“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4 NASB)
I’ve been asking this question for a long time: What is joy, and can it always be present? Many people dear to me have been hurting or even dying in the last twelve months, so grief and sadness have been our companions. Paul says, “weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice” (Romans 12:15), so I wonder if sadness and grief should get as much air time as joy.
Kent and I have been going through some hard times lately. Pastor Mark visited recently, and asked, “What do you need?” Among other things, I said, “I need to understand faith and prayer and joy.” When you’re constantly in the presence of suffering, what does a Christian do? Prayers feel desperate, faith feels smaller than a mustard seed, joy feels incomprehensible. Sometimes I smile, but my baseline state seems to be enduring or mourning. Is this what it means to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord?
C.S. Lewis encountered joy for the first time in his harrowing youth while living in horrid public boarding schools in the British Isles. In his autobiographical book, Surprised by Joy, he describes a quality of experience he names Joy that he encountered just three times in that phase of life.
[That quality] is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. (p. 11) Joy . . . must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing. (p. 40)
When joy has shown up in my life recently, it definitely has been accompanied by longing—longing for an end to pain and troubles way beyond my capacity to escape or solve.
Jesus may have experienced this kind of joy, if we can call it joy, during his final, awful days leading up to the cross. Hebrews 12:1-2 reads like this in the NASB:
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the Joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Jesus’ joy here is a future joy. He endured the cross and he despised the shame, counting on the future joy. Jesus didn’t love the shame of mistreatment and rejection and torture. He wasn’t even neutral about it, or above it in some mystical way. He despised it.
We humans must grapple with sickness and sin and the corruption of the world, just as Jesus did. Like Jesus, we believers have joy set before us. We’re sick now, but we’ll be healed. We’re dying now, but we’ll be resurrected. We’re facing obstacles now, but we’ll be in flow. We hope for a future joy, and in the meantime, we endure through our trials, heads down to meet the difficulty, and we hate the illnesses or injuries or manifestations of evil that are crushing the life out of us or those we love. Jesus didn’t love evil and I’m not required to.
I heard long ago: “Joy is the flag flown from the heart when the King is in residence.” God’s nearness is the thing; joy is a byproduct. I think the meaning of the flag is the flutter of “Abba, Father”—”I belong to God.” In the darkest nights, when prayers are wordless and tears run free, that sense of belonging to God, and longing for His will to be done in every single thing, is the only joy I have, but it’s the genuine article.
Jani can be reached by email here.