Joy, for most of us, fluctuates with our circumstances. When things are going well, we’re happy. We have joy. But everyone has a bad day now and then. And some people live with seemingly impossible burdens and sorrows. Most people would agree that joy and sorrow are incompatible.
But not according to Proverbs. The writer presents joy as the natural consequence of wise living. Joy comes as we recognize God’s authority and follow His instruction for life. Fearing God and obeying His creation laws … these are the keys to joy. Not circumstances. Our circumstances may be so dire as to naturally lead to despair. But joy allows us to live beyond our circumstances, knowing that the trials of circumstances can lead us to maturity and completeness, a part of the process of our human flourishing.
That observation evokes the New Testament epistle of James (which has been compared with Proverbs). James opens his letter by writing about joy, circumstances, and wisdom, using language that, at points, sounds like Proverbs.
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. (James 1:2-5 ESV)
As a child, I (Gary) knew a woman—Amanda Friesen was her name—who had contracted a severe form of arthritis that left her profoundly paralyzed, her muscles literally frozen rigid. She could move only her arms from the elbows down, her eyes and her mouth. Her husband used to bring her to visit us in the station wagon he had modified to receive her paralyzed body. Forever stamped on my memory is the strange sight of him carrying her from the car, as stiff as a board. He would lay her on our piano next to our dining room table where she used a mirror to look at us and join the conversation while we ate and talked together. If anyone had a right to bitterness it was Amanda Friesen. But she always exuded a deep joy. Anyone who spent time with her went away encouraged. According to Proverbs, this is true joy.
The Hebrew term in Proverbs translated “joy” means “joy, gladness, delight, i.e. a feeling or attitude of joyful happiness and cheerfulness; note: in some contexts, this is a response to, or manifestation of, worship to God and so transcendent even of unfavorable circumstances.”
Webster’s 1828 dictionary defines joy as
… the passion or emotion excited by the acquisition or expectation of good; that excitement of pleasurable feelings … by a rational prospect of possessing what we love or desire; gladness; exultation; exhilaration of spirits.
Joy is a delight of the mind, from the consideration of the present or assured approaching possession of a good.
Note the implication there of a connection between joy and hope.
One way to better understand a word is to consider its opposite. And the opposite of joy is not sorrow. It’s bitterness.
The Hebrew word for bitterness means “the state of misery and mental distress and anguish.”2 Webster’s equivalent definition reads, “in a figurative sense, extreme enmity, grudge, hatred; or rather an excessive degree or implacableness of passions and emotions; as the bitterness of anger.”
For decades, medical professionals have warned that bitterness in a life leads to harmful side effects. The Mayo Clinic website includes an article, “Forgiveness: Letting go of grudges and bitterness” that includes the following insight. Watch for the relationship between bitterness and joy.
Nearly everyone has been hurt by the actions or words of another. Perhaps your mother criticized your parenting skills, your colleague sabotaged a project or your partner had an affair. These wounds can leave you with lasting feelings of anger, bitterness or even vengeance.
But if you don’t practice forgiveness, you might be the one who pays most dearly. By embracing forgiveness, you can also embrace peace, hope, gratitude and joy. Consider how forgiveness can lead you down the path of physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.
It’s always refreshing when fellow humans—especially professionals to whom we look for diagnoses and treatment—promote truth. Paul spoke of that which has “been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made!” (Rom 1:20 ESV) When someone recognizes reality, even if they don’t acknowledge the Author of reality, the society benefits.
Proverbs is a book for “everyman,” universal in its application. Any willing reader can immediately apply the truths in this book. And experience the commensurate blessings.
- Darrow Miller and Gary Brumbelow
 שִׂמְחָה (śim∙ḥā(h))
 Louw-Nida Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, 2nd Edition, Edited by J. P. Louw and E. A. Nida. Copyright © 1988 by the United Bible Societies, New York, NY 10023. Used by permission.
 מָרָּה (mār∙rā(h))