I remember singing the old hymn in Sunday school as a child, “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey.” This song will now be stuck in your head all day; you’re welcome.
It’s true, obedience produces joy. But joy is not just a product of obedience, it is also a cause. As joy in God grows, obedience to God follows.
Though this old hymn tells us that happiness comes when we trust and obey, Ecclesiastes 3:12 says, “There is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live.” This word of wisdom does not defy the old hymn, but it does fill in the gaps.
When the Bible says, “There is nothing better for them than…,” it’s probably wise to listen to what comes next. If the Bible is telling me that nothing I do can be better than what it tells me to do, then I want to do that thing which it tells me to do. And that thing which it tells me to do that is better than doing anything else I can do, is this: be joyful and do good.
We often separate these two ideas and set them against each other, as if joy is impossible in obedience. Doing good takes work, takes effort, it is a toil and a strain, as our wicked hearts and sinful flesh (Jeremiah 17:9; Galatians 5:17) fight against happily doing good.
We have become accustom to doing good despite our desire to do so. I remember being told as a child, “Sometimes you just have to do what you don’t want to do.” That attitude created in me a misled freedom to obey without doing so happily.
But God’s word of wisdom from Ecclesiastes 3:12 tells me otherwise. There is nothing better for me that to not only do good, but to do so with joy!
This concept that joy and obedience go hand-in-hand is often ignored as we seek to obey God without a heart that is motivated by joy. Obedience without joy is like wadding in the shallow end of a pool when you don’t know how to swim. You survive, and it certainly produces some degree of satisfaction and accomplishment, but it is not fuller and more satisfying experience of swimming. Obedience with joy is like knowing how to swim and diving into the deep end, swimming around and enjoying not only survival, but pleasure in the activity, and a brimming satisfaction in using your faculties to their fullest.
God desires not only the appropriate actions that are described in his word, but also the appropriate attitude to accompany those actions. Joy fills obedience and produces obedience, and obedience without joy is, in fact, not obedience at all (Deuteronomy 28:47-48).
To obey God without joy is like eating your wife’s dinner while wearing a face of disgust. You may finish your plate, but your wife knows that her meal has not satisfied you. Your wife wants nothing more than to satisfy your belly as well as your heart. She wants to know that you finished your dinner, and enjoyed it!
God is the same way, he wants us to obey and enjoy it, and if we don’t enjoy it, then we did not actually obey. He wants us to be satisfied before obedience and in obedience, and when we only obey without joy, we work and toil with a face of disgust, as if God is unable to satisfy us in our work and good deeds.
God’s desire is that obedience be an outflow of our satisfied hearts. Your wife may make a dish you do not like, but God offers nothing short of absolute satisfaction and pleasure. So, to obey without joy is to declare God’s will for our good work to be less than adequate for us.
When we delight in God, we have already obeyed. Psalm 37:4 says, “Delight yourself in the Lord.” When we have delight in the Lord, we have obeyed this verse. So, to have joy in God is itself, obedience. And from that obedient joy, our satisfied hearts produce more obedience.
From joy we obey, and when we obey from joy, God satisfies our hearts and we experience even more joy. I call this the “glorious cycle.” Joy is obedience, and obedience produces joy, and joy produces more obedience. But this cycle seems a bit incomplete. There must be more to this cycle.
Why is our joy so elemental to our obedience?
When we obey in joy, we declare God’s sufficiency to fulfill our deepest created desire; to be satisfied in God. In God being our greatest and most filling satisfaction, he receives his due glory to which he is worthy to receive. Only God can fully satisfy, and when we are most satisfied in him, he becomes to us our greatest treasure, which is his desire for our souls, and in that, he most glorified in us. Thus filling in the “glorious cycle,” God satisfied us --> we get joy --> God gets glory --> God’s glory satisfies us --> we get joy --> God gets glory…
Joy is so elemental to obedience because it is not just our happiness that is at stake, it is the magnification of God’s glory in our lives that is on the line. To obey God without joy declares God as less than satisfying, which is a lie and a deception of his true being. But to obey God with joy is to declare him as so satisfying that even our toil for good work is a pleasure to us, as he is worthy of not only our good deeds, but also of our satisfaction in those good deeds.
So, the next time you do good (which hopefully is today), remember your attitude, your heart, and your happiness. Are you doing good just because you are told to do good? Or are you so satisfied with your God and so passionate for his glory, that you are happy to serve his will in obedience?