A friend of mine who has a PhD in counseling told me that joy is the emotion that is hardest for us to let ourselves experience. We rarely let ourselves do joy well. Living with joy is hard. I know I’m a lot better at living out of duty, or fear, or effort — or a billion other things — than I am at living out of joy. And I’m probably not the only one.

Why joy is hard for us? To answer that question, we must first answer another: what is joy?

This is where Christians traditionally note the difference between joy and happiness. We can intellectually make such a distinction, and it can be helpful to point it out. But we should also know that in the mind of the psalmist, there is no such distinction. Neither linguistically in Hebrew nor conceptually in the Psalms is there a difference. Joyful means happy and happy means joyful in the vocabulary of the Psalms. To the psalmist, “blessed” equals “happy” equals “joyful” — they are terms with heavily overlapping meanings.

Here is why it matters to point that out. Some Christians seem unable to be sad enough about things that have gone very wrong in their lives or in the world because they have overread the distinction between joy and happiness.

Some horrible things happen in the world, and those things must be called what they are — and felt for what they are. If you lose a child, you don’t feel happy — you feel gutted inside in a way you cannot even explain. If you lose your house and have to declare bankruptcy, you don’t feel happy — because it is not a good thing. If you crash out of college and have to come home and get it together again because you failed all your classes, that should not make you happy. Even more so when you look at the evils that still prevail so much in our world: if we are not torn up inside about the evil in our world, if we are not sick in our gut, then we are not listening.

A Christian who is banally and formulaically joyful always runs the risk of never really being in touch with this world or with his or her own emotions, because this world is fallen, stained through and through by sin. And so are we.

And this gets to the heart of why, at least for many of us, it is so hard to let ourselves feel joy — because there are so many awful and evil and wrong things in this world, and when we know the grief is coming, we get self-protective. We’re not able to abandon ourselves and just feel the joy, because we know things will probably go wrong again, so we temper ourselves. We limit our own joy, so we won’t feel the crash later and feel sad.

Now the real irony: you and I were made for joy — for happiness. The Westminster Shorter Catechism begins by asking, “What is the chief end of man?” and answers “To glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” Joy. It’s what God made us to be — you were made by a God who is your good daddy and — like all good daddies — he wants his children to be happy, to have joy. It’s what we were made for. Without sin, joy is our natural state.

What that means is that we can’t really squelch the search for joy. What happens is that we won’t let ourselves experience a full deep joy, so we start chasing sources of cheap joy — cheap thrills that we substitute for joy.

So where can we turn to find this elusive joy? Psalm 33 teaches us that we find joy when we find it in God, not in all the other things we usually chase.

1 Shout for joy in the Lord, O you righteous!

Praise befits the upright.

2 Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre;

make melody to him with the harp of ten strings!

3 Sing to him a new song;

play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.


4 For the word of the Lord is upright,

and all his work is done in faithfulness.

5 He loves righteousness and justice;

the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.


6 By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,

and by the breath of his mouth all their host.

7 He gathers the waters of the sea as a heap;

he puts the deeps in storehouses.


8 Let all the earth fear the Lord;

let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him!

9 For he spoke, and it came to be;

he commanded, and it stood firm.


10 The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing;

he frustrates the plans of the peoples.

11 The counsel of the Lord stands forever,

the plans of his heart to all generations.

12 Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord,

the people whom he has chosen as his heritage!


13 The Lord looks down from heaven;

he sees all the children of man;

14 from where he sits enthroned he looks out

on all the inhabitants of the earth,

15 he who fashions the hearts of them all

and observes all their deeds.

16 The king is not saved by his great army;

a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.

17 The war horse is a false hope for salvation,

and by its great might it cannot rescue.


18 Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him,

on those who hope in his steadfast love,

19 that he may deliver their soul from death

and keep them alive in famine.


20 Our soul waits for the Lord;

he is our help and our shield.

21 For our heart is glad in him,

because we trust in his holy name.

22 Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us,

even as we hope in you.

Consider all the things the psalm discounts as our hopes. Verses 16–17: “The king is not saved by his great army, the warrior by his great strength. The war horse is a false hope of salvation, even with its great strength it cannot save.” Those are the things that an ancient Israelite leader would be tempted to have as his source of joy. “Look at my ability — I can win. Look at my army — I am secure. Look at my horses and chariots — I’ve made it. I can relax and take joy.”

