The Takeaway - Joy
Today we’ll be focusing on the joy of God as fuel for our lives—and we’ll explore how we can receive God’s joy and share it with the world. Spoiler alert: it’s not by focusing on what’s next, planning the next adventure, or looking for fun. Listen in.
“Joy to the World, the Lord is come: Let earth receive her King; let every heart prepare Him room, and heaven and nature sing...”
“Joy to the World, the Savior reigns: Let us our songs employ while fields and floods, rocks, hill, and plains, repeat the sounding joy…”
Can you imagine Christmas without this hymn? It’s the most published hymn in North America, not a surprise. Joy is not to be missed.
I understand the appeal of joy. It’s my personal word of the year for 2020. I remember sitting at a dinner table in December 2019, with a group of friends: each of us shared our hopes and dreams for the year ahead. I shared that I wanted to be joyful in 2020, and I wanted my joy to be independent of circumstances. I didn’t want to tether joy to my health, attitude, work, or relationships. I wanted to feel joy, true joy. What a wish! 2020 has given me lots of opportunities to find true, lasting joy, free of circumstance.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines joy as a vivid emotion of pleasure, extreme gladness. In the Old Testament, one of the Hebrew words for joy is simcha, meaning joy, gladness, and mirth. And a synonym for simcha is sason, meaning exultation, rejoicing.
In the New Testament, the main Greek word for joy is chara, often used with a preposition to denote the source from which the joy comes. Chara is often connected with a festive dinner or banquet—a celebration. Another related Greek word is euphrosune, meaning joy, gladness, cheerfulness. And a final Greek word for joy is agalliasis—which even sounds joyful—
meaning exultation. The languages of Hebrew and Greek seem to enjoy articulating joy.
So what do the Scriptures say about joy? Surprisingly a lot, it turns out.
Joy is foundational to the Biblical story. The oldest part of the Scriptures, Exodus 15-16, the songs of Moses and Miriam, are songs of joy sung to God, after God delivers Israel through the Red Sea.
Bottom line about joy in the Scriptures is this: Joy is experienced anywhere God is near. “In your presence, there is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16.11). The search for true joy becomes the search for God. God is found in nature, Jerusalem (especially the temple), kings of Israel, and aspects of God’s kingdom (the messiah, the good news, and Jesus’ resurrection). Let’s examine these places where God dwells.
God is present in nature. Even nature itself experiences joy: “the hills gird themselves with joy” and the meadows and valleys “shout and sing together with joy” (Psalm 65) “Let the earth rejoice… all the trees of the forest shall sing for joy” (Psalm 96)
God is also present in Jerusalem. Those in Jerusalem, and specifically the temple, experience joy, in drawing near to God. God is present in the temple, enthroned on the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies. God is also present in the holy city of Jerusalem, where the festivals of Passover, Weeks, and Booths are celebrated. So imagine with me a pilgrimage festival in Jerusalem: gathered people of Israel; God’s word heard; oil of gladness received; feasts cooked, smelled, and tasted; music heard and offered—especially singing. “Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth” (Psalm 100.1) Where God is remembered and celebrated, joy is experienced.
God is also present to the kings of Israel. Anointing of kings brings joy to God’s people. When David is anointed king of Israel, people came bringing “abundant provisions of meal, fig cakes, raisins, wine, oil, oxen, and sheep, for there was joy in Israel” (1 Chronicles 12.40).
God’s kingdom, the territory where God is in charge, is marked by joy: the joy of the Messiah, the joy of good news, and the joy of the resurrection.
God is most especially present in the Messiah, God’s anointed one. Jesus brings joy to earth, from the moment of his birth. In the words of the angels to the shepherds: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2.10). When the wisemen finally approach Jesus, “they are overwhelmed with joy” (Matthew 2.10).
God is present in the good news about Jesus, which brings joy to the whole world. The Apostle Paul talks about our “joy in faith” (Philippians 1.25)—that joy we have in our connection to and trust in God.
Finally, Jesus’ resurrection brings joy. After listening to the angel’s message at the empty tomb, Mary and Mary Magdalene “left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to tell his disciples” (Matthew 28.10). Then Jesus appears unexpectedly to the disciples a little later, who “in their joy were disbelieving and still wondering” (Luke 24.41).
There’s a specific theme running through the Old and New Testaments about joy: the theme that pain can be transformed into joy by God. Not always, yet can be.
In the words of Psalm 30: “weeping may linger for a night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30.5); and “you have turned my mourning into dancing, you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy” (Psalm 30.11). And the blessing in Psalm 126: “May those who sow in tears reap in joy” (Psalm 126.1).
