Happy New Year to you! Every time I think about a new year my default passage is 1 Peter 1:3. I call it “God’s do-over” to us. In his mercy he has given us a restart. He has granted us the opportunity to begin anew with Him in his kingdom work here, all because of the resurrection of Jesus. No longer are we headed down dead end streets as the Apostle Paul states in Ephesians 2:1. No longer are we bound to a bankrupt life of selfishness. Jeremiah defines that as pursuing worthlessness and becoming worthless in the process. Because of God’s great mercy—and what a gift!—we get repeated do-overs when we slip up and make life about ourselves rather than discovering the joy of putting God on display in all the many and unique ways he has written on each of our hearts. So, Happy New Year in the richest sense of those words.
I am back from sabbatical and thus this writing. It was a good break, one filled with difficulty that from a human perspective was not what I would have wished for but I suspect has God’s fingerprints all over it for my good and for the good of the church here.
Joy is the topic that has been prevalent in my mind and heart. Are joy and happiness congruent? I guess it depends upon how you define it. Typical definitions of happiness, I would suggest, are not consistent with joy. But if we define happiness the way the ancient Greeks did, namely, as living congruent with one's deepest nature, then perhaps it is possible to see joy and happiness as one in the same. But that takes some explaining.
Joy has always been one of those elusive topics to me. What exactly is it? CS Lewis writes that joy is never in our power while pleasure (happiness defined shallowly) is. So as I thought about the topic, I began with God. Do I view God as happy, as joyous? Truthfully, I am not sure that comes to mind when I think of characteristics about God. I might eventually get there but it is not near the top of my list. Is God a joyful God? And then this question came to mind as I pondered the issue: Why did God create man in the first place? If we rightly understand God as a Community, which the doctrine of the Trinity does, we understand the three beings of God as one, as united in purpose and love. Might we consider their community of love to then be a joyous one? And does it follow that God create man to enjoy their joy by being a part of what they are all about?
My mind next went to the oral exam that Job encountered at the hands of God. The very week I spoke these words to our church family, one member was about to embark on his own oral exam for his doctorate. I wished him well, telling him that surely it would not compare to Job’s exam who was unable to answer a single question. Here is an example, but notice the context in which the creative event occurs: Where were you, Job, when I laid the foundations of the earth? On what were it bases sunk or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Joy was present in the beginning as God created the heavens and the earth. I suspect joy accompanied God everywhere because He is a God of joy. King David affirms as much when in a song of thanksgiving, precipitated by the ark being brought into the tent of God’s Presence, David wrote, For great is Yahweh. Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and joy are in his place! God is not just occasionally joyful. God is joy!
So when we arrive at Advent and the Christmas season, it is with joy the sending of Jesus into this world came. The angels said to the shepherds, fear not, for behold I bring you good news of great joy. Might we be able to consider that God is motivated out of His joy when he moves toward this broken world that includes humanity?
Listen to Jesus. Faced with his impending death and now praying to His Father, he says these thick words: But now Father, I am coming to you and these things I speak in the world that they may have my joy filled up in them. Jesus had joy even though his circumstances were about to grow rather dim, painfully so. And that begs this possibility: Joy is not incompatible with sorrow. Happiness as typically understood is. But not joy. The prophet Isaiah informs us in the 53rd chapter that this same man who tells us about His joy (John 17) was equally familiar with sorrow and grief. We might foolishly be tempted to believe that joy and suffering/sorrow are opposites when it fact they are not very far apart at all. In fact, some of the people whom I know to be people who struggle with profound grief over the way things are in this world and in themselves are also people who know deep joy. It is a shallow faith, then, to think that to be happy in Jesus means that we not acknowledge how off-center the world is and our lives with it. Conversely, I would argue that to know the joy of the Lord requires one to grieve over all that is fractured and fragmented in this world.
So what then is joy? I turn to the words of Hebrews 12:2 and invite you to ponder them with me. The writer says this: For the joy set before him, Jesus endured the cross…, which begs the question, what was the joy that was set before Jesus? Is it the same joy available to us? Here is my answer: the joy available to Jesus, and the joy equally available to us, is the joy that comes from seeing every situation or circumstance as an opportunity to please the Father! Jesus became like us so that we could become like Him. Becoming like him involves walking in this broken world believing that it will provide us opportunity to put God on display in how we respond certainly in the big tests but even more so in the everyday mundane moments of our relationships. Is my spouse’s defensiveness a possible opportunity for me to know joy as I stop to consider how I might bring God joy in my response?
I had a meeting with some people one night recently and in the course of our conversation it became apparent that one individual was angry. She didn’t want to talk about it but was eventually encouraged to do so. And as it unfolded it became clear her anger was at me. I was in the middle of writing these words. I recall thinking, “Okay, Lord, rather than get defensive, how do I represent you?” I think I did a decent job that night and I think I walked away tasting a bit of joy that was not dependent upon circumstances changing or an individual treating me better than she had. I needed the Spirit’s help not to respond out of my flesh and boy did I ever want to! But in asking for help, I got it from the Helper, who according to Paul is the one who produces in us the joy we long to know.
What I like about this understanding of joy is that it is never dependent upon circumstances or the other person. It’s instead between God and me. Our deepest joy comes to us when we seek to please our Father regardless of whether the situation changes or the person sees things the way I think they should. Jesus essentially communicated or implied as much in John 17. The joy we know comes from loving and working toward oneness as a way to please our Heavenly Father rather than to get things to go and people to respond as we would like.
I think Jesus’s joy had little to do with our response to his saving initiative. Perhaps our response to his offer of mercy and grace doubles His pleasure but His deepest pleasure/joy came in coming to this earth to rightly reflect to the world the kind of Father God He knew and the joy of their community to which we are invited. I think our joy is contingent on the same thing. It is a joy that comes in offering love to a world tattered and torn by a lack thereof. May we come to know God’s true joy that is available to us every day.
Grace upon grace to you for the best is yet to come.