What are the plans we pursue for finding joy? Fundamentally, we try to take joy in our circumstances, and we try to manufacture and control those circumstances by creating the thing that will make us happy. We think joy is just around the corner, in the next thing we make happen.

But the psalm says that when we chase joy, we never find it. Look at verse 10 again: “the Lord frustrates the plans of the peoples.” We make our plans, and we take joy in the fact that they work. Except they’re a false hope.

This is one of those areas where both the stars and the psychologists have noticed the Bible’s truth. Back in 2011, a Yale psychologist named June Gruber did a review on the pursuit of happiness. And if you read the full review article, she and her coauthors basically went in expecting the pursuit of happiness to be a good thing — because if you take out God, what’s left as an ultimate goal but pursuing your own happiness?

And they were a bit surprised, she writes, to find that pursuing happiness can lead to negative outcomes. Not because, to drift into using their words, not because surrounding yourself with positive people, mastering a skill, smiling, getting therapy, or practicing self-governance aren’t conducive to happiness, in and of themselves, but because “when you’re doing it with the motivation or expectation that these things ought to make you happy, that can lead to disappointment and decreased happiness,” says Gruber.

Tom Brady put it this way in his fairly famous interview right after he won his third Super Bowl: “Why do I have three Super Bowl rings and still think there’s something greater out there for me? I mean, maybe a lot of people would say, ‘Hey man, this is what is. I reached my goal, my dream, my life.’ Me, I think: ‘God, it’s gotta be more than this. I mean this can’t be what it’s all cracked up to be. I mean, I’ve done it. I’m 27. And what else is there for me?”

And when he was asked what the answer was, he said “I wish I knew; I wish I knew.”

Where are you looking for joy?

We’re looking for joy in all the wrong places. And what we find, if we keep looking there long enough, is that every one of those is ultimately a drug — one that requires greater and greater doses until it destroys us. Because you and I were made for joy, but we were not made to find it in these things.

But the great news of the Bible is that there will be a time when joy is easy. The Bible teaches that we were made for joy — that it was once easy — and that it will be so again. Adam and Eve began life looking in the face of God, fully seeing their Creator, knowing God. And joy was not hard — it was everywhere — because the world was made for it. The creation sang with joy to God who made it, and Adam and Eve joined the song.

The great news of Scripture is that, in Christ, it will be so again. The Bible can feel like an odd book, if I can put it that way. It gives us two chapters to tell us the way the world ought to be — a tiny picture of the world without sin — the first two chapters of Genesis. And then it gives us two chapters to show us the way the world someday will be — the last two chapters of Revelation. And everything in between reflects the world we actually live in — which was made to be good and perfectly joyful but is now marred and fallen by sin.

But we know the end of the story. And the end of the story echoes the beginning — except better. Because in Christ, our joy will be made complete. The world will be returned to what it ought to be, what it was always made to be.

One of the interesting things we notice about this psalm if we read closely is that it is full of royal imagery.

Verse 10 again: “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing.” The enemies of the author are other nations. Verses 16 and 17 again: “The king is not saved by his great army.” This psalm is largely in a royal context. In its original context it focuses largely on a king — the king of Israel — and his trust in God.

And that shows us how Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of the hope of this psalm. “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing.” On Good Friday, 2000 years ago, the plans of the leaders of the nations were to destroy Jesus. The temple leaders and Jerusalem authorities handed him over to the Romans to crucify him, to take care of this rabble-rousing rabbi who claimed to be more than just a rabbi, but they’d realized actually claimed to be God incarnate in the flesh. Their plan was to solve this Jesus problem by killing him.

Verse 16: “The king is not saved by his great army.” In the Garden of Gethsemane, when Christ was arrested by the Roman soldiers, Peter pulled out a sword and started to defend Jesus. Jesus says in Matthew 26, “Peter, put your sword away. Don’t you know that I could call on a whole army of angels to come save me if I wished?”

