Joy? What joy?
Minds overwhelmed, we rage, avenge and despair. Our fathers turned to booze. These days it’s mantras, happiness summits, self-improvement gurus, personality tests and “professional help”. Our quick fixes only land us in deeper darkness.
These fancy treatments to joylessness only address the symptoms. They numb. But chronic joylessness is in many places now accepted as part of the human condition.
Was it always so? Not for at least one guy, a king named David, who wrote of a starkly different condition in Psalm 16:
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places. (Psalm 16:6)
Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices. (Psalm 16:9)
You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:11)
Given that the words “joy” and “rejoice” and their derivatives appear at least 150 times in the Bible, I believe God wants all of us to experience joy – not just ephemeral delight, but real, full, lasting joy.
Sometimes religion (or the church) seems part of the problem rather than the solution, calling people out for the “sin” of despair and forcing ministers in the Body to a sorrowful, monastic existence. For God’s glory, they say wearily, willing dreary faces into fake smiles. There’s a sacrament/prayer/discipline for you.
Sweep it under.
But to Jesus, joy was never inconsequential (John 16:20-22, 16:33, 15:11, 17:13).
Joy motivated Jesus to the cross (Hebrews 12:2), the Apostles to martyrdom, Paul to confidently declare “to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Philippians 1:20-21), Mother Teresa to the slums of Calcutta, and Christians worldwide to live and die for the Kingdom.
What then is the duty of the Christian: To suffer for righteousness’ sake, or to pursue joy in God?
With the Christian’s ultimate purpose to glorify God, human joy is often sidestepped or neglected by the faithful, in the quest for the semblance of religious piousness. But joy is fundamentally mistaken.
“Pursuing pleasure in God is our highest calling. It is essential to all virtue and all reverence.” – John Piper
In The End for Which God Created the World, Jonathan Edwards wrote: “God is glorified not only by His glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in.” In modern English, the same sentiment is summarised in the Westminister Catechism: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”
In the words of John Piper, “Pursuing pleasure in God is our highest calling. It is essential to all virtue and all reverence.” Christian Hedonism – as it’s blatantly termed – acknowledges the human need for pleasure and seeks to ground that in God’s glory.
So we need not – dare not – choose between God’s glory and our joy. This joy, however, must come from an enjoyment of God Himself.
John Piper wrote, “if you forsake one, you lose the other. If we do not rejoice in God, we do not glorify as we ought.”
While we’re instructed to rejoice (Philippians 4:4), it doesn’t just manifest by will. Rather, it’s a natural expression of one’s joyful existence. Hence, our obedience demands that joy in God be actively sought.
C S Lewis adds in The Weight of Glory: “If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Lewis’ solution to human despair is not to deny our longings, but to intentionally direct them to the one ultimate thing that satisfies (John 7:37). Forget the lesser lovelies; seek the greatest satisfaction, St Augustine would’ve said.
Joy isn’t some bonus icing on the cake Christians can only hope to experience, but the essence and foundation of your entire life in God’s Kingdom.
But for most of us, this isn’t the case. It’s what we deny, starve, or neglect.
In the wake of the passing of two dear members of my extended family within just three weeks, I’m well acquainted with the scenario where life – Christian or otherwise – ends in grief. My thoughts are fixated on the sheer silliness of it all: Shallow comforts, old platitudes, plant arrangements given in the hope of comforting the grieving. All is vanity.
While we’re instructed to rejoice, it doesn’t just manifest by will. Rather, it’s a natural expression of one’s joyful existence.
Jesus acknowledges our condition and first instincts, then shows us His better way. On the cross He doesn’t threaten His enemies; He forgives – aphes (Luke 23:24). No conditions, no questions.
He now calls you and me through the flames. “Don’t be afraid. Don’t lash out. Don’t despair. Trust me. I’ll be with you.”
I’ve learnt that the experience of joy in God is clearly beyond what the sinful heart can accomplish on its own.
As Piper writes, the Christian Hedonist is “a miracle of sovereign grace”.
Here in our joyless brokenness, it’s time to come clean with God. Confess not merely our despair, but our need for Him. Our devotion to lesser lovelies (Romans 6:17), crusading activism and urge to make things right through conventional displays of power. They’ve hurt the Body more than any seed-sowing enemy and uprooted the very joy that sustains our ministry.
Our weapons are not of this world, but have divine power (2 Corinthians 10:4).
Knowing His will, ask boldly (1 John 5:14) for Him to restore the joy of our salvation (Psalm 51:12).
Finally, ask Him to open our eyes see the joy that sprouts among the weeds in our lives, the beauty in brokenness and the mysterious power of a crucified Saviour who teaches us to aphes, to forgive, even to the grave.
His joy – real, full and lasting – will be our strength (Nehemiah 8:10).