July 17, 2016
Happiness comes from pleasant circumstances—but what about joy? The Bible states that Christians are to be joyful even when troubles come. In this message, Alistair Begg describes the deep-seated joy that is produced in believers by the Holy Spirit: joy that springs from our salvation and is based not on circumstances but on God’s grace. As the fruit of the Spirit is grown in our hearts, we can increasingly respond to difficulty with a joy that the world cannot explain.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Before we turn to the Bible, we turn to God in prayer. Let us pray:
Father, thank you for those ancient words of Bernard of Clairvaux. We long to drink from the fountain of your supply. We confess that like the people of old, we are so prone to hew out cisterns of our own and be confronted by how quickly they run dry and leave us empty. And so we pray that as we turn to the Bible now, that you will enable us both to think and to hear and to understand and to trust and to apply the Word of God to our lives. We confess freely our entire dependence upon you. And we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Last Sunday morning, we decided to take a break from our ongoing studies in Ephesians and take some of these summer Sunday mornings in looking at the fruit of the Spirit as provided for us in Galatians 5:22. I’ll just reread that for us: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”
We began last week by looking at love, which we said is the fountain out of which the others flow. We could easily have spent another week or two on that subject. And indeed, in looking at the matter of joy, to which we now come, it quickly becomes apparent that it’s worthy of an entire series of its own. But we don’t have time or opportunity for that. We need to gather our thoughts topically around this theme, and hopefully in a way that will be helpful to each of us.
Let me begin in this way. In 2009, speaking at a conference on the West Coast, someone came to me after the talk. I can’t remember what I was addressing, but they slipped me a note, which I have kept in my file ever since. It reads as follows: “Dear Pastor Begg: A friend was suffering through brain cancer and its treatments. His relationship with Jesus was such that the nurse on duty wrote as a critical comment on his chart, ‘Mr. X is inappropriately joyful.’ Since then,” says the writer of the note, “it has become one of my goals to be ‘inappropriately joyful.’”
Now, presumably, in that instance, the nurse was unable to see how joy could possibly accompany such dreadful and difficult suffering. It’s a fairly understandable reaction, isn’t it? And it allows us to make the distinction which we must make between happiness and joy.
Happiness, our English word happiness, is rooted in the Latin hap, which is “chance.” And so we tend to think of happiness—indeed, the pursuit of happiness runs—along lines which are invariably linked with health and with success and with possessions. Happiness is regarded largely as a kind of spontaneous response to temporary pleasures—the things that, if they’re going well, make us feel somehow inside that all is well with the world and we’re okay.
By contrast, joy is not determined by a sense of well-being, because joy may be experienced when things are ill with us—when, as some of us are this morning, facing illness, or dealing with bereavement, or facing the uncertainty of life without the job which has marked our lives by security to this point; when circumstances are difficult. So that if happiness depends upon what happens, joy is distinguishable from that inasmuch as it shapes our attitude to our circumstances and to our surroundings. That’s why we read from 1 Peter chapter 1, because I wanted to ground our topic in Peter’s statement there in verse 8: “Though you have not seen him”—that is, seen Jesus—“you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.”
Now, the progression is very important. “You don’t see him”—it’s not about perception in that way—“but you believe in him. And as you believe in him, you rejoice with a joy that is inexpressible”—what the nurse on that occasion, in that hospital, regarded as not simply inexpressible but actually inappropriate.
Now, this joy, then—and let’s make sure we understand this—this joy, Christian joy, is the natural, or, if you like, supernatural response of believing the gospel. “Well,” says somebody, “does that mean that only Christians understand the distinction between happiness and joy?” Well, no, I think we would have to say, and understandably, that those who are not Christians may also know a joy which is distinct from happiness. Those of you who have read The Road to Character by David Brooks will know that he writes in there about a joy which he refers to as “moral joy.” He says it is the joy of people who have “their values in deep harmony with their behavior,” so that that sense of knowing that my integrity is marked by a believing pattern of life which is then revealed in the things I do. He goes on to say it is that “quiet sense of gratitude and tranquility that comes as a byproduct”—notice the phrase—“of successful moral struggle.” Okay? So in other words, this is something that you have to give yourself to and make sure that you do.
So, I want to make a further distinction, all right? If there is a distinction between happiness and joy, there’s a distinction, then, which the Bible would point out between what Brooks refers to as this “moral joy” and what we will refer to as “Christian joy.” And the joy of the Christian is unique because at its heart is the joy of salvation. The joy of salvation. It’s not simply the sense of well-being that we have because we feel that our behavior is in line with our profession, but it is a far deeper and more significant joy. It is the joy that is grounded in the fact that we know all that God has done for us in Jesus to set us free from our sins, from the devil, and from death. It’s perfectly possible to know that kind of moral joy without having any understanding of this at all.
