Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God's people who are in need. Practice hospitality. – Romans 12:9-13
Most of the commands Paul gives above have to do with our behavior but some of them seem to be telling us we must have certain emotions. Now, as we know, controlling our behavior is much easier than controlling our emotions. In fact, emotions are not under the direct control of our wills. We can be “faithful in prayer”, for instance, by making sure we include it as a regular part of the schedule of our day, praying faithfully whether we feel like it or not. But to keep our “spiritual fervor” in “serving the Lord” seems like a command to maintain a state of intense emotion that is beyond our immediate control. Emotions change like the wind and some emotions seem to come to us or flee from us for reasons beyond our awareness. Joy is an emotion and in Romans 12:12 we read “Be joyful in hope”. This is a command, a command to have the emotion of joy. Again, this does not seem fair or even possible. Some would reply to this that a true Christian should have little trouble summoning up the joy to fulfill this command. Let us first consider several among many passages of Scripture that seem to imply this
[F]or the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17) Here we see that the kingdom of God consists of, among other things, “joy in the Holy Spirit.” If a Christian is someone who has received the kingdom of God and the gift of the Holy Spirit, then it would follow that they should have not only righteousness and peace but also joy. Just a little later in Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians, he says, “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing…” (Romans 15:13) Paul is saying that believing in Jesus should lead to feeling God’s peace and joy. Peter echoes this in his letter: [A]nd though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory…” (1 Peter 1:8) Wow! That’s a lot of joy through believing in Jesus! Shouldn’t this be the birthright and experience of every child of God? And shouldn’t it therefore be easy for them to fulfill the command, “Be joyful in hope”? Additional evidence for this comes from Jesus’ promise to give His followers joy through what He has taught them: “These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.”(John 15:11) And along with the joy that comes from His word there is the joy that is the result of His Spirit’s indwelling: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…” (Galatians 5:22-23)
Over and against all this evidence and very sound argument we must, however, face the reality that faithful Christians experience down times, sometimes of quite long duration, during which they feel little that they would identify as joy. Does that mean that God’s promises have failed? Does it mean that these believers have failed? No, neither is true. In fact, the command to “Be joyful in hope” implies that it is a kind of joy that is possible when we are feeling blue, depressed, whipped and beaten down. Was Jesus feeling ecstatic when He was in the Garden, praying and waiting to be arrested? What does the Bible say He felt?
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus “took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and distressed. Then He said to them, ‘My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me.’” (Matthew 26:37-38) After drawing apart from them about a stone’s throw, He knelt on the ground and “being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground.” (Luke 22:44)
The next day, when He was hanging on the cross He cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46) Jesus did not feel joy then nor do we need to believe that He always felt joy during His earthly sojourn among us. But what does the Bible tell us? It tells us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)
This is the clue that solves the problem. It was the prospect of future joy that enabled Jesus to endure the cross and despise the shame. That future joy included not just His own resurrection from the dead and exaltation to the Father’s right hand but our salvation from sin and death through what He endured. That is what being “joyful in hope” means. It means keeping before our minds the truth that this time of suffering, sorrow and grief is not permanent, nor is it meaningless. As Paul writes, knowing full well what it meant to endure heavy suffering, “For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison…” (2 Corinthians 4:17) That is why he could characterize himself “as sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10)
In the end, we cannot directly control our emotions nor can we, even with God’s help, always maintain a state of euphoria, but we can by His grace keep our mind’s on the prize. Then, the prospect of our ultimate destination and victory will give us cause to rejoice in the midst of the fiery furnace of affliction. In fact, it is in just such circumstances that we can best fulfill the command to be “joyful in hope.”