The Scripture is clear that Christians’ lives, including their devotions, should be full of joy.
Joy in God is supposed to strengthen us: “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10). Your knowledge of God should give you joy, and joy is supposed to strengthen you to endure hardship and difficulties, which are inevitable in this life just as Jesus said they would be: “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33).
God wants us to have consistent joy. Our joy is not supposed to wax and wane like the moon. It shouldn’t go up and down like a wave on a stormy sea. Paul says to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4). God has done much for us in Christ, and therefore persistent joy is always what is requisite. “Rejoice evermore…for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16, 18). Consistent joy comes by considering all that God has done for you in Christ.
I suspect that many people nod their heads at this sort of thing but then think it’s naive to expect joy all the time. Whoever thought that up hasn’t experienced much of real life. They may even think constant joy is not desirable, because then they couldn’t grumble, complain, and nitpick as they want to do. Theologically minded people may think that having constant joy isn’t a good expectation because we live in a fallen world that is sin-cursed. We should hunker down, wait for a better time and place, and expect gloom now. Others might think that teaching people that they should have constant joy is close to a prosperity gospel—that perhaps it deludes people into thinking there aren’t any hardships in the Christian life. And yet, to all these objections, the Scripture still says “rejoice in the Lord always.” All these ways of thinking are clearly at odds with God’s expectations and desires for us.
Joy should be the norm. It is true, of course, that joy isn’t the only emotion we should and will experience! But whatever emotional condition God ministers to us, it shouldn’t edge out joy. God encourages us to fear doing evil, to be watchful against temptation, to be convicted of sin, to desire more progress in the Christian life, to sorrow over the fate of the wicked, or to feel horror at the idea of eternal punishment. All these things are right for us to feel at times, and sometimes such emotions should temporarily be prominent in our hearts. But joy is the Christian norm. Joy should predominate. There are very few things Paul says to do always, but rejoicing in the Lord is one of them.
The joy God wants us to experience is joy in Christ, not just happiness in general. The joy God wants us to always experience is a joy and a delight in Christ. “Rejoice in the Lord always.” If I said I rejoice in basketball, you would know what I meant: basketball gives me great joy. This means that the matter in which we find joy is Christ. Or you might say that the subject which gives joy is Christ. Many people seek joy in nature, sports, or travel, and there isn’t anything wrong with enjoying such things. But our joy must be rooted in Christ, not in things that a person who doesn’t know Christ can enjoy. Christian joy lasts when earthly comforts flee, and so it transcends physical comforts. A Christian’s joy should be specifically Christian. And that is what Paul is getting at when he says to “rejoice in the Lord always.” You may think that you enjoy Christ in nature, sports, or travel, and I would agree that you should do so, but if you find no joy in the revelation of Christ found in the Bible, I wonder about your enjoyment of creation—and you should, too. Those who love his gifts but not the giver are no friends of his. Ultimately you know what you love by how much thought you give to it. If you rarely think of Christ, your love for him is negligible.
What could be a sufficient reason to always be joyful in the face of all the downsides to life in a fallen world? There is a basis for experiencing constant joy, and it is the glorious person of Christ and his finished work. God is not advocating a baseless joy. He’s not promoting mindless catchphrases like, “Don’t worry, be happy.” The joy that God wants you to have is fully justified by the facts. True biblical happiness must be rooted in scriptural doctrine. Joy is a plant that grows in biblical soil. Remove it from that soil and it dies. There is no joy that pleases God that is not rooted to the truth of Scripture. Biblical joy is a response to what God has done for us in Christ. Joy should be continual because the results of Christ’s finished work are continual. To descend to gloom is to deny the greatness of his work. To allow depression to win the day is to belittle him and to say to him, “My problems outweigh your salvation.”
All of our struggles as Christians can be understood as situations in which our discouraging circumstances must be made to submit to the joyous truths of the Gospel. This means hardship and downers are actually opportunities to assert the transcendent greatness of Christ in your particular circumstances. The person who wants to fuel biblical joy must get plugged in to Scripture and biblical doctrine, particularly doctrine about Christ. That way, they constantly have truth about Christ in the forefront of their hearts and minds, truth that they can quickly wield and assert when joy must transcend a fallen world. Our Bible study and reading should be understood precisely this way—as expeditions into the sacred country of God in order to bring back the aromatic spices of Heaven to fragrance the air of the shadowlands.