Notwithstanding Joy


The word “joy” comes up several times in scripture. It’s a fruit of the Spirit and an attitude Christians are told to display. But what did the Bible writers mean when they instructed us to be joyful? Today I want to borrow from a scholar named Marianne Thompson; she did a thorough study on this word for joy.[1]

Three Kinds of Joy in the Bible:

1. Happiness
2. Anticipation
3. Notwithstanding Joy


The Bible describes all kinds of happy moments that bring people joy: A wedding, a new child in the family, good food, good drinks, a great day with friends, and so forth. Proverbs 17:22 tells us that “A joyful heart is good medicine…” We do all sorts of things to increase our happiness. And that’s good!

But I have a warning for you: If you strive after only happy experiences, you will always end up in despair.

Jon Tyson [2] puts it this way. He says our world is driven towards happiness. People will stop at nothing to eliminate discomfort. We are addicted to getting what we want, addicted to removing whatever blocks our desires. But when we make happiness our highest goal, we always end up in despair.

Here’s what we do when happiness isn’t working out for us. We run to “joy substitutes.” [3] If you’ve had a hard day, it’s very easy to turn to things that bring immediate happiness - quick endorphins - but they don’t last very long and leave you more miserable.

Low grade substitutes include taking it out on your kids, or going shopping. Grab a joy substitute to get your mind off the bad stuff. Head for the cabinet and grab a bottle of social media or junk food. More destructive “joy substitutes” can be: alcohol, sexual affairs, the gentlemen’s club, drugs, or pornography.

Here is a pattern many of us have fallen into: Something happens to make you feel bad, feel depressed, or feel unwanted. So you inject yourself with something that will score you immediate happiness.

There is a better kind of joy. It takes time, it takes practice, it takes habit. But it pays off. Tim Keller, in one of his sermons, shares two images of joy. [4] One is a babbling brook that makes all kinds of noise and splashing but is thin and shallow. Then there is a river, which is infinitely deeper than the brook but makes almost no noise at all. It is quiet on the surface, but much was happening down below. Which kind of joy do you want to possess?


The second kind of joy mentioned in Scripture is the joy of anticipation.

Psalm 30:5 (NIV) Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.

Psalm 126:5 (NIV) — Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.

Romans 5:3–4 (NIV) — … We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.

James 1:2–3 (NIV) — Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.

Anticipation is something we have all felt at some point – a joy that is coming later. It’s that confrontation that will be unpleasant, but stepping into it will create a path to move forward. It’s that sacrifice you make today that will pay off two years later. It’s that season of being poor, or lonely, or sick; but you’ll be glad you went through it some day. It’s the fatigue from a long run or a sports practice, because you know you are working on your health. It’s attending a counseling session and talking through hard things, but walking out feeling like you’re on the right path.

Anticipatory joy is good. It’s necessary if we want to grow!

Yet again, I have a warning for you: If you are not careful, you can manufacture anticipatory joy. And sometimes things do not get better.

You may try to manufacture anticipatory joy: Try smiling at yourself in the mirror and saying self-affirming things. Exercise. Take up a new hobby, like painting or biking. Tell yourself reassuring things, like “other people have it worse that I do.” Or “things could be worse.” Pretend like everything is OK, try and think happy thoughts. Tell people “I’m GREAT!” when they ask about your day.

Manufacturing joy in these ways isn’t necessarily bad, but sometimes, things don’t get better. Sometimes your situation is chronic. What do you do then?

There is a deeper kind of joy, a river that replaces the babbling brook. Here’s how Michel Hendricks puts it: 
“Building resilience in difficult emotions is like buying a new cabin on a lake that has no path down to the dock. The first few trips to the dock take time and effort with a shovel and a machete. Following the path gets easier until, after a hundred trips, you have a well-worn path between the cabin and the dock… Repetition is needed to build the path…”[5]

You have conditioned your brain to DO SOMETHING when you’ve had a bad day or when you are discouraged. Maybe it’s a “joy substitute” (alcohol, social media). Maybe it’s a story you repeat in your head (things will get better, this isn’t so bad, the devil’s out to get me…). Those fixes only work so far. There are some trials that are so tough or so chronic that manufacturing happiness or anticipation won’t cut it.

You can learn a third form of joy. It will take time, it will take practice, and it will require habit.

Notwithstanding Joy

There is a third kind of joy. A joy that is so rare we write books and poems about it when we see it. It’s so rare that news anchors will book appointments and board an airplane to interview someone with this kind of joy. It’s so rare, that I believe only a Christian can experience this kind of joy. This rare kind of joy is what Marianne Thompson calls “Notwithstanding Joy.”

Here’s how New Testament writers describe this kind of joy:

Hebrews 12:2 (NIV) — [We are] fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. 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.

Jesus Christ himself, God in the flesh, lived his last days in pain. He died on a cross penniless, naked, deserted by his followers, and shamed by the public. Somehow He was able to enter that suffering, and begin the process of dying, with joy. Notwithstanding the pain to come, he had joy.

