You might not have considered that there’s a fight when it comes to your joy. Or maybe you haven’t thought much about your joy at all. Maybe you think of joy as an emotion that just arrives on its own; one you don’t have any control over. Maybe right now for you it feels easy to come by. Or maybe joy feels impossible and the idea of fighting for it sounds exhausting.
The truth is, we are all already spending our lives fighting for joy. We are joy seekers by nature. Longing for joy is hardwired in us and we orient our lives around trying to get it. Most of our decisions are, in some way, about our joy. Think about your job. Why did you choose it? Why do you like it? Why don’t you like it? Think about your relationships. Why do you maintain the friendships you have? If you aren’t enjoying one right now, why aren’t you? Why did you marry your husband/wife? Why do you hope to find a companion? If you’re a parent, what makes you elated about your kids and what are pain points with them?
Your answer to all of these things involves your joy! If we aren’t finding joy in our job, we look for a new one. If a relationship is constantly difficult we distance ourselves. If our marriage is painful, we want it to change. If we are lonely, we look to find our person. After a hard day, we pour the glass of wine or binge watch Netflix. When life feels mundane we look for adventure and purpose. We aren’t content to stay in broken, joyless places. And we shouldn’t be!
We were made for joy and we will do whatever we can to find it.
So, the question isn’t really, “Will you fight for joy?” The question is, “What kind of joy are you fighting for?” We can’t fight very well for joy if we don’t first identify what our pursuit is.
If I stopped here and asked you to explain joy, you may find it difficult to define. Our vocabulary feels limited to explain the depth of the experience of joy. Is it a feeling? A state of being? Does joy just happen? Generally, our tendency is to describe joy as a feeling of extreme happiness. When we think about joyful times in our life, we naturally think of times when life felt good, light, happy. This definition of joy is never more evident than in suffering. When we are in pain, all we want is the kind of joy that feels good, light, happy.
This was true for me in my suffering. My pain showed me the kind of joy I was fighting for. For years after my son died I wrestled with God for a sense of joy. I wanted it; I was willing to fight for it. But, it didn’t feel like joy would ever be an option for me again. The pain was too deep. The unending missing was too consuming. What eventually became clear over years of wishing for joy, but resigning to never have it, was that I was fighting for a version of joy that erased my pain. The problem with this version of joy is that my pain will never be erased this side of heaven. There is no amount of happiness or fun or thankfulness that will cause me to stop physically aching that I don’t get to know and hold my son. This is not just my story. We will all be touched by some degree of pain, or discomfort, or struggle in this life. So if joy ceases to be possible if there is pain, we’ve got very little to hope for.
The epiphany that I was fighting for a one dimensional version of joy set me on a quest to understand what kind of joy God intends for us to fight for. This led me to Philippians, which is widely considered to be Paul’s most joy-filled letter. Paul’s life wouldn’t lead most of us to joy. He was essentially homeless, beaten to the point of death, hungry, shipwrecked, mocked, his life in danger at all times. And on top of all of that, he bore the weight of the churches he was starting. Yet, he writes this relatively short letter from prison with an overtly joyful tone, mentioning joy directly seventeen times.
In this letter, he claims joy and thankfulness about the good fruit that has come out of his imprisonment. He rejoices in Christ being proclaimed and in his deliverance, whether it comes through life or death. If he lives, his joy is in continuing to do the work of the Kingdom, and if he dies, his joy is he will live in the presence of Jesus. He rejoices even if his life is to be poured out for the sake of the Philippians and the gospel. He has joy in the surpassing worth of knowing Christ over any earthly accomplishment or blessing.
Paul is directing us to what joy is, as well as what joy is not. Based on Paul’s life and perspective we can be sure that joy is not contingent on a pain-free life. It does not only exist when there is no struggle or trial. It can coexist with all manner of discomfort. And it can surpass the joy of earthly plenty and blessing.
So, what kind of joy does Paul have? It is clear in Paul’s description (and in many scriptures on joy) that joy is an emotion. It’s an expressive, powerful experience of emotion. But it is also clear that it is not only an emotion. If joy can exist in tandem with pain and longing, with the mundane and the dissatisfying, with plenty and want, then it must be more than a fickle feeling.
Paul’s joy is a deep, abiding, propelling force that puts his suffering and his greatest earthly gifts in perspective. His description of joy causes our greatest earthly gifts to become tastes of a greater joy in Jesus. And it gives hope and assurance and gladness, even while our pain seems to be flourishing.
Where is Paul getting this kind of expansive, unmovable joy? He is finding it in the “Surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus (Phil 3:8).” Knowing Jesus is his joy. All of his joy is tied up in being found in Christ. Everything else is rubbish to him. All trial becomes bearable and all blessing is put in its correct place because his joy is in the unshakeable experience of knowing Jesus.
This is the kind of joy we want to fight for. We want to fight for nearness to Jesus. The fight looks different for different people in different seasons.
Sometimes you will have to fight to know him when your trial tries to convince you to focus on yourself and not on him. Sometimes you will have to fight to believe him when your doubts are loud. Sometimes you will fight to know him when the blessings make you forget he is even better. Sometimes the fight is to bring him your hurt and your questions. Sometimes in the fight you will have to do what Jesus did in the garden before he went to the cross. You will have to fight in prayer, begging God to enable you to know him and believe his love for you, even with a cross looming ahead of you.
And he will do it. He will fight for you, and in you, when you think you can’t. He will make you like Jesus, who Hebrews says for the joy set before him endured the cross. With this deep, abiding joy of knowing Jesus set before us, we can endure this life in all its struggle and all its blessings.