Fake joy, evil joy, and joyless Christians.

by K.W. Leslie, 11 October

There are a lot of joyless people in the world. Sometimes it’s a clinical problem; I’m not talking about them today. If you need medication, get it. Same as if you have too much joy.

Nope; today I mean the fruitless Christian who rarely experiences great happiness, the proper definition of joy, because their fleshly attitudes simply don’t reflect the attitudes the Holy Spirit brings out in us. Instead of joy, they’re angry, argumentative, bitter, divisive, envious, faultfinding, hateful, humorless, pessimistic, and unforgiving. When they encounter joy, they’ll actually try to stamp it out.

What do they do instead of joy? As is typical of fruitless Christians, they’ll find something else in their character which they’ll try to pass off as “joy.” If they lack fruit, fake fruit will do them.

The most common false definition of joy is “a state of well-being.” It’s not happiness; it’s being content, comfortable, okay with the way things are. Happiness is fleeting, they explain. Contentment isn’t.

This redefinition has even wormed its way into dictionaries. Most of my Greek dictionaries correctly define hará/“joy” as gladness, great happiness, delight, gladness, merriment, cheerfulness, and the opposite of sorrow; which it is. But one of ’em also defines it as “a state of being calmly happy or well-off.” Which it really wasn’t. As Ceslas Spicq put it,

The proclamation of salvation is one of great joy, which contrasts with the pessimism and despair of first-century paganism. This explains why a large proportion of the occurrences of hará in the papyri are of Christian origin, why pagan occurrences of the word are so rare, and especially why pagan joy is never that of the soul. Rather, it is the pleasure felt by a traveler returning to his homeland, fervor in spreading false news, rejoicing at a welcome, especially at the good Nile floods, or popular jubilation; hence there is no religious parallel to the NT.

Theological Lexicon of the New Testament at hará

You wanna know why Christians misdefine joy? ’Cause they’re still kinda pagan.

(I have heard people attempt to defend the misdefinition by claiming the root-word of hará is heíro/“be well,” commonly used as a greeting. Of course words evolve, so to say they both kept the very same meaning after centuries of common use (kinda like our English words “hello” and “hail”) is naïve. Watch out whenever somebody tries to claim such things about ancient Greek: They don’t understand how languages work, and aren’t always coming to that conclusion for the noblest of reasons.)

Deriving joy from awful things.

Of course pagans can experience joy, same as pagans can be loving, kind, patient, and exhibit other traits of the Spirit. But Christian joy comes from the Spirit, and from good things the Spirit puts into our lives. Whereas the source of pagan joy doesn’t necessarily come from God. Humans find all sorts of ways to make ourselves happy. Some of those things are, to be blunt, evil.

In the Old Testament we see people rejoice over all sorts of things, including iffy things. Fr’instance wine comes up a lot. Jg 9.13, 1Ch 12.40, Ps 104.15, Ec 9.7, Is 22.13 Wine makes people happy. But not because wine lowers some inhibitions, people are friendlier instead of reserved or fearful, and everyone has a better time than they would. Often it’s because people get sloppy, get stupid, and people mock the stupidity. Or because people wanna get wrecked. It’s joy, but it comes from a bad place.

Likewise people in the Old Testament rejoiced after they destroyed their enemies. Yeah, sometimes the Hebrews were celebrating because God helped ’em overthrow oppressors. But sometimes the Philistines were celebrating ’cause they conquered their neighbors. Jg 16.23 You’ve seen how overly-competitive people get when their team wins. Vengeful people take way too much joy in destroying their foes. There’s a lot of savage joy out there.

I brought up mocking stupidity. There’s a lot of comedy which is based on mocking the stupid. On mocking our own stupidity. Pr 15.21 I’ve known drug users who love telling stories about the dumb stuff they did while high. Friends who love share stories about the pranks they fell for, their sexual misadventures, the dumb stuff they’ve seen or tried. You listen to them and shake your head in disbelief that they found these things fun. Yet they did. And would do ’em again.

