Q&R with Brad: What is joy?
Could you please describe or define the concept of joy as you’ve understood, witnessed, or experienced it?
At first glance, that’s a difficult question. As I thought about it, I began by contrasting it to the word “happiness.” Bear in mind that there are a host of personal, traditional and dictionary definitions of happiness and joy. But I’ll offer my own thoughts here.
First, I tend to associate happiness with a fleeting emotional reaction to the fulfillment of external pleasures. When I see a sunset or hear my grandchildren giggle or savor a delicious meal, there’s a happy pleasure to it that I believe God intends for me to enjoy with gratitude. And I do. And I recognize that these experiences come and go according to shifting outward circumstances. I’m not happy when the Vancouver sky drizzles for the 40th day in a row, or when my grandchildren are suffering a fever, or when my food has gone bad. Then I become unhappy.
But this is life. Even in God’s good creation, I am not entitled to feel happy 24-7. And when I’m unhappy, I’m not entitled to mistreat others in my misery. When I’m happy, I am naturally grateful and generous. And when I’m unhappy, well, I would still like to be grateful and generous, despite my discomfort.
As for JOY, I’ll take a stab at a few descriptions. Joy is a state of grace I experience through “presence in communion.” By presence, I mean being present to God, to myself, to others and to creation. And it includes being aware of God’s presence to me. By communion, I’m talking about relationship words like connection, intimacy and fellowship. Communion with God, with myself, with others and with creation brings joy, just as alienation brings sorrow.
JOY is an experience of fullness that comes from “partaking of the Tree of Life,” a symbol for knowing Jesus Christ, opening up to his grace, and becoming aware of his great love for us.
Now, it’s been popular to speak of “fleeting happiness” versus “abiding joy.” Wouldn’t abiding joy be lovely! Imagine a joy that never departs! But I feel for those who feel condemned by religious teachers for not measuring up to this abiding joy. When they discover that no matter how hard they try, joy can be as fleeting as happiness, it’s very disillusioning. And however brief or illusory, quick snacks of happiness are at least easier to buy.
I suspect that those preachers who claim abiding joy are either lying (at least to themselves) OR have made joy so abstract that the word means nothing at all. Of course, they will tell you, “But joy isn’t a feeling.” Really? In that case, what a meaningless and incoherent word! A joy that is not joyful, that is devoid of experience, that is completely unhitched from emotion or expression (because “how could you trust it?”), is foreign to the authors of the New Testament.
I remember being taught, “Consider Paul and Silas in the Philippian jail. They were in a miserable dungeon, and yet they sang for joy.” But did they? It seems just as likely that they were singing lament hymns from the Psalms, crying out with David for deliverance, rather than “whistling in the dark.” Lament so often gets overlooked by triumphalist preachers who’ve lost their empathy along with one-third of the Psalms. Yes, Paul and Silas may have felt the comfort and joy of “presence in communion” with God and with each other at that moment, but let’s not reduce that miracle of grace to a “suck it up” rebuke to clobber those poor souls who’ve lost their joy.
In the mid-1980s, I was haunted by the biblical phrase “joy unspeakable” (or “inexpressible”) from 1 Peter 1:8. Upon seeing those words, I knew two facts: (1) I had no idea what it meant, and (2) I had never once experienced it. That is, not until I witnessed it in others and experienced it for myself as something I could not fake, manufacture or make happen… Decades later, I think I may know what and how and why experiences of “joy unspeakable” happen (short answer: by grace).
Here is my best attempt to describe the “joy unspeakable” dynamic: “the joy of the Lord” springs up from within one’s heart or spirit when, by grace, we catch a glimpse of how “high, wide, long and deep is the love” that our heavenly Father has for us (Ephesians 3:17-19). According to Paul, this love surpasses knowledge and exceeds what we can ask, imagine, or express in words. God graciously reveals this love to our hearts so that we experience the living God as someone who knows us, sees us, and loves us... personally!
When that gospel revelation “drops,” we experience joy. What does that joy look like? Each expression of joy is as unique as we are. As I’ve shared the good news and witnessed others discover it, I’ve seen radiant smiles, open laughter, floods of tears, sobbing sighs, utter shock, and, just as valuable, a gift of deep quiet peace.
It’s not about the drama of our experience but the reality of knowing God as an intimate Friend or loving Father. It’s not just a theological Aha! discovery or a new way of thinking about God. The common factor is that we meet the living God who deposits good news of his love in our hearts. The fruit of those grace encounters, subtle or grand, is what I would call JOY.