Few qualities of Christian character are more important—or more criticized—than joy. Within the fruit of the Spirit, joy is right there at the top of the list: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, cheerfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). But many of us aren’t serious enough about joy. That’s why you are unlikely to find joy listed among essential spiritual virtues.

Before discussing why joy is so integral to Christianity—and to the Christmas season—we should define what it is. Joy is not mere fun, like eating an ice cream cone, innocent but unnecessary. It’s an deep, soulful emotion. It’s not something we have to remind ourselves to do, as when obeying the command to “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4). That choice to rejoice is not the same as the spontaneous eruption of joy that comes when we unexpectedly experience Jesus.  Let’s see this in Scripture.

A beloved part of the Christmas story is the journey of the magi. As the star guided them to the infant Savior, “they were filled with joy” (Matt. 2:10). This joy unlocked great generosity as they gave freely of their treasures.

When greedy Zacchaeus felt a hunger for more than what this world can offer, he climbed a tree to catch some words of wisdom from Jesus passing by. Instead the Savior stopped, looked him in the eye and called him by name. He invited the unworthy tax extortionist to come down and experience His acceptance. Immediately, joy broke the chains of greed. He slid down the ground and instantly became radically generous.

On resurrection morning. Mary trod to the tomb in sorrow, mourning the loss of her beloved friend and Savior. Then Jesus suddenly showed up, and her heart thrilled with joy. She ran to spread the good news.

A few mornings later, Peter was out on the lake fishing with his colleague disciples, disconsolate after an unproductive night. Then Jesus called out to them from shore, and Peter became so joyous that he threw himself into the water to splash his way into Christ’s presence. When people are filled with joy in the Lord, we don’t have to twist their arms to get baptized; they will splash themselves into the water.

Joy! It’s the quiver that electrifies the heart that encounters Jesus in a deep, unexpected way. Like the church in the upper room at Pentecost. Experiencing God’s Spirit brought them so much joy that unbelievers outside thought they were drunk. They had never seen religious people so happy!

Joy is contagious. People are drawn to Jesus when they see Him fill us with the fruit of the Spirit—not only love and peace but JOY!

Have you ever been so happy in Jesus that someone criticized your joy as inappropriate? Some somber souls just don’t think Christians should get so excited about our salvation. They don’t understand the difference between the godly emotion of joy and mindless emotionalism. We do love the Lord with our minds as well as with our hearts. We worship Him in both spirit and in truth.

So there is nothing wrong about being happy in the Lord—and in enjoying Christian music that expresses this joy. Genuine joy is not a questionable amusement! It’s vital not only to success in evangelism, it’s also an important part of spiritual victory: “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10).

There is no substitute for joy in Jesus Christ. We can pray all night for the Holy Spirit to give us revival and reformation, but unless we experience the fruit of that Spirit—love, joy and peace—our spiritual quest will be in vain.

And so this Christmas season, “may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Rom. 15:13). Joy to the world!