Our world this morning, as we’ve said routinely, is broken, it’s desperately ill, and I would argue that in Western culture, man is, at this point in history, as unhappy as he probably has ever been. So where, then, is joy to be found? Well, the Christian is able to say that there is only one cure for the ail of man—that when my conscience accuses me, there is only one thing that I know that can give me rest and peace and joy. And what is that? It is to know that Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, has forgiven me. It is to believe and to know that because he loved me and because he died for me, I am free of accusation; and that when my conscience accuses me, when I’m aware of my weakness, when I’m aware of my failure, when I’m aware of my lack of power to live as God intends for me to live, I am driven again and again and again back to that solid rock, the rock of my salvation. And that is the distinguishing feature of the joy that is produced in us—what the hymnwriter refers to as the “solid joys” and the “lasting treasure” that “none but Zion’s children know.”
Christian joy, as in love or the other parts of the fruit of the Spirit… (Remember, it is singular. These are not fruits but one fruit—one well-orbed, Christlike experience.) Christian joy is not manufactured by us, but it is fruit that is produced in us. And let me just illustrate again our point from last time so that we can make sure we understand it. Here I have a small Christmas tree, which is artificial, and a small orchid, which is real. This has one or two little ornaments on it. There is no life in it at all. The ornaments are attached from the outside, and they do look quite attractive, but nothing particularly helpful is going to happen as a result of that dead little ornament. This, on the other hand, is live at the moment. You just add ice, and it will last you for a very long time. Whether you can see it actually growing before your eyes or not, there is life and there is growth in this.
Now, there’s an approach both to the Sermon on the Mount and to the fruit of the Spirit which essentially says, “Come on, now, you Christmas trees, let’s start to add a little something to our lives.” Last week, “Let’s add a little love. You’re not as loving as you should be.” And this week, “Some of you are rather miserable, and so let’s have a little joy.”
Well, it’s just a chronicle of despair, isn’t it? Because we know ourselves to be so wretched and miserable by nature—even those of us who are rather happy sort of souls. What we actually need is a power outside of ourselves. We need a power that comes to invade us, a power that transforms us, a power that is going to make us what we are not by nature, a power that will make us what we cannot become by ourselves. And so it is the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit who comes to live in us—and if you read Galatians 5, you will see how Paul is working that out—enabling us to face up to all the storms of life. Because Christian joy is not a sort of inane grin that cannot be erased by a visit to the dentist or by a bad blood report. Christian joy faces head-on these things.
If we were to go through this morning with a roving microphone and unfold for one another the nature of our lives behind our smiles and our customary greetings, we would discover that we comprise a congregation that is marked by all kinds of challenges and fears and of failures but who, in the midst of that, are prepared to testify to these things. So it’s not philosophy. It’s the life-changing power of the gospel.
Pascal, the French philosopher and mathematician—the one famous for the God-shaped void—he said, in the seventeenth century, “Being unable,” he says, “to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.” All right? So that’s how we do it: “Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na. I’m not going to think about death. If I don’t think about it, it won’t happen. I’m not going to think about the wretched nature of a world in which men and women continue to do these things to one another. And I don’t want to think about the wretchedness of my own heart, where I am, by nature, envious, jealous, spiteful, and very, very angry. If I don’t think about it, I’ll be okay. I want to be happy.”
Well, that’s the sort of philosophical approach to it. Christian joy allows us to think about each of those things, allows us to face them head-on. Why? Because Christian joy is based on an objective reality; it is not based on subjective feelings. We go immediately wrong when we start to take our own spiritual pulse to determine where we are in relationship to these things. Christian joy is anchored in the facts of the faith. That’s why Peter is very careful in his language. He doesn’t say, “You feel this about your life.” He says, “You believe in him and [you] rejoice with joy that is inexpressible.” So in other words, what we believe about these essential things impacts how we handle all the other elements of life. It makes perfect sense.
I went on the BBC last night before I went to sleep, just to see what it had to say. And I found a wonderful piece on “Seven Ways to Find Happiness,” which I’ve decided not to share with you. It was pretty good. But again, it was all Christmas-tree stuff. It was all what you have to do. Well, what are we dealing with here?
