Joy is defined in the dictionary as an emotion. Merriam-Webster defines joy as “the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires” or “the expression or exhibition of such emotion.” Joy is also described by some as “an agreeable affection.” But an affection is also defined as “a feeling” or an “emotion.” Unfortunately, most Christians regard joy solely as a feeling or an emotion.
That’s why “preaching” in modern churches is always positive and motivational. That’s why the music in modern churches is always stimulating and exhilarating. They want Christians to feel joy and express and exhibit the emotion of joy.
David Cloud, in his Way of Life Encyclopedia of the Bible and Christianity says, under the entry for Joy, “There is a great danger in identifying Christian joy solely with emotional pleasure, with a spiritual gaiety.”
The danger of identifying Christian joy with emotional pleasure is threefold. First, when a person feels joy, he’ll assume that his relationship with God is good. However, he may not even be saved. His faith is not in the word of God but in his emotional joy. Second, if he feels sadness or depression, he’ll assume that something is wrong in his relationship with God, or that God has abandoned him. Hence, he’ll ride an emotional roller coaster which will become his spiritual barometer. That’s very dangerous. Third, his aim will be to experience the feeling of joy as much as possible. It won’t matter to him whether the source of that joy is Biblical.
It is very important, therefore, that we distinguish between natural joy, which is emotional, and spiritual joy, which is not emotional, though you may feel joy when you have spiritual joy.
Natural joy is the feeling derived from some pleasure, delight, success, accomplishment, etc. See Jn 16:20-22. There may be a spiritual reason for the joy, but it is obviously an emotion. Thus, the happy feeling associated with the event will wax at the occurrence of the event and wane over time.
Spiritual joy is derived from the Lord. God gives joy [Ecc 2:26]. Neh 8:10 speaks of “the joy of the Lord.” Gal 5:22 says that joy is the fruit of the Spirit. Jer 15:16 says that God’s words are the joy and rejoicing of our hearts. This joy comes from God and is not subject to your emotions. As you can infer from these texts, being in the will of God, being nourished in the words of God and being filled with the Spirit result in greater spiritual joy. Our ultimate joy will be realized, of course, when we are in the presence of the Lord at his return [Jude 24; Ps 43:4].
Since spiritual joy is not an emotion, you can have spiritual joy even while you’re feeling sorrow [2 Cor 6:10] (that is joy in the absence of natural joy). You can have spiritual joy in tribulation and trials [2 Cor 7:4; Jas 1:2; 1 Pet 4:12-14]. You can have abundant joy in the midst of affliction and poverty [2 Cor 8:2]. And so forth. Spiritual joy doesn’t wax and wane with the changes in your emotions. Rather, spiritual joy continues throughout your spiritual life regardless of the emotional state in which you find yourself [1 Pet 1:6-9]. That’s why Peter calls it “joy unspeakable.”
Conclusion: don’t confuse your natural joy with spiritual joy. They are not the same thing. Don’t try to strengthen your spiritual joy by increasing your natural joy. Obedience to the will of God, the word of God and the Spirit of God will strengthen the joy of God in your life.