On Joy

Chris Redmon, 2018

“Joy is more than a feeling.”

“Yes, but what is it?                           

“Joy” is one of those words used so often in this season that we rarely, if ever, stop to ask what it means. We know that joy is something more than positive emotion, since not even Jesus walked around happy all the time (Luke 22:42; John 12:27). We know that joy is something God desires for the world and for our lives. But if put on the spot, I doubt many of us would be able to articulate what Christian joy is really all about. I certainly couldn’t. My sense of panic, when asked to write a short piece on the theme of joy, sent me running to the New Testament.

Joy, Paul wrote, is the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22), the result of a life that has traveled with Jesus through suffering and death. For Paul, joy is never wishful thinking or naïve optimism. It comes to those who, like Jesus, have watched their very worst fears come true—separation, abandonment, failure, humiliation, and pain; in a word, the cross—and discovered that God was stronger still.

In the Gospels, joy is not the privilege of the rich and successful; it belongs to those who live at rock bottom. It is the discovery, again and again, that goodness and love are unstoppable despite every voice that tries to tell us the contrary. It is the blessing that awaits the poor, hungry, distraught, and excluded when Christ comes to set the world right (Luke 6:20-23).

Joy is our hard, slow creep into the life of God. It is our becoming like God as we learn to conform to the rhythms of death and resurrection. Which is to say, joy hurts. If we are not “happy” in this season, it does not that mean we have done something wrong. Joy is not an accumulation of happy moments, but the shape and direction of our entire lives as we learn to live more and more like Jesus.

When we sing of “joy to the world” this season, that, I hope, is what we mean. Joy is who we are and who, with God’s help, we will become.


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