For four days this past July, my hometown of San Diego was invaded by thousands of superheroes, zombies, vampires, science fiction characters, comic book characters, other “characters” I don’t know how to describe, and loads of actors who have portrayed these characters on television and in film.

Well, the characters themselves didn’t appear since they’re all imaginary. But what did appear was a fan-base of 130,000 fiction fanatics who attended last summer’s annual Comic-Con International event, many of them—if not most, based on the news pictures—arrived in costume, impersonating their favorite fictional hero. That’s right—130,000 fiction fans took over San Diego for four days just like they have since 1970 when the first Comic-Con took place. Except in 1970, there were 145 attendees and the focus was solely on comic books.

The San Diego Comic-Con is the fourth largest convention of its kind in the world, only out-attended by fiction fans in Japan (the largest), France, and Italy. There are smaller Comic-Cons in a dozen U.S. cities, and also in Canada, England, and India. Who knew?

I confess that I don’t “get” Comic-Con. I’m not a huge fantasy-fiction fan personally, and I wouldn’t recognize half the characters that come in costume. But there is one aspect of Comic-Con that I totally understand: the delight and joy the attendees experience by participating in their chosen area of interest.

And that applies to an endless number of interests that all of us have. We shouldn’t be ashamed to say that we love what we love! Whether it’s sports (I just raised my hand), cooking, politics, quilting, gardening, travel, photography, film, music, reading, writing, pets—I have to stop or the list will take up this entire article. The information age we live in has allowed us to connect with people who love what we love. And for the most part, we are usually better for it.

I’m not here to endorse any particular subject area or the amounts of time and money each interest can absorb. (Our job is always to be good stewards of our resources.) But in this article I want to endorse and encourage what bubbles to the surface when we connect with the things we love: JOY!

The Right to Rejoice

If you have seen the inspiring film Chariots of Fire, based on the life of Scottish missionary and Olympic runner Eric Liddell, you will probably remember these wonderful words that he spoke: “I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.” He spoke those words as a response to being criticized for pursuing his interests in track and field before going to the mission field.

I believe we could easily substitute the word “joy” for “pleasure” in Liddell’s statement without changing the meaning at all, for God takes joy and pleasure when His creation manifests its God-given purpose. And if God finds pleasure and joy when we excel in desires that honor Him, shouldn’t we feel the same pleasure and joy? Of course we should.

I don’t speak about a Christian’s “rights” often, but I will in this case. I believe we have the right to rejoice! And I say that because I believe God created us with the potential for great pleasure and joy. We even see joy ascribed to creation in Scripture: mountains skipping like rams (Psalm 114:4), stars singing together (Job 38:7), and rivers and trees clapping their hands (Psalm 98:8; Isaiah 55:12). I know—those are figures of speech. But where there is a metaphor, there is a connection to something that is real, and the actual fact is that the Creator infused His creation with joy. If the angels of God rejoice, should not we as well (Job 38:7; Luke 2:13-14; 15:10)?

Dear friend, I believe the experience most missing from the average Christian’s life today is joy. I don’t mean just laughter and hilarity, although there is plenty of room for more of that in the body of Christ. (Who knows how much healthier we’d be with a little, or lot, more laughter—Proverbs 17:22?) I also mean that deeper dimension of happiness—what we really mean when we talk about joy: that deep-seated conviction that God is in control, God is good, and therefore I have nothing to be downcast about.

If I could see you in action when you’re pursuing your heartfelt desires, I imagine I would see your pleasure and joy in full form. And I would be right there, high-fiving you the whole time. It’s a wonderful thing to see people rejoicing, isn’t it?

We know how to do that part of rejoicing. But it’s the other kind—rejoicing when we feel like crying or shouting—that we need to talk about. Remember: If God has built joy into His creation, then it’s your right, as His child, to rejoice even when it doesn’t seem natural.

Joy in Jail

Think for a moment about these two opposite conditions: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and the apostle Paul in prison in Rome. Though the Bible tells us very little about Adam and Eve’s life in Eden, I’m going to assume it was a happy, joyful place to be. We read in Revelation 21:4 that God is ultimately going to take away tears, death, sorrow, crying, and pain from human existence. Those experiences are part of fallen humanity’s condition, so I assume they were not present in Eden. In other words, Adam and Eve had no reason not to be joyful.

But what about Paul in prison? The New Testament letter that talks more about joy than any other was written by Paul while he was under arrest. His setting was not as bad as in his final imprisonment in the dreaded Mamertine Prison in Rome, but it was bad enough. His house arrest, during which he wrote Philippians and three other letters, offered no happy ending so far as Paul knew. Even though he had food and clothing, and occasional visits from friends, he didn’t know the outcome of his imprisonment. He could have been martyred any day. And yet he wrote over and over about joy.

So—joy in Eden is easy to understand. But joy in prison where one’s life was in the hands of a pagan Roman emperor? That’s the kind of joy we need to cultivate.

Paul’s perspective on joy was not something he discovered while in prison. Instead, it was a settled conviction that found expression. Here’s how we know. Around A.D. 51, Paul wrote these two profound words to the Christians at Thessalonica who were experiencing persecution: “Rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16). It wasn’t until 10 years later, in A.D. 61, that he wrote his letter to the Philippians in which joy is mentioned 14 times. In fact, he repeated to the Philippians, his ten-year-old admonition to the Thessalonians: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). Joy was Paul’s lifestyle.

But how?—we ask. How do we “rejoice always”? I hope you know me better than to expect a secret or a trick that will keep you happy for the rest of your life. The biblical answer is not surprising: It requires both an attitude and an action.

Attitude: We know from Galatians 5:22 that joy is a supernatural manifestation of Christ’s life in us—part of the fruit of the Spirit. But it is up to us to be filled with the Spirit, to embrace the Spirit’s work in every situation. Moment-by-moment in life, and especially in difficult moments, we must carry the conviction that God wants to release His joy in our lives.

Action: Part of walking by faith is . . . walking! Our responsibility is to act on what God has promised to provide. We need to act joyfully—giving testimony (both verbally and nonverbally) to our conviction that God is good, God is in control, and God will bring good out of every situation for His glory (Romans 8:28). I’m not talking about a veneer of joy; I’m talking about joy through and through. Even when there are tears, they are not tears of anger or frustration. Even when we experience grief, we can have joy because we know it’s our right to rejoice.

I encourage you, with the apostle Paul, to “rejoice always.” The circumstances of life may change our reasons for rejoicing, but they don’t change our ability to rejoice in Christ.