Can We Trust Joy?

Updated: May 11, 2020

No one in their right mind should pop an atomic warhead candy into their mouth. Its flavor is meant to cause pain and tears, being sour and spicy to an extreme level. Though, if one can endure the piece of candy, they will get the sweetest center. It almost makes the journey worth it.

Should Christians be happy or miserable? That seems to be the looming question. Should we expect that the work of Christ only offers the sour and spicy or put our whole hope in the sweetness?

In Christian circles, the word joy is problematic. Some people have bad expectations behind it, while others are afraid to want it. One viewpoint will think of joy as an optional add-on to a pious life of holy living. A free-flowing viewpoint might assume that joy is an energy drink for the soul and God has an endless fridge of them. Here's a quick test for you to see where you fall. Which of the following statements do you trust more?

Pastor Says:

"You will get joy from following Jesus."

"You will get work and trials from following Jesus."

I will be honest. Some movements have taught me not to trust the top statement as much as the below one. The above statement suggests that God is responsible for a positive energy, a bright outlook, a journey toward delight. The bottom line suggests that displeasure and pain is an inevitable truth. Why do we cling toward the negative?

What is joy? Is it just a happy euphoria from dwelling on God? Is it a rush of serotonin to the brain that will help us accomplish goals? I can attest that a mind steeped in depression and anxiety will find it next to impossible to get work done, so there is an obvious benefit to being "happy". Joy and happiness share many similarities, but one major difference. Joy and happiness mean that something positive and life-improving is available to us; a good quality of existence is within our reach. When we are in contact with it, our countenance brightens and our body feels lighter than air. When your wife announces pregnancy you can be happy and joyful. When you get a new job you can be happy and joyful.

But joy, in the Christian definition, has something that happiness does not have.

Here's what joy can do that happiness can't. You have been spending days in quarantine. The people you live with get on your nerves, the food is bland, the lack of work is mind-numbing, and the computer binging is not fun anymore. Happiness demands that one of the negative things above changes. It can't budge until something is done. Not true with joy. Joy can do investigative work and come up with new possibilities. Joy can dig up God's wisdom and care in the situation even if the evidence isn't present. It uses binoculars when it can't see. It imagines an outcome that doesn't make itself clear.

Here's an example of joy versus happiness.

 "A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world." John 16:21

In many church circles, we are taught to cling to the labor pains of this example as the truth. Pain you can trust and it won't disappoint you. It's the "child is born" part that we are suspicious of. The opposite side is when churches teach you that a child will always be born without any labor pains. I err more on the side of trusting too much in the labor pains over the arrival of a "new baby."

Thus we have two sides of a promise. The struggle and the goodness that comes from it. The struggle is meant to be forgotten and erased over time, while the joy is eternal. Jesus wanted this joy in our life.

“I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them." John 17:13

This isn't wishful thinking or a far off hope. Our greatest joy is Christ overcoming death to sit at the right hand of the Father. Eternal life, the benefits of adoption, the riches of God are something to celebrate. If we were to look deeply into what "that coming baby" provides, it would far outweigh the labor pains.

I write this article because I am not convinced the intellectual sector of the church knows how much we need joy. Scripture calls joy a strength, a fullness, health for the bones. It's one of the primary engines of motivation. It transforms the religious law (10% tithe) into a glorious outpouring (the Macedonian church gave out of their poverty).

We have abused the word joy and I can understand our mistrust of it. There are some churches that want to make joy feel like a vending machine or a mandated unemployment check. They oversell God's power to heal and make rich and try to unlock it. They are not abusing joy, though. They are abusing relationship goals with the Lord. If my wife only thought my main purpose was backrubs she would be missing the joy behind me. Likewise, if you thought your parent's main purpose was to buy you amazing toys for your birthday and Christmas, then you would be missing the greater goal of them preparing you for a fulfilling career.

The other way we abuse joy is by linking it to a serotonin rush or a laughing gas effect. Those things are boosters that make life easier (also a gift from God), but they are not strength you can rely on overtime or trust in hard moments. Why did Dietrich Bonhoeffer resist the Nazis? Because he had a good cup of coffee or was the joy of having Christ's reign over Hitler sustaining him. Why did Paul say that he rejoices in his suffering (2 Cor 6:10)? Was he crazy? The greatest example was Christ on the cross.

"Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." Hebrews 12:2

Here is my greatest fear. Divorcing positivity and soul-lifting moments from the Lord does not make us better Christians. It means that we have to take a happiness supplement. If God is not the provider of goodness then Netflix, Amazon sales, and pantry binging will take its place.

If the Gospel means good news, then we can expect moments of struggle and happiness from time to time. But we can fully rely on the joy of Christ as our driving force.

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