Joy, Part 2

I asked commenters recently to evaluate the following definition:

Joy is the feeling that comes from something good happening to an object you love.

And now for my view: I agree.

I believe it’s especially important that we view joy as a feeling, an emotion.

Here is a brief excerpt from an otherwise helpful reference work that apparently disagrees, the New Dictionary on Biblical Theology:

Joy is a quality, and not simply an emotion, of which God is both the object (Ps. 16:11; Phil. 4:4), and the giver (Rom. 15:13).

What is a “quality”? Whatever it is, it’s not an emotion. It’s apparently something more.

Let’s try the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, which claims that joy is a “positive human condition that can be either feeling or action. The Bible uses joy in both senses.” Joy as feeling, says the BEB, is “called forth by well-being, success, or good fortune. A person automatically experiences it because of certain favorable circumstances. It cannot be commanded.”

Here’s what the BEB has to say about “Joy as Action”:

There is a joy that Scripture commands. That joy is action that can be engaged in regardless of how the person feels. Proverbs 5:18 tells the reader to rejoice in the wife of his youth, without reference to what she may be like. Christ instructed his disciples to rejoice when they were persecuted, reviled, and slandered (Mt 5:11, 12). The apostle Paul commanded continuous rejoicing (Phil 4:4; 1 Thes 5:16).

The way to tell if an instance of “joy” in the Bible is “feeling” or “action” seems to be this: if it’s too hard for you to feel this joy, it must only be an action.

No, the BEB is wrong. Joy is commanded. And joy is joy. It isn’t action, though it inevitably produces action.

Many theologians and reference works try to turn joy into something otherworldly, super-spiritual, something deeper than and distinct from emotion. It’s hard to avoid the feeling (sorry) that they’re trying to lower God’s bar. God actually means for His people to “rejoice evermore.” If we don’t—if we can’t—the answer is not to redefine rejoicing but to depend on God for grace to produce this fruit of the Spirit in our cold hearts.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

1 thought on “Joy, Part 2”

  1. I’m still going to have to disagree with you here. It’s not so much that I am saying joy is not an emotion (I’m still thinking through that one). The problem is that if you’re going to use the definition as it stands for your basic understanding of joy, then by definition, joy includes both positive and negative feelings.

    Again, chastening is my counter example (and remember by the rules of logic that it only takes *one* counter example). Are you saying that joy is the negative, “it’s going to hurt me more than you” feeling that you get when you have to punish someone under your authority and love? By your definition, it is, unless you’re denying that chastening is good.

    Assuming that joy is merely an emotion (again, I’m still working on that one), then a better definition would be: “Joy is the *positive* feeling that comes from something good happening to an object you love.”

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