David’s famous Psalm of repentance contains this lovely phrase, “Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation (Psa 51:12a).” I have found that Christians often apply this verse after assessing their inward emotional condition and concluding that their emotions are out of whack, and therefore something must be wrong; so they pray out “restore to me the joy of my salvation.”
The problem is that we as humans are prone to mistake emotional vibes for authentic joy. One is entirely subjective the other is divinely objective. When we are assessing our spiritual life (which we ought often to do, see Phi. 2:12 & 2 Cor. 13:5), we must never inspect it on the basis of our own light and understanding. The glory of God alone, in the face of Christ, through his revealed Word is the only light bright enough to pierce through all of our emotional log-jams and show us the truth about ourselves.
We all know from experience what it is like to have a “deadness” in our soul. This is of concern, but of greater concern is whether we will turn in faith to God’s fountain of joy in Christ, or will we become idolators, hoping that mere emotional sensations will assure us of spiritual health and stability. It is like a married couple, who after years of marriage have grown cold and distant from each other; the temptation is to look for something that will “bring back” the old excitement and sensations of newly wedded bliss. All too many affairs have resulted from looking for satisfaction from only the pleasurable sensations of marital union.
The solution in a marriage, and in our spiritual relationship with the Almighty, is not to aim at gaining the mere sensations. That is simply immature; it is wanting the benefits of the relationship and not really valuing the relationship. If one desires joy to be restored (either spiritually or in a marriage), it is idiocy to aim for temporary passions. These passions can never fill the place that joy can.
Thus, the secret to true joy is contentment and satisfaction in the object of joy. The reason joy often seems distant in our spiritual life is usually because we have left off treasuring Christ, for Himself. When we go through difficulty and life seems bleak and we feel forlorn, the secret isn’t to search for sensations of emotion. Rather it is to value Christ, no matter how I feel, and trust that “godliness with contentment is great gain (1 Tim. 6:6)“.
Even in a marriage, if I only love the feelings that my spouse brings, but don’t love my spouse, I will soon find that the feelings are gone. However, if I discipline my heart to continually think on my wife and her virtues, graces, and charms, I shall find joy in the realization of how good God has been to me in giving me her. Furthermore, if I preach to my soul to continually set Christ before me, and think on all He has done for me, I shall not cease to have a well of joy and delight to constantly drink in. In so doing, I find that joy is much more than emotion; and that I might have joy (through contentedly receiving Christ as the gift He is) regardless of the circumstances surrounding me, or the turmoils inside me.