Joy is always responsive. It’s not some permanent rank we earn or status we attain. Joy is more fluid than this, a response to something good happening or, we could say, something a person perceives as good. So true joy—joy that is genuine in God’s eyes—really depends on a person’s ability to delight in the right things.
People take joy in all kinds of things, often in things that may in actuality be unimportant or even bad. A college student may take joy in being invited to that weekend bender. A professional can take joy in the ruin of her rival. A man can take joy in finally convincing his lover to leave her husband. These experiences can be described as joy. But they are a tragic joy, a false joy.
True joy is the response of delight to what God delights in. It requires a person’s heart to be tuned to the right values; specifically, those things God finds valuable. Scripture is in large part the testimony of God’s delight, displaying in vivid hues what God considers beautiful and true. As Christians trust His Word by the power of the Holy Spirit, their hearts are tuned for joy in the right things. This heart transformation is the necessary condition of true joy; this is what Scripture means when it describes joy as a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22), a gift granted by God (Rom. 15:13), and a guaranteed outcome of a Christian continuing in the faith (Jude 24).
This well-tuned heart allows people to respond rightly to the situations that surround them. Remember, joy is a response to something. And Scripture describes this response as occurring to both near and far events.
Joy is often a response to near events. Terms for joy in Scripture sometimes emphasize the spontaneous happiness that comes from sudden, good events. Wise men from the east, “when they saw the star, . . . rejoiced” (Matt. 2:10). When the crowds of Samaria saw Philip send demons shrieking and paralytics walking, “there was much joy in that city” (Acts 8:8). Joy can be so immediately overwhelming that people falter in the moment, as with Rhoda’s hearing Peter’s voice and running off to tell everyone and forgetting to let him in (12:14) or the disciples’ being so overwhelmed at seeing the hands and feet of their once-crucified Savior that they “disbelieved for joy” (Luke 24:41). These events occurred right in front of their eyes.
Joy is often a response to far events. Jesus asked His Father to grant to His disciples a future joy that would preserve them after He left (John 17:13). And perhaps the most compelling example of a joy-filled response to events still far away was that of Jesus Himself, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). This joy was not immediate but anticipatory.
True joy is a mashup of the near and the far. A Christian learns to respond to the near in light of the far. He responds to the difficulty of his immediate situation as if the delight of his eventual situation were more important. In this way, true joy seems strange. David knew it: “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound” (Ps. 4:7). Perhaps the most direct instruction about joy provoking us to see the near in light of the overwhelming glory of the far is this: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2).