What does an army do for a king? It saves him from death on the battlefield. And the psalm talks to the king and says, “Don’t trust in your army; don’t trust in your chariots and horses; don’t trust in your own prowess on the battlefield; don’t trust in your diplomacy.” Those are all the things that a king thinks save him from death, but they don’t, not really. It’s God who saves from death — a trust in him alone is the only true deliverance for the king of the Jews.

Christ is the true King of the Jews, and he was tempted by Satan to be saved from death by all of those things — his own power, his position as the beloved Son, his right as a king. But he laid aside all of those things and was instead saved from death by trust in God. Then on the third day he rose from the dead, not by an army that saved him from ever dying, but by the will of the Father who delivered him after death as conqueror over it. He, the true king of Israel, was saved by being the king Psalm 33 calls for.

And Scripture tells us that our king is coming back. The Christian hope is that this world is not all there is. We often talk about eternal life with Jesus, and people think, “More of this. No offense, but my life stinks right now. I don’t want eternal life.”

Eternal life isn’t just more of this. It’s a time of eternal joy. We were made for joy, and when Christ comes back, we will have it fully.

The same counselor friend of mine taught me a lot about the concept of primary versus secondary emotions. It roughly works like this. We have some emotions that we feel straight up — they drive the bus. Others are a result. For instance, anger is a secondary emotion — it is often a response. We feel embarrassed, and so we go on the attack; we get angry to cover our embarrassment. Or we feel frustrated, so we launch into an angry response.

Well, as we live in this current, fallen world, joy often seems to become a secondary emotion — we pursue something else, and then we get joy. But when Christ comes back, joy will be a primary emotion, even we might say the primary emotion. We will feel joy; we will have no concerns that the other shoe is going to drop; and we will be able to simply rest in and let ourselves go in that joy. Because it will be eternal.

It is as if we’ll go through the wardrobe and enter a new land. Reality itself will change such that the world with which we struggle now is fundamentally changed. The things that cause us pain and struggle will no longer be. And the joy that is partial in this world will be full and eternal.

The Bible’s imagery of eternal life is that of feasting. And for those of us who have lived with food security for our entire lives, this image can lose its punch. But put yourself back into the life of an ancient near eastern farmer. It was live or die, year by year, based on whether the rains came or not. And often they didn’t. Many of your children had died in famine. You always lived in fear of not having enough to eat, and you knew well the pain of hunger and even the malaise of being on the edge of death, when your body generated only enough energy to keep your brain and heart going.

And to that person, to give an image of eternal life, the Bible says, “It’s one continual feast, gorging yourself with abandon, because you will never run out.” That was the best possible image of eternal joy for an Israelite to hear.

So, what would it mean for us to grasp this, to have a similar image? C.S. Lewis titled his recounting of his conversion “Surprised by Joy.” Where have you been surprised by joy, just for a moment? It happens when something suddenly delights us in a way we never saw coming, and for just a second we are a little child again, swept away by a momentary wonder.

Adults recover quickly — because we have trained ourselves to not experience joy, as we said — but it still sneaks up on us for a moment here or there, where we suddenly and surprisingly find ourselves delighted. For some it is that moment of a sunset, or a mountain view, or a look at the ocean. For others it is that moment when we realize someone really cares for us — me. Something, somewhere has the power to make us suddenly lose ourselves in delight. For ancient Israel it was the rarity of a feast.

What is it for us? Now multiply that feeling that jumps us for just an instant by eternity. That is what we have to look forward to when Christ comes back — joy will be the primary emotion, and it will be eternal. Someday, joy will be easy for us.

But what if we aren’t joyful now? After all, I believe in God, and you quite possibly do as well if you are reading this. And I believe these things about God. I believe Jesus will come back. Yet my counselor friend is right — I still do not live with joy as a primary emotion. Because, as we’ve said, we live in a world that can so quickly eliminate our joy, and we are always so worried about losing it that we unawares think it would be better to not experience it so fully at all, because if we get our hopes up, they might be dashed.

So, how can we have joy now?  We need to recognize that the psalmist lives in the same world you and I do. Look at the end of the psalm, verses 20-22. This is a psalmist waiting on joy, not fully experiencing it yet. The structure of Psalm 33 is interesting in that regard. Psalm 33 has three verses of commands (v. 1-3), sixteen verses of why we should follow those commands (v. 4-19), and then three final verses (v. 20-22) indicating the psalmist’s commitment to live out that command.