Well, let’s do something that we don’t usually do. Let’s use the catechism—not just any catechism but the Heidelberg Catechism. And let’s put up on the screen, first of all, question one from the Heidelberg Catechism. A catechism is not something that happens to you if you go to the dentist. A catechism is actually an instructional method using Q and A. All right? And it begins, in the Heidelberg, in the sixteenth century, with a question: “What is your only comfort in life and death?”—a question which we now know Pascal has decided that, if you want to be happy, you don’t tackle; you just don’t think about it. But we need to think about it. “What is your only comfort in life and death?” Here’s the answer of the catechism. In fact, why don’t we read it together, and that’ll anchor it for us better than just myself reading it:
That I am not my own, but belong, [both] body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.
Well, that’s quite an answer, isn’t it? I don’t know what your answer was going to be, but that’s the answer the Catechism provides. We may want to memorize the answer just in case someone stops us in the street.
But it then goes on to question two. Here’s question two: “What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” The reason I get here is because of joy. “What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” Now, again, notice: the question is not “How do you need to feel if you are going to be able to handle this?” but “What do you need to know?” And then here is the answer. Let’s read this as well: “First, how great my sin and misery are; second, how I am delivered from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance.” Three things.
So, let me take us to the conclusion with three g’s and a j. Okay? This is three g, j: guilt, grace, gratitude, joy. Guilt, grace, gratitude, joy.
What is the first thing that I need to know? Guilt is not a politically correct subject, because it makes people feel guilty. But there is no awareness of immense grace and gratitude without an understanding of the reality of guilt. We have it classically in “Amazing Grace,” which is routinely sung and played throughout the nation, often, I think, without any real thought for what Newton was on about. He once was blind, he once was deaf to God’s voice, he once was guilty before God, and it was grace that allowed him to see.
You see, sin, according to the Bible, is first of all a condition. It is the state of our souls. Individual sins like envy and lust and racism and pride and arrogance and so on, all of those sins are symptoms of our condition. It is a condition that is a shared condition. Paul says in Romans 3, “All have sinned and fall[en] short of the glory of God.” It is not only shared, but it is also terminal: “The wages of sin is death.” It is also, as the Catechism points out, “miserable.” “Miserable.”
Now, whether a man or a woman feels that to be the case or not, it is an objective condition. It is, the Bible says, true of us all by nature. Part of the misery of being lost is not knowing that we’re lost. So when someone sits and listens, for example, to this first point under g, guilt, the temptation is to simply say, “This must be true for somebody else, but it surely isn’t true of me.” And then, if the lights go on, we find ourselves singing along with the rest of the congregation, “I once was lost in darkest night yet thought I knew the way.” “I was once absolutely lost. My condition before God was a miserable condition, but I had managed to anesthetize myself against it. I had managed, through temporary pleasures and evidences of my own success and progress, to make sure that I didn’t have to tackle it.”
You see, the answer to our sin and our misery is not trying harder to be what we can’t. The answer to guilt—and this is our second word—is grace. Grace: “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense”—what we’ve been seeing in Ephesians chapter 2. Paul begins Ephesians 2 reminding them, “And you were,” at that time, he says, at one time, “dead in [your] trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world.” And you follow his argument down, and he says in verse 4, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” So here’s the wonder of it: that by God’s grace, those who are dead and in need of resurrection find it in Jesus. By nature, I am enslaved and in need of liberation, and Jesus sets us free. By nature, I am condemned, and I am need of mercy, and God, who is “rich in mercy”…
You see, without an awareness of our sin and misery, a number of things inevitably follow. For example, let’s think about it now in terms of public proclamation from a pulpit like this. If the pastor is embarrassed by the notion of sin and guilt and misery, if the pastor is so concerned to make sure that he doesn’t offend against the perceptions and consciences of his congregation—especially if he’s preaching to a congregation that, when they have posed for themselves the question, “How can I deal and find joy in the face of life and death?” and the answer has come, “Well, I think if there is a God, as you say, and he’s a good God, then I believe that he will reward nice people if they simply do their best. And since I am a relatively nice person and I’ve been doing my best for some time, this is my confidence and this is my trust.” Now, the pastor, then, if he’s going to be bold enough to say, “No, we can’t go there, because the Bible doesn’t allow us to,” then the person in the congregation says, “Well, this must apply to the person next to me.” And when that happens, then, once guilt and sin and misery are removed, then there is no longer any need for a Savior. All you need now in Jesus is a supplement.
