Fruit of the Spirit 2: Joy
…that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
I have to admit that I didn’t do myself any favors when I made today’s bulletin cover. It portrays joy, yes, but the kind of stereotypical joy that I’m not really talking about in this sermon. When I say stereotypical, I mean the joy we often picture in our head—cheering, jumping, euphoria—an irrational, wild-eyed joy that is outside our control.
The fruit of the Spirit is found in Galatians 5:22-23, and the Greek word Paul used is χαρα. Joy is indeed a good translation for this word. But so is happiness. And it’s happiness I want to concentrate on this morning. To explain why, I’ll remind you of last week’s sermon, when I talked about love—not the kind of romantic love that our hearts have no control over, but the kind of love we can choose—the kind of love Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 13 when he asks us to choose kindness and patience and reject arrogance and lies.
Paul here isn’t talking about gifts that God has given us, but fruit that demonstrates our sincerity as Christians. So if joy is the kind of ecstatic reaction to something that we can’t turn off or on, then happiness is something we can choose.
And, in fact, this is scientific. We can actually look at happiness and see some of the nuts and bolts of how it works. And in this way, happy people aren’t just happy by chance, but often because they have chosen happiness. My friend, Lynda, actually wrote a book called A Short Course in Happiness,* and in it she outlines four things that happy people do. These four things make a lot of sense in the context of our faith, so I want to look at today’s fruit of the Spirit from that angle.
❦The first of these things is to focus on the positive. This sounds kind of shallow, I suppose, but it’s not really. To focus on the positive means that when we’re confronted with something negative, we don’t need to let that be the end. One simple strategy we can use to remind ourselves that our problems don’t need to define us is what my friend calls “the power of yet.”
Let’s say there’s a skill we need to advance at work, we might say, “I don’t understand this computer program.” Rather than using that simple fact to give up trying, we can change it to “I don’t understand this computer program yet.” This works especially well in our spiritual lives, too. Imagine that somebody did something that you can’t forgive. You might say, “I’m not able to forgive so-and-so”—and let’s face it, we’ve all got a so-and-so. If we add one simple word to that statement, it transforms it into a possibility: “I’m not able to forgive so-and-so yet.” Now we’ve got something to work on.
Which brings us to a fact about happiness: Happy people don’t focus on a problem; they focus the solution. And this makes a huge difference in churches, because it often seems like the contemporary world presents us with nothing but problems. But there really are solutions, and sometimes the things that started out as problems become positives if we allow ourselves to quit focusing on what’s wrong.
❦So we need to cope effectively with the negative—which is the second thing that happy people do. And we need look no further than ourselves to understand this.
For example, we’ve recently had a problem. A huge problem. Perhaps the biggest problem churches have been faced with for decades. And that was a pandemic that involved a lockdown. For a year, nobody came to church. We were scattered across Chardon and Geauga County, stuck at home, never seeing each other. This was certainly going to be the end of our little church. But we didn’t allow that. We did what we knew we could to stay together. This involved online worship. It involved prayer meetings on Zoom. And it involved regular contact with one another—sometimes casual, but often intentional.
This seems like a no-brainer. But many churches didn’t do this. And they grew apart. I honestly felt like we grew closer between March 2020 and April 2021. But members of some churches—and I know some of them personally, so this is not a made-up fact—honestly didn’t feel like that had a church that year. We were able to honestly face a problem without wallowing in it. Instead we saw the solution. And this is better than the fleeting euphoria that we often associate with joy. It created in us a deep happiness that comes with knowing that a real, seemingly insurmountable problem is not the end.
❦This last example dovetails perfectly with the third thing I want to talk about. And that is that happy people develop strong relationships. Naturally, this includes—often primarily—relationships with our significant others, our immediate family, or our close friends. But it also involves reaching beyond the obvious to other groups. And for many—if not most—of us, this means church.
Jesus was all about loving relationships, and that’s the main teaching he shared with us. He loves us, and our main job is to love one another. That was today’s scripture lesson. In it, love for one another is so intertwined with joy that it’s impossible to separate the one from the other in this section of John 15. This connection between the visible love of the community and happiness was seriously threatened during the pandemic, and I’m of the belief that this is the reason many churches have yet to recover from lockdown: Churches loved each other, but they struggled to find ways to show it when everyone was in isolation.
This caused a bit of conflict among us, didn’t it? But conflict will always be present in relationships. And it’s often conflict that helps us deepen our understanding of each other and it’s conflict that can help us grow. That’s because it’s not conflict itself that brings happiness, but the way we deal with it. It’s conflict that has forced us to think about what we believe and how we put our faith into practice—what we mean by words like love and welcome. This is what our community revolves around, and both concepts are very much about relationship.
❦Which brings us to the final thing I want to talk about today: Pursue meaningful goals. When you look at John 15, we see that love wasn’t simply something Jesus did and not just something he asked his disciples to do; love was his life’s goal—indistinguishable in this case from joy. He shared his commandment to love that his joy might dwell us and that our joy might be complete.
If New Testament Greek were our native tongue, we’d probably hear in that word complete the sense of being fulfilled, paid in full, or even making a sacrifice in order to gain or accomplish something. That’s what that verb πληρόω really means. And that original meaning is perfectly evident in the final words of today’s passage: The greatest love is found in giving up one’s life for friends.
Churches can have lots of goals. These might involve more members or a new building. And as people work together to make one of these goals happen, they grow closer. What’s interesting is that studies show that working toward a goal brings more happiness than actually reaching it. And this is one way in which church life brings happiness. Because whether we’re studying or employed or retired, it’s here that we work together to achieve meaningful goals.
Church might not be the only place where this happens. There are service clubs and other organizations. But church is probably the main place where this happens for most of us. Because it’s here that we explicitly make the connection between the life force of all creation and what we do with our lives. So let’s not shy away from goals that enrich that connection. Let’s constantly set for ourselves goals that involve giving of ourselves for others—goals that involve extravagant welcome and unconditional love. Let’s reach out to our community. Let’s feed the hungry, welcome refugees, stand up for the downtrodden, speak for the voiceless.
❦Paul has told us that the fruit of the Spirit is joy. But like last week’s fruit of the Spirit, love, joy is not an irrational emotion we have no control over. Joy is a deep-seated happiness that comes with conscious decisions that improve the quality of our life, our relationship with others, and the goals we set for ourselves. Joy does not come with denying sadness, but it can be strengthened in the way we confront sadness. Joy does not come with avoiding conflict. But it can actually grow when we deal with conflict.
We know that church brings us happiness. We knew this before covid, and we came to understand the extent of this during covid. Now let’s work together to understand how joy—and other fruits of the Spirit—work to bring us closer to one another and closer to the God we’re here to worship.
—©2022 Sam L. Greening, Jr.
* Lynda Wallace, A Short Course in Happiness: Practical Steps to a Happier Life, ©2013