And that last section is a commitment to live out of joy, even while the psalmist waits for God to set all things right. Verse 21 states: “For our heart is glad in him” — in other words, happy. In other words, in the psalmist’s lexicon, “joyful.” We live in a world where joy is often a choice, and where our joy is often incomplete, because we wait for Jesus to come back.

But to say our joy is incomplete is a very different thing from saying we are joyless now. Quite the opposite! The call of the psalm is to have joy now — not just in the future. In other words, we ought to be happy now — not in the trite happiness of circumstances or the false happiness of the idols we chase, thinking that our achievements or success or wealth or reputation will make us happy, but in a deep gospel happiness, a happiness that comes from outside us, a breaking in of that future happiness — which will be complete — into the world in which we live now.

Psalm 33 gives us three anchors to help in that process, three things that help cement our happiness now. Here’s how it works. If I know there’s happiness to come, I can handle the now, and I can even take joy in the current situation, because I am able to look forward to what is to come. If we can get our eyes up and look at where we are going, we feel the joy even now. So, how do we get our eyes up? Psalm 33 gives us three things that do that:

First, in verses 4–5, we see God’s character: “The Word of the Lord is upright, and all his work is done in faithfulness, he loves righteousness and justice, and all the earth is filled with the steadfast love of the Lord.” The psalm tells us who God is, and he’s good. We take joy because that is our God — righteous and loving, faithful and steadfast. Not capricious, not unknowable – but a good, good Father.

Second, in verses 6–9, we see God’s power in creation. Verse 6 — he simply spoke the world into being. Verse 7 — he can gather up the ocean like putting it in a jar. Verses 8 and 9 — “Let all the earth fear the Lord, for he spoke, and it came to be. He commanded and it stood firm.” The psalm tells us God’s power. That he has only to speak a word, and creation flies into being. That’s our God — powerful, in control of all things.

And third, from verses 10–19 we see God’s control of history. Verse 11 — his counsel stands forever. Verses 13–17 — he is the one who delivers nations and who upholds all the events of the world. Verses 18–19 — “Behold, the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, that he may deliver their soul from death and keep them alive in famine.”

When you’re running the Christian life and starting to look at your feet, look up at your God! He is good, and he is in control, and he is smiling upon you!

This is Jesus himself. Hebrews 12 tells us that for the joy set before him, he endured the cross, despising his shame, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father. As we lift our eyes and press on in joy — even joy in the midst of trouble — we are being conformed to his image, filling up with his sufferings as well as his joys.

And if we look closely, we will notice that this is not actually a psalm about joy. That is not where the psalm begins. This is a psalm about praising God. Joy is the adverb, so to speak.  Verse 1 — “Shout for joy to the Lord, O you righteous.” Verse 2 — “Give thanks to the Lord.” Verse 3 — “Sing to him a new song, play skillfully on the harp, with loud shouts.”

Joy is both the reason and the method, but it is not the command; it is the result of seeking hard after the praise of the Lord.

We get little snippets of this now. To use Lewis’s phrase again, we are occasionally “Surprised by Joy.” They are not when we’re chasing joy — because that ends up failing — they are when we are not even chasing it and the order of the world suddenly takes us by surprise. Because the world was made to be a place of joy.

Yet, we can cultivate and live in a gospel joy, because we know where we are going, and we know it is good, and we know the good is breaking into this dark world. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Even as we wait for the fulfillment of our joy when Christ returns, there are plenty of things that make us happy now. And if we really know how trustworthy and faithful Christ is, then that future joy becomes our joy right now. That future happiness — which will be full — is guaranteed, and that means there can be a happiness now, even in the midst of sadness.

The key is not to chase joy, but to see it where it already is — in Jesus Christ and his finished work on the cross. Because the one who has done all this will do the rest.

And the call of the psalm is to praise him, because if we pursue praise, we get joy, too. When we chase joy, we don’t get it. When we chase God, we get both.

An ordained minister and the first professor of Reformed Theological Seminary NYC in Manhattan where he serves as Professor of Old Testament and Dean of Students, Bill earned a Ph.D. in Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures at The Catholic University of America. He completed his M.Div. at RTS Orlando and serves as a pastor at McLean Presbyterian Church.

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