What Joy Meant Then
In his first letter to a church (1 Thess.), St. Paul identified the Christian journey’s four great words: faith, hope, love, and joy.
“We always thank God for all of you—mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember before our God and Father your work of faith, your labor prompted of love and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you . . . You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with joy given by the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess.1: 2–4, 6).
What is meant by this fourth word—joy? Why is it important to the Christian life? The answer lies in how the word shows up elsewhere in the New Testament.
James was bishop of the Jerusalem church when he wrote some brief and practical advice to the early church. Amid intense and growing persecution in Jerusalem, James decisively used the word joy. “Count it all joy my brothers and sisters when you meet trials because through the trials you will discover that God’s faithfulness endures and as this faithfulness works itself out in our lives it has a healthy effect” (James 1:1-4).
James was saying that joy happens as we discover through hardship and even persecution that God’s faithfulness outlasts the trials. On a physical level, it is something like a mountaineer after a successful summit climb and return: joy validated amidst real odds.
Our Lord used the word on the Thursday night of Holy Week. John’s gospel records Jesus’ words to his disciples. “I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy . . . So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:20-22). In this instance the source of joy is not our endurance but the Christ himself and his victory that turns our sorrow into celebration. “Your sorrow will be turned to joy.”
In his Philippians letter, St. Paul lists one more reason for joy: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:4–7 NRSV). If Jesus is alongside, then why should the Philippians panic? Paul clearly affirms that we can relax, in the word’s best sense, sure of the companionship of Jesus Christ the Lord. Here joy has the peaceful and quiet meaning of “well-being” from the living presence of Christ as our real friend, the near one whose peace guards our souls.
Joy is a powerful New Testament word—highly charged with feeling, and a robust and peaceful word. Joy meant all that then, and it does still.