Good News of Great Joy

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Good News of Great Joy
Reflections on the Centrality of Joy in the Christian Gospel

The mission statement of Immanuel UCC is

To bring everyone into
a joy-filled relationship
with Jesus Christ
that will transform their lives
and make even the impossible possible!

Leading people into a transformative relationship with God in Christ - a relationship that is characterized by joy - is at the heart of our mission.

Why joy? Why describe our relationship with Jesus as "joy-filled"? Why not "faith-filled," "hope-filled," or "love-filled"? Isn't the expectation of a "joy-filled" relationship asking a little too much?

It is if we interpret "joy-filled" as "fun-filled," "pleasure-filled," or even "happiness-filled." Too often, we assume that joy is simply a flippant, superficial, euphoric feeling with little substance and no lasting value. However, this is not what joy is. Joy is much more significant. It is a deep, abiding emotion that is able to co-exist with

  • fear: "And they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to report it to His disciples." (Matthew 28:8)
  • trials: "My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy." (James 1:2)
  • persecution: "And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit." (1 Thessalonians 1:6)
  • suffering: "But rejoice in so far as you are sharing Christ's sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed." (1 Peter 4:13)

Joy enabled Jesus to endure the horrors of crucifixion: "Jesus... who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:2). If joy can co-exist with crucifixion, it must be more than superficial froth! It is deeper and more abiding than fun or pleasure because it finds its source in God's love and its strength in God's purpose.


What is Joy?

Joy is not a superficial emotion but an abiding God-given reality. Catholic theologian Joseph Murphy provides an excellent summary of joy:

Authentic joy is not something flippant, transient, or superficial, nor is it a mere feeling of euphoria that can be generated at will or by engaging in the various forms of pleasure or entertainment that today's world has to offer. Rather, it is an abiding God-given reality, a "fruit of the Holy Spirit" (see Gal 5:22), characterized by profound serenity and inner peace, which flows from allowing oneself to be embraced by God's love and is capable of withstanding all the trials and tribulations of life.[1]

Joy is neither an ecstatic feeling of euphoria nor a fleeting experience of pleasure. Pleasure is fleeting because it is easily achieved. "We do not have to dedicate much energy to the capacity for pleasure. We do not have to do anything special to taste the deliciousness of chocolate cake. We have only to put it in our mouth."[2] Joy, on the other hand, is deep, substantial, and lasting - able to endure after pleasure subsides. As an example of joy, Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann offers his experience of watching an elderly couple in the park:

They were sitting hand in hand, in silence, enjoying the pale light, the last warmth of the season. In silence: all words had been said, all passion exhausted, all storms at peace. The whole life was behind--yet all of it was now present, in this silence, in this light, in this warmth, in this silent unity of hands. Present--and ready for eternity, ripe for joy.[3]

The words "fun," "pleasure," and even "happiness" do not suffice to adequately describe this experience. Something deeper and more abiding is at work - something better described as a "profound serenity and inner peace."

This serenity "flows from allowing oneself to be embraced by God's love and is capable of withstanding all the trials and tribulations of life." Joy is rooted outside of the self and in the love and will of God. It is for this reason that joy can exist in the midst of suffering. The awareness that God is present in one's trial provides a sense of meaning, purpose, and significance that is the bedrock for joy.

Because joy is rooted in God's will and saving purpose, the joyful person knows that suffering is not the final word - no matter how dark and difficult circumstances become. In view of God's redemption, joy follows suffering like day follows night. This theme is constantly repeated throughout the Bible. The psalmist writes, "Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning" (Psalm 30:5). Through the prophet Jeremiah, God speaks to Israel, "I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow" (Jeremiah 31:13). Jesus comforted his disciples on the night of his passion, "you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy... So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you" (John 16:20, 22).

The promise that joy will follow suffering is common in sacred scripture because, as people of promise, Israel believed that grief will "be interrupted one day by a grace that is deeper than lamentation and grief... grief is destined to be swallowed up by joy--not replaced by joy, not distracted by joy, not entertained by joy, but comprehended by joy, such that in the measure one grieves one comes to know an even deeper quiet joy."[4]

This is true even during times of great suffering, even the suffering of disease and death. Though it is true that "disease and death might well triumph over our lives," it is also true that "[t]hey have no place in God's kingdom and cannot do what they seek to do, that is, frustrate God's purpose or separate us from God's love. For that reason, one can even talk about joy in the midst of suffering, perhaps even begin to talk about joy precisely there."[5] It is this robust joy that allowed Jesus to endure the cross (Hebrews 12:2).