Some of you take supplements all the time. Some of you take supplements for your supplements. I never heard of so many ways that you can supplement everything. Every time you click online, there’s a supplement waiting for you. And basically, what it’s saying to you is, “You don’t really need this. We want you to think you do, but you don’t really. And it’s a useful addition to an already good life.” Is that your understanding of Christianity, that Jesus has come to supplement your already good life? Well then, you must bring that before the scrutiny of the Bible and see whether it actually fits the page. And when you realize that it is the reality of my sin and my misery and my guilt that gives way to the wonder of grace, then we’re on track.
You see, unless we go there, then the proclamation from the pulpit is just along the lines of self-improvement. The Sunday-by-Sunday sermons are advice for well-meaning people, encouragements, ways to suggest that you can hang on some good stuff onto the Christmas tree of your life. But it is an empty notion, and it is unsustainable. No, the Christmas story is far greater: “God [demonstrates] his love for us” in this: “in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And the Christian realizes, “I don’t know Jesus as a supplement; I need Jesus as my Savior.” That’s why we love when we sing Kristyn’s song:
What grace is mine, that he who dwells in endless light
Called through the night to find my distant soul
And from his scars poured mercy that would plead for me,
That I might live and in his name be known.
No, the only answer to guilt is grace, and the only right response to grace is gratitude. Gratitude. Karl Barth put it as follows: “Grace and gratitude belong together like heaven and earth. Grace evokes gratitude like the voice of an echo. Gratitude follows grace like thunder lightning.” And as gratitude follows grace, so joy follows gratitude. My friend Ben Patterson puts it like this: “Joy is the impact of the thunder of gratitude.”
We had some thunder during the week, didn’t we? Scared me, and my wife looked after me. It was wonderful. But it just came, a great cacophony of sound. The thunder went, and there was an impact from the thunder. Well, what is the impact from the thunder of gratitude, when a heart is filled with gratitude? It is a deep-seated Christian joy. It is not an inane grin. It is not a silly story about how I have been removed from the realm of reality and the rigors of life and the fears and failures and disappointments of experience. It is something that is far more substantial than that. It is an objective reality, in the same sense that our sinful condition is an objective reality. And it is on the strength of that objective, historical work of Christ upon the cross that one condition may be replaced by the other. That’s why the Bible is full of joy. That’s why we began this morning with Psalm 95: “Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord;” why the psalmist says at the end of Psalm 16, “In your presence there is fullness of joy; [and] at your right hand [there] are pleasures forevermore.”
How many joyful people do you know? And here’s the harder question. I was asking myself that during the week. I said to myself, “How many really joyful people do I know?” And then I said, “And I wonder, am I one of them?” ’Cause there definitely are hindrances to true joy, aren’t there? We need to stop, but let me just give you three words.
Number one is foolishness. Foolishness is a hindrance to true joy—the foolishness that Paul addresses in Romans chapter 1, where he says that God has revealed himself both in conscience and in creation, but man in his foolishness has turned his back on God, and his heart has become darkened, and he embraces all kinds of things that actually unravel all that God intends for him to be.
C. S. Lewis, in his Weight of Glory, observes this kind of foolishness. This is what he says:
We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he can[’t] imagine what is meant by the offer of a [vacation] at the [ocean]. We are far too easily pleased.
Are you here this morning, and you’re in search of joy, and you’re trying to find it down those dead-end streets? They are self-depleting. You know there is no answer down that road. To go down there is to convince yourself, as Lewis observes, we’re far too easily pleased—to try and find in these empty wells the life-giving water that is only found in the gospel. Foolishness!
True, deep-seated joy hindered by forgetfulness. Forgetfulness. Psalm 103: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” “You’ve forgotten,” he says. All the way—I was reading Jeremiah this morning, and the prophet speaking to the people says, “Have you folks forgotten what God did? Have you forgotten that he brought you out of Egypt? Have you forgotten that he has the only answer to the deepest longings of your heart? Have you forgotten that he has given you his commands?” and so on. And one of the great depletions of joy in the life of a genuine believer is that we have forgotten.
Why did Jesus give us Communion? So that we wouldn’t forget. So that we would never forget. We would never forget that when he died, he died in my place—that the punishment that I deserved, he took. That’s grace! Hence gratitude. Why spoil your joy?
Or by faintheartedness—grief, disappointment, harping back to forgiven but not forgotten sins. You see how it works both ways? We deplete our joy by forgetting what we should remember and by remembering what we should forget. The Evil One is the accuser of us, isn’t he? He wants to come and take you back through the garbage cans of sins long in your past and rob you of your joy. And if your answer to that is not to look out from yourself to Christ but to begin to look into yourself, then he will be successful, and you will lose. Because the only thing that he answers to and submits to and flees from is the truth that is found in Jesus.
