Back to the definition of joy. The world uses the words joy and happiness interchangeably. I often thought that happiness was based on circumstance whereas joy was not. But after studying the various passages of Scripture that talk about joy, I think there’s a little more nuance to it. Before we go deeper, let’s wrap our minds around what this three-letter word truly means. What is joy? Webster defines it thusly:
1. The passion or emotion excited by the acquisition or expectation of good; that excitement of pleasurable feelings which is caused by success, good fortune, the gratification of desire or some good possessed, or by a rational prospect of possessing what we love or desire; gladness; exultation; exhilaration of spirits.
JOY is a delight of the mind, from the consideration of the present or assured approaching possession of a good.
I think that last statement hits the nail squarely on the head. “Joy is a delight of mind, from the consideration of the present or assured approaching possession of a good.” In other words, joy is based on circumstances, just not necessarily present circumstances. Let’s flesh that out a little more by digging into Scripture.
“Joy” or some derivative of it is used 242 times in the NIV. Many times, joy is a result of something good happening—as a result of God’s blessing. God told the Israelites to “celebrate the festival to the Lord your God” and that “[He] will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete.” The Book of Esther records the Jews avenging themselves against their enemies, killing seventy-five thousand of them, and “on the fourteenth day they rested and made it a day of feasting and joy.” Even the women who discovered the empty tomb and the disciples were filled with joy after the resurrection and the ascension. In all these instances, joy and happiness are synonymous.
However, many other times in Scripture we see joy occurring or being commanded apart from happy circumstances. Consider the words of Habakkuk: “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.” Or consider the Thessalonians, who “welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” How about the recipients of Hebrews, who “suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of [their] property, because [they] knew that [they themselves] had better and lasting possessions.” We’re starting to get a glimpse of where this joy comes from and in what—or I should say Whom—it is rooted. But our best example is Jesus. Also in Hebrews, we read “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Think about that for a moment. Think about the horrors of the cross, about the loneliness of being abandoned by God, about the overwhelming weight of bearing the sin of the world. What must be the joy that could counterbalance that burden and make it worthwhile? What “joy set before him” could offset such agony? On a similar vein, Paul asked (and answered), “For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy.”
The biblical picture of joy, then, is one that is motivated by circumstances. But, as in Webster’s definition, those circumstances may not be current. Instead, we have “delight of mind” by faith. Paul told the Romans to be “joyful in hope.” Biblical hope is not wishful thinking, as in “I hope things all turn out all right in the end.” If it were, we would have no basis for being joyful. That would be like telling a sports fan to be happy, your team might win. No, I’ll be happy if and when they win. But what if the outcome was guaranteed, if victory was assured before the game was completed? That is biblical hope, the “anchor for the soul” referenced in Hebrews 6:19.
Peter wrote, “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” Also, “Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.” Isaiah foresaw this culmination: “They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” Indeed, so did the angel who appeared to the shepherds and said, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”
There is a lot more that could be said about joy, and I’ve included links to some more verses that address the subject. But let me conclude by bringing us back to James 1. Note that the author does not say, “Have joy whenever you face trials of many kinds.” He says “Consider it pure joy.” This is an action word. The Greek is hégeomai, which carries the connotation of making something (joy) the foremost or primary thought. As we observed, sometimes joy will spring from present circumstances, and it comes naturally. But when the joy-inducing circumstances—our eternal deliverance and salvation—are far off, being joyful requires actively contemplating and weighing the eternal and the temporal—as did Jesus when it came to the cross. Doing so enables us to “Rejoice in the Lord always” and even “when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil,” because “great is your reward in heaven.” Focusing on the eternal, and the joy it gives us, enables us to endure even the worst circumstances because we recognize they are temporal—and temporary—and “are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”
Considering it pure joy is admittedly far easier said than done, and I write this as one who struggles to be joyful in the present reality for a future promises. Disciple is involved in considering it pure joy. As Paul prayed for the Romans, so now I close by praying for you and me, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
 James 1:2
 James 1:3-4
 American Dictionary of the English Language, “joy,” accessed April 25, 2017, http://webstersdictionary1828.com/Dictionary/joy
 See I Kings 8:65-66; II Chronicles 30:26; Psalm 92:4, 126:3;
 Deuteronomy 16:15, emphasis added
 Esther 9:17, emphasis added
 See Matthew 28:8; Luke 24:52
 Habakkuk 3:17-18
 I Thessalonians 1:6
 Hebrews 10:34
 Hebrews 12:2
 I Thessalonians 2:19-20
 Romans 12:12
 I Peter 1:8-9, emphasis added
 I Peter 1:13
 Isaiah 35:10
 Luke 2:10-11
 See also Psalm 5:11, 19:8; Isaiah 26:19; Jeremiah 15:16; John 15:10-11, 16:20-24; Philemon 1:7; Colossians 1:12; and Jude 24-25
 Philippians 4:4
 Luke 6:22-23
 II Corinthians 4:17
 Romans 15:13, emphasis added