So, I started writing about joy, the second of the great gifts Christ gives us at Christmas. As I’ve been reflecting on it, joy is a pretty complex idea. Most of us probably know that it’s not happiness. Happiness is a feeling, an ephemeral reaction I have to the circumstances of life around me. I’m happy when I have a hot cup of coffee; when I get distracted by someone and the delay causes my coffee to get cold, I’m not happy anymore. That’s how deep-seated happiness is. Joy is not like that.
I’m not really even sure that joy could be classified as an emotion, at least not completely. We can feel joy, but it usually comes through some decision, some state of mind on our part, doesn’t it? It’s a very western thing to want to call something all emotion or all act of the will, anyway. That’s not really how our minds, bodies, wills, and spirits work, anyway. All of those areas of ourselves are activated by the Holy Spirit to work together to allow us to experience something wonderful, like joy. I think this idea is captured in Kay Warren’s definition of joy: “the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of my life, the quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be alright, and the determined choice to praise God in every situation.”
It’s like when I was a kid, looking forward to Christmas Day. I enjoyed Thanksgiving, but mostly because it was a kind of countdown to Christmas. I remember that, like all good little Episcopalian boys, I had an advent calendar. Mine were great; Mom bought them at Kuby’s German market, and each day was filled with a piece of chocolate. Better than the candy, though, was the sense of anticipation as each door I opened, each day, brought us one step closer to Christmas Day. Looking back on it, it wasn’t even the presents I would be receiving that created the expectation. It was anticipation of something new coming: something beautiful, something better than my current reality.
Even in the midst of the commercialism, the exploitation of Christmas, our heightened stress, we still feel that anticipation, don’t we? That settled assurance that something better is coming, moving us to think of others, to love them, and to give to them. That something is joy, the knowledge that God is going to work it all out, that we can trust Him with everything, and bring Him our praise always. Joy is a God-given state of mind that allows our eternal reality to trump our earthly circumstances.
It’s why James can tell us to consider it joy when we encounter various trials, knowing that those trials will produce perseverance that will lead to being perfected, completed, lacking nothing (James 1). Not that we will have every material thing our hearts desire, but that God will change the desires of our hearts so that we’ll have everything we want. Joy is a feeling, but it comes as a result of considering, a conscious effort, according to James.
And, joy is a paradoxical gift, isn’t it? In an incredible way that can only be from the Lord, it’s a gift that so often comes intertwined with suffering. In the midst of our suffering, we experience closeness with God, a profound sense of His presence, love, and provision for us, awareness that, no matter how bad it hurts, it will be okay. Conversely, no matter how great everything around us is, how “perfect,” we sense the world’s suffering and imperfection, that life is a good gift of God, but nowhere near as wonderful as it could be. As it will be.
This paradox leads some to look upon our joy in suffering and think, “poor delusional thing—can’t they see how truly bad things really are?” As if we’re Nero, fiddling while Rome burns to the ground. The reality of joy is, however, that those whose scope is only on the here and now are the truly tragic; they are so myopically focused on what is immediately before them that they have no greater perspective of the majestic drama playing around their lives. Joy allows us to stand on the balcony, and watch the performance in all its glory. It takes us to heights so intense that we have to stop singing in worship for a moment to recover the hitch in our breath, the tears in our eyes. It is the laughter in the hospital room after we’ve joined our friends, holding hands, praying, and singing their loved ones into the Kingdom, relieved that the specter of death has yielded to the overwhelming power of new life. It is the feeling of staring into the confused, tiny, still- kind-of-blue face of new life, life that you and your beloved brought into the world, amazed that you are willing to go to any extreme for someone you just met.
That joy makes us appreciate the greatest joy of all, the joy that makes the other joys possible: a mama in a cave-stable, flushed with exertion and the excitement of a precious new life, baby and Savior and boy and Almighty, man and God joined together for eternity.