Jesus talks about this transformation when foretelling of his suffering, death, and resurrection: “you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy” (John 16.20).
The Apostle Paul also describes how pain and sorrow can coexist with joy: Paul describes himself as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6.10).
How does this transformation work? Sorrow, pain, and death are transformed into joy, pleasure, and life by Jesus himself—by his sufferings, death, and resurrection. We see some of the fruits of this transformation here on earth; we will see the culmination of this transformation in the coming kingdom.
So what? How can you and I participate in the joy that God intends for us? How can we lean into it? How can we draft off of it? How can we fill up with divine joy in the fuel tanks of our lives?
Not by following freedom wherever it leads: exploring possibilities, options, adventures. Not by looking ahead to what is next, to what lies just around the bend: the next moment, the next appointment, the next meal, the next trip. Not by flipping negatives into positives, quickly reframing our struggles into hidden opportunities. Not by doubling down on enthusiasm, adventures, and fun. This pandemic summer has led many of us down this road. I have tried to focus on the next fun thing—any fun thing—to keep our spirits up: it’s my way of thumbing my nose at the virus. Yet true joy does not come from the next thing, or from entertainment, or from fun.
The quest to be free is the quest of Enneagram sevens, known as “The Enthusiasts.” Recall that the enneagram is a personality model that describes how we see and interact with the world—and how we grow into our true selves and our true callings. The divine attribute that sevens most reflect is God’s joy. The most common way they get sidetracked in life is their need to be free—free for whatever the next moment has to offer. In order to meet this need, they have an eye to the future—next person or thing or experience. Surely a seven coined the term, FOMO. They get tripped up by overindulgence—their gluttony—in the pleasures of life. In the words of Angelica Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton, in the musical Hamilton: “I have never been satisfied.”
Sevens have my vote as the most enjoyable number on the enneagram. Their enthusiasm is contagious—they are the kind of people you want to be around. You can float along on their magic carpet of fun. It’s a great ride.
Yet the way ahead for all of us in growing in joy, and not just for Enneagram sevens, is to be grounded. Becoming grounded—in mind, body, and heart—is the antidote to overindulgence or gluttony.
Grounded literally means connected to the earth, the ground. Come with me back to physics class for a moment. Remember electricity? Electrical ground is the path where electricity goes to rest, the path of least resistance, literally connected to the earth, the ground. You know those three-prong plugs (and outlets) at your house? The third, round prong connects to ground. Grounded plugs and outlets are part of a safety system (along with circuit breakers), providing a path for extra electricity to discharge in case of a short circuit, electrical surge, fire, or other emergency. Grounded plugs and outlets work by being connected to the earth.
Now, like electricity, we as people need to be grounded. There are three dimensions of growing in groundedness, and therefore joy: mind, body, and heart.
To become grounded in your mind, meditate on the present moment using the mantra “I am here now.” This will shift your attention away from the future to the present. And meditate to strengthen your mind to accept all of what is: pleasure, pain; positive, negative; joy, sorrow.
And to become grounded in your body, breathe. Tether yourself to the present moment—only place where true joy is found. Do less; your energetic busyness distracts you from what you really need to do in the present moment. Finish what you start, before moving on to the next thing. Follow through.
And, finally, to become grounded in your heart, welcome all your feelings. Don’t just stay in the half-range of positive feelings, welcome it all: pain, sorrow, disappointment, disgust, anger, fear, shame. Specifically, be present to your own suffering—and the suffering of others. Examine where you avoid commitment in relationships—where your quest for freedom gets in the way of true joy that’s meant for you.
These three paths of joy in mind, body, and heart will lead you to your true self, you’ll be in your right mind, ready to savor true joy.
And then you can begin to ask yourself the question: “how can I experience true joy, as God intended?” Growing in joy happens through the backdoor of becoming grounded.
As we turn to God in prayer, I’ll guide you through a version of the Prayer of Examen, from St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. There will be two main questions that I’ll ask you in the prayer, and some moments of silence.
Let us pray.
Take a few deep breaths. Center yourself in this present moment.
Draw near to me as I draw near to you
Guide me as I review my day in your presence.
I invite you to ask yourself the question: where did I experience joy today?
I offer thanks to you, O God, for all that brought me joy.
And I invite you to ask yourself the question: where did I experience sorrow or pain today?
For those sorrows that I caused, guide me towards reconciliation
with those I have hurt.
For all the rest, receive my pain, Jesus Christ.
Comfort me, O wounded healer.
Send your grace to restore me, O God,
So that I might share that grace tomorrow.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Until next week,
Ground yourself in the present moment.
It is the only moment you’ll ever have, and it’s where you’ll find God—and joy.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15.13)
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, world without end, Amen.