It’s New Year’s Day and my adopted hometown college football team has just shocked the world in its bowl game. The upstart underdogs took down the big team from the big conference and finished undefeated on the season. Everyone around here is elated. And rightly so. It’s not every day that something this big happens. Emotions are running high and there are tears, laughter, and smiles all around. Most would look at such a scenario and declare that to be elements of joy.
But, is it? How do we define a word like this? Is it simply synonymous with happiness? I don’t think so. And I don’t think most people that you would ask believe they’re identical either. But I would bet they couldn’t fully pin down the difference. Let me try. It may not be exact, but I think that’s perhaps the point. Joy isn’t something we can fully understand or identify. If we could, wouldn’t we hold more tightly to it? But we can learn to identify it when we experience it. And maybe in doing so, we can learn what to look for in the future.
I think that the joy spoken of in the bible (and thus, the kind discussed in a blog about Advent, such as this) can best be described in contrast to happiness. Happiness is an emotional overflow in the body in response to pleasurable stimuli. In other words, when something happens that I like, my emotions trigger as being happy and my body responds in kind. Joy, then by comparison, can be described as a welling up and overflow of the soul in direct response to seeing the work of Jesus in our lives.
John Piper puts it this way:
Christian joy is a good feeling in the soul, produced by the Holy Spirit, as he causes us to see the beauty of Christ in the word and in the world.
Musician Sleeping At Last has this line in his song entitled Joy:
A silver lining spilling over,
The rumor of buried treasure,
The starting line of an adventure,
It’s a glimpse of light in a mine of gold.
This works. I can identify with this. It combines the ideas we’ve already discussed about Hope and Peace and brings emotion into it.
Now, I’ll admit, this is where things get a little dicey for me. Emotions aren’t really things I fully resonate with. In my world, things are meant to be analyzed and understood. Emotions are precisely not things understandable or analyzable. Which is why happiness is often a fleeting concept for me.
Watching those football players celebrate as the season culminated in one final emotional win was amazing. The stories behind all of the things that happened to get that team to that point were incredible. Watching the excitement of some run around like madmen, others hugging coaches and teammates, some grinning ear to ear while pointing out to family members in the crowd, and still others fall face down weeping- it was an emotional moment even from the couch. And seeing the reactions of the players and fans, I could cognizantly recognize happiness and my mind/body connection could mimic the reactions I was seeing. Strange, I know, but you’d be surprised how many people out there are nodding their heads right about now. They know what I mean. Their momentary happiness became my momentary happiness. Their bliss became my excitement.
But the part that I got without needing any explanation? The joy. What was different? My soul was experiencing something. There was a stirring within as I realized I had the opportunity to witness something rare and nigh unprecedented. There was a connection at that point with the beauty of Jesus and His willingness to share small moments with His own. In that moment, I was reminded of the victory assured to us who are declared more than conquerors through Him who loves us, even though the odds are stacked against us and we have no right to even be in the fight. In this, I found joy.
It was a glimpse of light in a mine of black and gold.
I hope this is making sense. And I also hope this isn’t coming across as simply an overly-theological analysis of a football game. The fact is, there are many, many moments in our lives that allow us to experience a gamut of emotions. Fear, sorrow, happiness, anger, pleasure. They all rise and fall in varying degrees within each of us. But joy is independent of all of them. This is why James is able to tell the early believers to rejoice when they fell into various trials. Some translations even go so far as to read “count it all joy” when those things happen!
If joy is only tied to our positive physical emotion experiences, how is this instruction even remotely possible? James surely isn’t just telling the believers “don’t worry, be happy”, is he? Ah, but if we experience trials and can look at them even in the middle of the worst of the worst to see the beauty of Christ working in and through us, then perhaps joy is still possible even during our hard times.
Now, you may be wondering, “How is it possible to do that? It sounds impossible. Or at least, requires a lot more faith than what I’ve got.” The author of the book of Hebrews had some thoughts:
We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up.
Lacking in the faith it takes to rejoice in trials? Keep your eyes on Jesus. The source of the joy. The source of your faith. The perfecter of both. Focus on the wonder of what motivated Him. The sheer joy of bringing glory to the Father in his obedience led Him willingly to the filthy cross. Don’t become weary. Fix your eyes on Jesus. He’s run the race. He’s smiling at the finish line. In fact, He’s been everywhere that you have yet to go, and will meet you there, with open arms.
Believer, we have much to rejoice in. There is so much in our day to day lives that should cause our souls to well up and overflow with excitement about the wonder, the mystery, and the beauty of the work that Christ is doing in us and in the world around us. Perhaps what’s lacking is that we’ve become desensitized to what true joy is.
The wise men who visited a young Jesus and His family were drawn to their famously long journey because, upon seeing the star, they were filled with joy! Experiencing the mystery of a yet-to-be-discovered King of Kings filled them with a longing to go and see Him with their own eyes.
Don’t allow yourself to be robbed of your joy. Fix your eyes on Jesus. Don’t let the season allow you to divert your eyes for even a moment from a Savior King who gave everything up in obedience so that we might have the opportunity to enjoy little moments like watching a football game on a Monday afternoon with our family.
I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow! – John 15.11