Then there’s the folks who have a warped sense of humor. They laugh at inappropriate things: Misfortune. Insults. Other people’s discomfort, or “cringe humor.” Ridicule. Angry sarcasm; I can’t tell you how many times people have told me sarcasm is their second language. They don’t realize they’re not complimenting themselves.

Humor’s a side effect of the human self-defense instinct: We’re surprised or scared, so we laugh, and the reflex reaction floods our system with dopamine—which feels really good, but it also fights pain and helps with motor control, although we tend to ignore those benefits because, again, it feels really good. And one of the things which triggers it is an observation we weren’t expecting, or something absurd. We use it to be witty, silly, lighthearted, playful. But twisted people use it to poke, stab, wound, and hurt. Humor’s their weapon.

Hence these people have a lot of fun doing evil with their “comedy”: Tearing others down, criticizing everything they see (“but I’m just being realistic”), mocking sinners or political foes, destroying others’ lives with gossip or slander or socially embarrassing situations, taking revenge, putting down enemies, picking fights, getting drunk or stoned or having promiscuous sex. You know, works of the flesh.

Evildoers will justify their evil humor with any excuses they can think of. Plus rebuke those who dare to object to their harmful behavior: We “can’t take a joke,” or our sense of humor is defective. We’re legalistic or judgmental or intolerant. But when it rejoices and indulges in the works of the flesh, it’s evil joy. And when it can’t find any joy in “clean” humor, it’s a clear sign of fruitlessness.

See, godly joy shares the characteristics of the other fruit of the Spirit. But there is such a thing as evil joy, and it’s not loving, patient, kind, gentle, or generous. And for a lot of people, that’s the only place they find joy. To them, goodness is dull, righteousness takes all the fun out of life, and Christianity is boring. They wanna have fun. You’re not gonna convince them God is fun.

And joyless Christians sure haven’t helped our case any.

Patience isn’t joy.

Sometimes Christians are joyless because, back when they were pagan, all the things which used to give them joy, they can’t do anymore. Ever heard someone give their testimony, and watch their face light up just a little as they tell you all the twisted things they once did as a sinner? Then soberly, unsmilingly, they ended these tales with, “But now I have Jesus in my life. I don’t do those things any more. My life is so much happier now.” Well, somebody tell your face; it hasn’t got the news yet.

These people don’t yet know how to experience any form of joy that’s not based on hurting others. They have some growing up to do. But sometimes they never do grow up, and carry that joylessness throughout their Christian lives. Worse: They see other Christians having fun, and try to put a stop to it, because they worry we’re gonna slide into the same evil practices they used to do: “You kids stop that laughing. This is the house of the Lord. Behave!” As if the only way the Lord wants his kids to be is suppressed… and a little sad.

These are the folks who tend to redefine joy as patience. To them, joy means we put up with God. It doesn’t so much mean we enjoy him. It also means we tolerate our fellow Christians; not so much that we actually love them. It mean we slog through the difficult things in life; it doesn’t mean we seize control of our emotions and seek joy. Jm 1.2 The things which actually are joy—happiness, celebration—are foreign objects to them. They get in the way of the serious business of Christianity. They’re fluff. Distractions. Evil.

How sad for those people who think evil is good, and good evil. Is 5.20 They ruin all the fun of Christianity not just for themselves, but everyone.

Comfort and joy.

Joyless Christians don’t just mix up patience with joy, but comfort: You have “joy” when you’re comfortable with your situation. You’re content with things.

During Christmas we sometimes sing the carol, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” which includes the bit about “tidings of comfort and joy.” People get the idea these two things are a package deal; that they’re synonyms. Part of the problem is this is an old-timey song with old-timey definitions. The King James Version definition of comfort means “help.” Not safety, prosperity, wealth, nor relaxation. Comfort means we get the help of the Holy Spirit, our paráklitos/“helper,” KJV “comforter.” Jn 14.26, 15.26, 16.7 The Spirit sometimes helps us with material things, but not always. Even so, his help isn’t what we think of when we say “comfort.”