The gospel is a message of joy. It proclaims that joy "is at the heart of Christianity" because the gospel "is a message about meaning and about love: man's life has meaning because he is loved by the one love that can never fail."[6] Human life is not absurd - a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. We can rejoice that God's love gives our lives meaning: "God loves us so much that his love became and remains flesh."[7]


The Gospel - An Invitation to Joy

The first word of the gospel is joy. On the eve of the birth of Christ, the angel announced to the shepherds, "Behold, I bring you good news of great joy for all people" (Luke 2:10).[8] The gospel is no less than an invitation to joy.[9] "The Christian message, the gospel or 'glad tidings', reveals the path to the lasting joy that satisfies the deepest needs of the human heart."[10] It satisfies our deepest needs because it is an invitation to enter into the experience of the triune God.

God is the God of joy. The scriptures speak of the "blessed God" (1 Timothy 1:11). The Spirit is the Spirit of "joy." Jesus is the "blessed Son, in whom the Father delights." The life of the Triune God is a radiant with joy. Out of the overflow of joyous love between Father, Son, and Spirit, God chose to create all things. And with all things God wills to share God's love and joy. A Hindi mystical text, Mundaka Upanishad, states this truth beautifully in a poetic fashion:

From joy springs all creation.
By joy it is sustained,
Toward joy it proceeds,
And to joy it returns.

God rejoices over one sinner who repents. Jesus taught that our life's pursuit should be to hear these words from God, "Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master." The psalmist declared, "In your presence there is fullness of joy" (Psalm 16:11). Paul wrote, "For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:17).

The gospel is the declaration of the good news of God's joy in this world and God's joyful desire that all creation participate in God's joy. This is the good news of great joy - God has come among us in order to lift us into the divine joy. When we sing, "Joy to the World, the Lord is come!" we are declaring the gospel!


Good News People

As people of the good news we are called to live "joy-filled" lives. In Celebration of Discipline, author Richard Foster contends that we need a "joyful spirit of festivity" because "it is an occupational hazard of devout folk to become stuffy bores. They should not be. Of all people, we should be the most free, alive, interesting. Celebration adds a note of festivity and hilarity to our lives."[11] The tragedy of life is not in how much we suffer, but in how much joy we miss.

Unfortunately, sometimes we feel too guilty to express joy. How can we rejoice when things are so bad? When the economy is in such desperate straits? When people continue to suffer war, injustice, hunger, violence, and cruelty?[12] Somber times call for sobriety, not celebration - right? And, anyway, isn't joy a little irreverent? Doesn't God want us to be serious?

But the gospel calls us to joy. Feasts, festivals, celebration, joyful singing and loud praise are regular components of God's community. Alexander Schmemann writes,

Feast means joy. Yet, if there is something that we--the serious, adult and frustrated Christians of the twentieth century--look at with suspicion, it is certainly joy. How can one be joyful when so many people suffer? When so many things are to be done? How can one indulge in festivals and celebrations when people expect from us "serious" answers to their problems? Consciously or subconsciously Christians have accepted the whole ethos of our joyless and business-minded culture. They believe that the only way to be taken "seriously" by the "serious"--that is, by modern man--is to be serious, and, therefore, to reduce to a symbolic "minimum" what in the past was so tremendously central in the life of the Church--the joy of a feast. The modern world has relegated joy to the category of "fun" and "relaxation." It is justified and permissible on our "time off"; it is a concession, a compromise. And Christians have come to believe all this, or rather they have ceased to believe that the feast, the joy have something to do precisely with the "serious problems" of life itself, may even be the Christian answer to them.[13]

When we resign ourselves to joyless survival, we betray the message of the gospel and we fail to follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus was full of joy. Jesus was not always deadly serious. If this were the case, we can hardly imagine that children would have flocked around him. Children aren't attracted to joyless curmudgeons.

Jesus' wit and humor is evident in his teaching. When he taught that we should not be offended by the splinter in another's eye when we have a log in our own; when he spoke of the blind leading the blind; when he stated that the Pharisees swallowed a camel while straining at a gnat; when he taught these things we must assume that the crowd broke out in laughter and that Jesus himself was garnishing a mischievous smile. We must never forget that "[i]n the Synoptics, the complaint most often voiced against Jesus is not that he is grimly prophetic, but rather that he is a 'glutton and a drunkard' who enjoys the life of the party a bit too much, and inevitably with the wrong people (Matt. 11:19)."[14]

Unfortunately, for some Christians, a laughing, joking, dancing Jesus is not attractive. They prefer a Jesus who - with a glazed look in his eye - floats two feet over the ground, never quite touching down on this earth. This is tragic, for laughter and humor are gifts from God. They reveal a heart filled with playful joy - a heart focused on God's kingdom and not consumed with oneself. 

