Several scriptures reflect on elements of joy—relationships, food, and beauty—but most often, God’s people are known to embody and express joy in moments of great difficulty. The early Christians encountered intense affliction—yet were full of joy (Acts 13:52). While held in Roman chains, Paul insisted on rejoicing (Philippians 3:1). When James wrote to persecuted believers (James 1:2), he exhorted them to discover joy in suffering. Even Jesus, pained over the costly suffering of the cross, was motivated by joy to endure it (Hebrews 12:2).
Joy is the birthright of the people of God. It is a profound, abiding attitude of inner gladness. It is an experience of heart and soul, though we might sense it in our bodies. Joy is rooted in God, given by God, and made complete in God. It is abundantly promised for God’s people, and it cannot be taken away. And like many that have come before us demonstrate, joy is a matter of choice—not circumstance.
The forces of our world continually reinforce joylessness. Theologian C.S. Lewis reflects on the deception of pleasure, writing, “I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for joy.” He further writes, “Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.” Entire economies revolve around objectives of pleasure and satisfaction—but, in turn, numb our sensitivity to joy. While pleasure plays an important role in our lives, it is not the same as joy.
On the other end, the pain, corruption, and injustice of our world fuels our proclivity towards cynicism, despair, and and joylessness. But pain and sorrow is not uncommon for the people of God. While we too are afflicted and disturbed by injustice, we do not forsake our joy for a hardened spirit. Paul describes himself as “full of sorrow, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). Unlike circumstantial happiness, joy is an inner experience that can be held alongside other emotions—like sorrow.
Because joy can be difficult to come by, it must be sought out. Lewis describes joy as “the serious business of heaven.” Christians tend to emphasize other ideals, like compassion, humility, or justice. Though joy is abundantly mentioned in scripture, few people would describe themselves as joyful. Joy is often the product of counterintuitive choices: celebrating while defeated, trusting under the burden of doubt, and behaving as our better selves in low moments. Lewis writes, “No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.”
The story of Advent is described by the angel as, “good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” As we reflect on this story, may we allow ourselves to be moved into great joy. And may we consider those who are left out of the story—and how we might invite them into this good news of great joy. Amen.
- From Miriam’s song of liberation to Mary’s song of exaltation, joy is best expressed creatively. Consider making space to intentionally express joy. If you lack inspiration, allow the Christmas story to compel you to articulate your joy.
Theologian Willie Jennings says, “Joy is a defiant act of resistance against the forces of despair.” This Advent, how might we resist the forces of despair and joylessness? Consider cultivating habits that awaken us to joy.