And being comfortable and content is not a fruit. If we’re comfortable, it means we removed any obstacles or irritants from our lives. Including some which really oughta be there. Fr’instance if some irritants are the result of bad behavior—say your liver is failing because you drink too much—a new liver will make you comfortable again, but it won’t stop the addiction. And plenty of Christians are guilty of eliminating our discomfort via the wrong route. Too many homeless people on the street in front of our building?—ban ’em and drive ’em off. Getting them help would take too long, be too frustrating, require us to love our neighbor when we’d rather not.

I’ve tried to preach Jesus in wealthy towns, and found it awfully hard. Comfortable people don’t feel they need anything. (And if they do, they can buy it!) So they don’t identify any need for God. Shatter these comforts with a disaster, and maybe they’ll turn back to God. Have a loved one die, a marriage end, a job taken away, an illness; they’ll try to strike a bargain with God, or be outraged he dared interfere with their comfortable existence. When God, in his mercy, takes our comforts away, they can no longer pretend he’s blessed them, or that it’s joy. All their bitterness comes out, and expose their bad religion for what it is.

But when times get rough, joyful Christians don’t lose our authentic joy. Good times or bad, we can still come up with it. Jm 1.2 Not because we’re in denial, but because our trust is in God, not our environment. We have him, so we’re rich. When we don’t, we’re screwed. Sometimes so angry at our losses, we reject God altogether.

Remember Naomi?

Ruth 1.20-21 KWL
20 Naómi told them, “Don’t call me na’ómi/‘pleasant’; call me mará/‘bitter.’
Because the Almighty has made me mighty bitter.
21 I left full, and the LORD brought me back empty. So why are you calling me Naómi?
The LORD answered me; the Almighty’s done evil to me.”

Naomi’s joy hadn’t come from God. It came from her comfortable circumstances. It came from her family. But they died, leaving her with two Moabite daughters-in-law, only one of whom went back to Judah with her. Little did Naomi appreciate Ruth was worth seven sons, Ru 4.15 for her culture hadn’t taught her to expect much of women, much less foreigners. All she could see was her loss. All her faith and hope were tied up in that.

We see this all the time among Christians who can’t get past our shattered expectations, who quit Christianity altogether. They follow the advice of Job’s wife; they curse God and die. Jb 2.9 The LORD’s joy isn’t their strength, Ne 8.10 so they have no such strength. Their wealth was their joy. The LORD had nothing to do with it.

The consistency of the Spirit’s fruit.

God’s character—which we see demonstrated by Jesus, and listed in the Holy Spirit’s fruit—is consistent. In the few times in the bible when it appears God isn’t being consistent, it’s done to grab people’s attention: “Wait, LORD, that’s not what you said in the past.” Because we followers should’ve learned by now what God sounds like. (That’s why it’s not a test he gives just anyone.)

Consistency means God will always be gracious, good, patient, kind, compassionate, peaceful, gentle, self-controlled, faithful, forgiving, and joyful. God will always be love. 1Jn 4.8 If any action God takes doesn’t strike us as loving, we’re interpreting him wrong. Either because we lack love, or are trying to find less-than-loving motives in an action we don’t like, or we otherwise don’t know God. Even when God is angry (which he sometimes is!) he’s love. Not “tough love”; love.

So the joy of the LORD isn’t gonna have different characteristics than God himself. It’s not gonna be based on evil: It won’t be unclean, unethical, argumentative, hate-filled, envious, divisive, partisan, overzealous, angry, or be based on promiscuous or stoned behavior. It might mock those works, ’cause God’s been known to mock evil. Ps 2.4 But the Spirit’s joy won’t act unlike the Spirit.

It’ll resemble love. It’ll have patience and behave kindly. Joy won’t go wild and out of control, or over-emphasize itself. It won’t provoke or do evil. It’ll have love’s traits. It’ll be, in many ways, the emotion which many Christians claim love isn’t.

Many of the Spirit’s fruits can be done in evil ways. I can be patient and self-controlled… as I plot evil. The Romans achieved peace by destroying all their foes, and many who “seek peace” wish to do just the same. We can have faith in the wrong gods. But what makes us identify these traits as fruit of the Spirit is the fact they all work together—and they all work together with love. And we can easily identify love.

So when your joy is based on God, it’s gonna have God’s love throughout it. It’s not gonna be evil. It can’t be.