2 Corinthians 7:4 (NIV) I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds.

The man writing this was a traveling missionary. Because of his missions work, he faced all kind of trials – financial trouble, trouble with the government, physical abuse, loneliness – and it never got better or went away. At the end of his troubles was one thing: Death. But notwithstanding all those troubles, he had joy.

Colossians 1:24 (NIV) — Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.

1 Peter 4:13 (NIV) — But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.

These two verses are very interesting, for this reason. They show that the way of Jesus is a way of suffering. In order to be our savior, Jesus had to suffer. In order to pay the penalty for our sin, Jesus had to suffer. Likewise, to be a Christian means to suffer.[6]

These Bible writers had something more than Happiness or Anticipation. There’s nothing happy about their circumstance, and little tricks (“treat yourself to something nice today”) isn’t going to help them. There’s no happiness to anticipate in the future either! Jesus was about to die. Paul had scars and chronic pain from persecution. Peter was hated and persecution was getting worse. They had joy notwithstanding the situation. They did not need external circumstances to align for them to have joy. They did not need hardship to end or happiness to occur for them to have joy.

How can I have “notwithstanding” joy? How can you have notwithstanding joy? 

Here’s how to get started.

When bad things happened to you, you already have a ritual. You already had a habit. You swear under your breath and complain when you have to adjust your oxygen tank. That moment of releasing tension makes you feel better for a split second. Or you dump complaints to your Mom or friend when you have to work with that annoying coworker. Backing up the dump truck and unloading gives you temporary relief, even though it burdens those around you. Or you come home and say “I need a beer… Now I need another beer.” The alcohol takes your mind off the hurt for an hour or two, though it comes back strong the next day. Or you going in the bathroom at work, lock yourself in a stall, and scroll pornography or TikTok on your phone. Or you buy marihuana and stay high as long as you can afford. Or you curl up in the corner of you house and cry.

You have already formed habits that bring you temporary happiness, but stifle any hope of you having real Christian joy. What’s your habit? What’s your ritual? When you are in despair, when you are discouraged, when you’re miserable, what do you do?

You already have a ritual. To learn notwithstanding joy, you need a new ritual. You need to form a new habits or rituals that you perform whenever hardship comes your way or the ongoing hardship. Here are some examples of what I mean:

1 Peter 5:7 (NLT) — Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you.

This verse doesn’t mean we go to God in prayer and say “God, this is annoying. Please fix it. Amen." It means we process our emotions with God, we tell him what we are thinking and feeling, we explain to the Lord in prayer that we aren’t sure what he’s trying to accomplish in this hardship, but maybe it’s this or maybe it’s that. We ask him to use our situation for his glory.

This may explain how Peter was able to press on when he was imprisoned, or persecuted, or hated. Maybe he maintained joy in hardship because he had learned how to process his emotions with God.

Psalm 55:4–6 (NLT) — 4 My heart pounds in my chest. The terror of death assaults me. 5 Fear and trembling overwhelm me, and I can’t stop shaking. 6 Oh, that I had wings like a dove; then I would fly away and rest!

Another example of a notwithstanding joy ritual comes from David. He was a king in the ancient world who loved the Lord. But there were always people out to get him, always political stuff going on, and he had personal issues to deal with just like us.

What was David’s habit? He wrote Psalms like this one and sang them to God. This is how David found joy in hardship, so he worships while fleeing for his life from Saul, or he rises up after his son dies and he enters the temple to worship. He had a ritual of singing psalms to God when suffering.

To learn NOTWITHSTANDING joy, you need a new ritual. You need to form a new habits or rituals that you do whenever hardship comes your way or the ongoing hardship.

If you want to begin experiencing Notwithstanding Joy, here’s what to do:

  • Replace the habits you have now. Do you have “joy substitutes” that you run to for quick endorphins? Do you catastrophize? Do you try and vanish or banish pain? Do you manufacture joy by telling yourself happy thoughts?
  • Replace those habits with godly habits. Find a different pill bottle to put in your cabinet. Learn a different reaction. Maybe it’s praying the Psalms. Maybe it’s processing your anxieties in prayer. Maybe it’s vulnerability with a Christian friend.
  • Forge a new ritual. Rituals exist to remind us of truth and to nudge us. What will your new habit be?

[1] Miroslav Volf and Justin Crisp, eds., Joy and Human Flourishing: Essays on Theology, Culture, and the Good Life (Fortress Press, 2015).

[2] Jon Tyson, “Defiant Joy: A Study Through Philippians,” Church of the City New York, n.d., 24 minute mark.

[3] Ideas come from chapter 3: “Joy: The Face of Jesus That Transforms” in Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks, The Other Half of Church: Christian Community, Brain Science, and Overcoming Spiritual Stagnation (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2020).

[4] Timothy Keller, “Infallible Joy,” Gospel in Life, n.d., accessed October 27, 2023.

[5] Wilder and Hendricks, The Other Half of Church.

[6] “…to participate with Christ in suffering is to place oneself in the pattern of Christ’s career as Peter portrays it.” Joel B. Green, 1 Peter, The Two Horizons New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 154–155.