No, what you may say then, if I’m at this moment not really conscious of joy… Well, did you notice this grow while I’ve been standing here? I wasn’t aware of it. But it’s okay. There’s life here. We don’t want to mistake the reality of a deep-seated joy by constantly looking for subjective expressions of it. That’s not to give on the one hand and take away with the other, but it is to recognize that some of the godliest saints have wrestled with this.
I was reading Spurgeon during the week, and he says something along the lines of “I have learned to be joyful in the aftermath of my illness, but I must confess, I was not joyful in the experience of my illness.” Then he says, “What am I then to say?” He says, “I am to say that I am a growing Christian, that I am learning as I go.” Spurgeon, if you read him, had dark days. Dark days. Cowper had the darkest of days. Cowper’s final seven years of his life, they were one slow slide into abject depression. When Newton preached at Cowper’s funeral, he acknowledged the same. Cowper, out of the depths of that, wrote,
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea
And [he] rides upon the storm.
See, what we need to remember is what we said last time in relationship to love, and that is that we’re not saved by joy; we’re saved by faith. We’re not saved by joy. ’Cause if you ask yourself, “Have you been as joyful as you should have been this week?” you’ll go, “No.” “Did you love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength this week?” “Mm-mm.” And so on. So where do we look? Well, we look here. We look to the objective reality of who Jesus is, what Jesus has done, and what it means to be in Jesus.
Ebenezer Erskine was a Scottish minister. He died in 1754. Spurgeon was a fan of Erskine. Spurgeon records how when Erskine was dying, somebody said to him, “Ebenezer, I hope you have now and then a glimpse of heaven to bear up your spirit under affliction.” All right? So he’s on his death bed, and he says, “Pastor Erskine, I hope every now and then you have a glimpse of heaven to bear up your spirit under affliction”—to which Ebenezer promptly replied, “I know more of words than of glimpses.” That is to say, he would rather trust the promise of God than his own glimpses of heaven. And I hope you will too.
Some of you have read that book about some little boy apparently went to heaven. I can’t believe how many people tell me they read that book. If you will read this book, you’ll never need to read that book. Are you going to be sustained by your glimpses of heaven? What if it wasn’t heaven you saw? What if it was a bad lump of cheese the previous evening? No, we need to say with Erskine, “I know more of words than I do of glimpses.” And Spurgeon went on to say, “You see, the joy of the Lord is what does the most damage to Satan’s empire of anything.” Satan can’t handle truly joyful believers. Satan can’t handle it when he tempts us to despair and tells us of the guilt within, and upward we look and see him there who made an end to all our sin. He can’t handle it. Says Spurgeon, “I am with Luther, who used to say when he heard any very bad news, ‘Come, let us sing a psalm and spite the devil.’”
 David Brooks, The Road to Character (New York: Random House, 2015), xvi, 262.
 Brooks, 25.
 Brooks, 262.
 John Newton, “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” (1779).
 Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 7.425.
 Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (New York: Penguin, 1966), 66.
 The Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 1.
 The Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 2.
 John Newton, “Amazing Grace,” (1779).
 Romans 3:23 (ESV).
 Romans 6:23 (ESV).
 The Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 3.
 Jordan Kauflin, “All I Have Is Christ” (2008).
 Ephesians 2:1–2 (ESV).
 Ephesians 2:4–5 (ESV).
 Romans 5:8 (ESV).
 Keith Getty and Kristyn Getty, “What Grace Is Mine” (2009).
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 4, The Doctrine of Reconciliation: Part One, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1936), 41.
 Ben Patterson, He Has Made Me Glad: Enjoying God’s Goodness with Reckless Abandon (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005), 159.
 Psalm 95:1 (NIV 1984).
 Psalm 16:11 (ESV).
 See Romans 1:19–22.
 C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: Macmillan HarperOne, 2000), 26.
 Psalm 103:2 (ESV).
 William Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” (1774).
 For Spurgeon’s anecdote, see C. H. Spurgeon, “The Fruit of the Spirit: Joy,” The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit 27, no.1582, 77. For Erskine’s wording, see Richard Burnham, Pious Memorials (London: Francis Westley, 1820), 342.
 Spurgeon, “Joy,” 83. Paraphrased.
 Charitie L. Bancroft, “Before the Throne of God Above” (1863).
 Spurgeon, “Joy,” 83. Paraphrased.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.