeit, or superficial, joy? To do so, you must be able to tell the difference between four types of joy—fake, fickle, fading, and forever.
Forever joy is the Christian’s possession in suffering and prosperity, in this life and the next, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Fake joy is the most egregious forgery of true joy. Fake joy is the joy people take in sin, the bait on the hook of temptation. It was the joy of sexual conquest that led David to commit adultery with Bathsheba and the joy of getting away with it that led him to have her husband killed (2 Sam. 11). This fake joy and its hollow allure make sin possible and repeatable. Fake joy is no real joy. It is only sinful, lustful desire parading as joy, causing momentary delight even as it poisons your soul. So, our first rule for spotting counterfeit joy is this: True joy can only be found within the bounds of God’s law.
The second kind of joy is fickle joy. Fickle joy is delight contingent on circumstances. When life is going well, happiness abounds, and God’s nearness is assumed. When life is doldrums, depression, and darkness, fickle joy is nowhere to be found, and God must be far, far away. While true joy resides in both pleasant and terrible circumstances, circumstances can also mask true joy, especially in suffering. So, fickle joy is just that, fickle and fair-weather. And this is our second rule: Circumstances can neither produce nor detract from true joy.
The third type of joy is fading joy, a type of joy rooted in God’s common grace to all men. If you’re a human being, regardless of your spiritual state, God has blessed you (Matt. 5:45). And those blessings call forth joy as a response to God’s gracious blessing. These blessings include a variety of things such as talents, family, possessions, health, achievements, the beauty of a sunrise, and even lessons learned through difficult trials. This is a true joy, present in all circumstances, experienced by all people; nevertheless, it is a fading joy. It is fading because this world and all the goodness it has to offer are not all there is. If you gain the world and have not God, you have nothing. And so we have our third rule: The best this world has to offer is fading joy.
The fourth and truest type of joy is forever joy, so named because it is a joy that comes from and is directed back toward the eternal God, a joy that is the unique possession of Christians. Forever joy is the delight that God has in Himself, in His creation, and in His redemptive mission. It is only through faith in Jesus that you, as a Christian, come to share in and experience this joy. As you glorify God, you share in the delight He has in Himself. As you look over creation, you see it not just as beautiful but as revealing the beauty of God as its Creator. When you reflect on your salvation, you joyfully revel in the electing grace of God toward you, undeserved and rich. It is this joy that is the Christian’s possession in suffering and prosperity, in this life and the next, through Jesus Christ our Lord. And this, then, is our last rule: True, lasting joy is found only with God in Christ.
You’ve now seen counterfeit, superficial joy and the real thing side by side. You’ve picked up four rules to serve you as you examine your life. Do not settle for cheap, forged joy. Press on to lay hold of true, deep joy. The Westminster Shorter Catechism has it right when it says that the Christian’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, because, in the end, joy is only as good as its object.
Rev. Joe Holland is an associate editor for Ligonier Ministries and a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.