If the life of heaven is full of joy, play, and laughter, the life of hell is void of these things. In C. S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters an archdemon, Wormwood, counsels the junior demon, Screwtape, on the art of temptation. Wormwood teaches Screwtape that laughter, joy, and mirth are repulsive to the ego-infested environs of hell. He writes, "Laughter... does us no good and should always be discouraged. Besides, this phenomenon is of itself disgusting and a direct insult to the realism, dignity, and austerity of hell."[15] In other words, laughter is inappropriate for people caught up in their own self-importance.

John Wesley was right, "A sour religion is the devil's religion." We must never forget that even though "[l]ove may be the first fruit of the Spirit... the second is joy [Gal. 5:22]."[16] We know that we've taken ourselves far too seriously when we trade abundant joy for miserly seriousness - when we are too serious to laugh at ourselves or find time for play and joyful celebration.

In his Journals, Alexander Schmemann wrote, "I think God will forgive everything except lack of joy; when we forget that God created the world and saved it. Joy is not one of the components of Christianity, it's the tonality of Christianity that penetrates everything--faith and vision."[17]

Jesus' teaching had one goal: "I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete" (John 15:11). Jesus' apostles shared the same goal: "We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete" (1 John 1:4). Paul's ministry was driven by one thing: "we are workers with you for your joy, because you stand firm in the faith" (2 Corinthians 1:24). The pastoral ministry, in all its dimensions, is, ultimately, "a service to joy, to God's joy which longs to break into the world."[18]

C. S. Lewis is right: "But in this world everything is upside down... Joy is the serious business of heaven."[19] Joy is serious business because it is the emotion that best reflects the gospel message - the good news of great joy!


Conclusion

The Westminster Catechism begins with this question, "What is the chief end of man?" The answer: "To glorify God and enjoy him forever." This is perhaps the most succinct summary of our chief duty and delight. We have been created by God in order to share God's joy - the joyous love of Father, Son, and Spirit.

The gospel is no less than an invitation to joy because "joy is the serious business of heaven." Joy is not a flippant, superficial, euphoric feeling with little substance and no lasting value. "Rather, it is an abiding God-given reality, a "fruit of the Holy Spirit" (see Gal 5:22), characterized by profound serenity and inner peace, which flows from allowing oneself to be embraced by God's love and is capable of withstanding all the trials and tribulations of life."[20]

It is offered by those who participate in a life-changing relationship with Jesus - a relationship that is "joy-filled." Our invitation to others is this: "Rejoice with me. Share my joy. For it is the joy of Jesus Christ - the joy of God." Schmemann is correct: "But joy was given to the Church for the world--that the Church might be a witness to it and transform the world by joy."[21]


[1] Joseph Murphy, Christ Our Joy: The Theological Vision of Pope Benedict XVI (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), 3.

[2] Wendy Farley, The Wounding and Healing of Desire: Weaving Heaven and Earth (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 133.

[3] Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1973), 90.

[4] Thomas W. Currie, The Joy of Ministry (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 26.

[5] Currie, The Joy of Ministry, 76.

[6] Murphy, Christ Our Joy, 206.

[7] Murphy, Christ Our Joy, 130.

[8] Joy abounds in Luke's Gospel. The angel tells Elizabeth, "You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth" (Luke 1:14). When pregnant Elizabeth meets pregnant Mary, she says, "As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy" (Luke 1:44).

[9] See also Zephaniah 3:14 and Zechariah 9:9.

[10] Murphy, Christ Our Joy, 3.

[11] Quoted from Jennifer Leigh Selig, Thinking Outside the Church: 110 Ways to Connect with your Spiritual Nature (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2004), 2.

[12] The fact that joy can exist alongside hardship and suffering is reflected in the Advent hymn, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." In this song, an exiled, oppressed, downtrodden people are encouraged to rejoice in spite of their present circumstances. In the same way, we can preach the gospel to a people suffering in the midst of economic downturn, surrounded by wars, plagued with fears. Indeed, as Schmemann's quote demonstrates, this is exactly what a sad world needs to hear.

[13] Schmemann, For the Life of the World, 53.

[14] Currie, The Joy of Ministry, 122.

[15] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 50.

[16] Currie, The Joy of Ministry, 122.

[17] Currie, The Joy of Ministry, 4.

[18] Murphy, Christ Our Joy, 2.

[19] C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1963), 93.

[20] Murphy, Christ Our Joy, 3.

[21] Schmemann, For the Life of the World, 55.


© Richard J. Vincent, 2008

1 Comment

Rich, Thank you for this piece. I think we (the church)all need to hear this and implement it into our lives. We can only transform the world through the joy of our life in God. Joy is serious business, and we need to show the world that our joy is full because of our relationship to God and the church.

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