What is joy anyway? It’s one of those words we all think we understand, but sometimes I wonder.
I’ve written before on how longing is the ground of joy, but a friend pointed out that I didn’t actually define joy in that piece. A fair criticism, that if I’m honest was because I was still trying to find a neat way of saying what I wanted to and feared that an around the subject rumination would take the length of four usual posts and perhaps not leave you wiser at the end.
So, foolishly, I’m going to attempt that now. As my jumping off point I want to start with 1 Peter 1.8-9.
Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
Is your life characterised by a joy inexpressible that is filled with glory? Hearts around the world sink as they read the question. It probably isn’t because what you’re picturing is effervescent extroverts who act like they’re modelling for a Coke advert all the time.
Your life may not be characterised by a joy inexpressible that is filled with glory, but I do wonder if part the problem is our expectations. I pulled that quote out of 1 Peter without the context. He’s just told them that they’re going to suffer, they should expect to know grief, and they live in a time that is dying while (he hints) belonging to a time that has yet to be birthed. He is not writing to a bunch of happy clappy charismatics (though joy is for them too) who are so heavenly minded they’re no earthly use—he’s writing to people who know challenge, ostracism, difficulty, and the mind-numbingly cold embrace of grief.
The grammar of the Greek tells us that this is not a command, but a description. Thank goodness. I’ve been in that church where happy faces are demanded and tears considered anathema (though to be fair, the churches where no emotions are visible are also a problem). There is no condemnation if your natural disposition is melancholic, we are not being told that we have to act as people who we aren’t.
Joy is not happiness. We think it is, but it’s not. How do we know? Because Peter makes it clear that it co-exists with grief (look up chapter 1 and read from verse 3, see what I mean?). Happiness changes with emotion, joy co-exists with emotions. Which of course should lead us to a conclusion: joy isn’t an emotion.
What is Christian Joy?
Psalm 16 suggests that we can find joy in God’s presence, and Hebrews 12 tells us that Jesus went to the cross for the joy set before him. But what is it?
Peter gave us two clues in chapter 1 of his first epistle. I’ve mentioned both already: grief and time.
Joy can coexist with grief. In fact, as I’ve argued before, it rarely exists without it. We suffer, whether the deep griefs of Death’s cruel violence or the petty griefs of shattered dreams and dashed hopes, we all carry grief with us in buckets yoked to our shoulders.
We can use them to lift up our heads and encounter a waft—like the smell from a plate being brought to someone else’s table—of a time when we will not be suffering as we are. That waft is what we call joy. Grief can work to break us enough to let the light in—though I don’t think it’s a guarantee that it works this way.
And time? It’s when our griefs make us look forward to the age to come that we begin to long for it. Longing is the ground of joy, because it builds in us a genuine hope of seeing Christ.
Why does that matter? Because joy in the New Testament in a technical term for sharing in the life of Christ. For tasting what is to come. It’s the reality behind what we call reality. It’s encountering the life of God in Christ. It is unspeakable as the NIV has it, though I’m trying. It’s the beatific vision or, if you like, its sacramental ontology. It’s being invited into God to know and be known.
It is, quite simply, participation.
It might make you erupt in a big belly laugh at the ridiculous scandal of the cross, or it might sit as a cold ache in the pit of your belly that reaches for what is not yet the case, but both are reactions to true joy.
To paraphrase John Calvin, joy is glorified and solid and permanent and beyond the danger of being brought to nothing. We need that.
And it’s ours in Christ, friends. Taste and see that he is sweet (Psalm 34).
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