“Therefore, my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful ones see decay. You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”
Psalm 16:9-11, NIV
In everyday vernacular, words like love, joy, peace and happiness often collapse into one another, absent clearly defined boundaries. This is caused by the dilution and disintegration of speech through imprecise word choice. Because expedience can lead to the careless exchange of one word for another, love becomes interchangeable with lust, peace with passivity, justice with retribution, happiness with joy and so on. This phenomenon displays the withering effect that careless rhetoric has upon the medium of communication. Ultimately, our ability to accurately and precisely describe an emotion is what suffers. However, in the same vein, it would be a mistake to assert that all words have singular or univocal meanings. Words are always defined in relationship to other words and therefore the meaning of a word is continuously transferred and the responsibility of definition is shifted. Simply put, a word is always defined by another word. This demonstrates how defining something can be a bit nebulous. In some sense words are like little feedback loops that overlap with other similar feedback loops. These overlaid concentric circles can be grouped together into categories of words that are intertwined. Think of related words like joy, happiness, delight, excitement and celebration, to name a few. Each of these words is connected to each other in some manner of meaning and expression. Nonetheless, they each represent distinct emotional dispositions that differ from one another. There are necessary boundaries that keep words from collapsing into one giant puddle of ambiguity or uniformity.
With these considerations set aside we can begin to define “joy” and its related cognates, such as “joyous” or “rejoice.” In New Testament Greek, joy comes from chara (inner joy) and charein (to rejoice). What is fascinating is that joy is “derived from the same root (char), as the Greek word for grace (charis)” (Morrice, 512). Some of the words associated with defining joy include: delight, gladness and an occasion for joy.
What else can we say about joy? Some have argued that joy is a state of steady, inward contentment that is not determined by circumstance or situation. This is contrasted with happiness, which is dictated by particular experiences and is expressed outwardly at random intervals. However, this position seems to take for granted the call to “rejoice,” which is often associated with outward expressions of worship and celebration. It may be helpful to think, broadly speaking, of joy as an active choice and happiness as a contextual response. Happiness is often circumstantial, left to the whims of daily affairs or even our neurological and chemical balance. Joy contrasts with happiness in this regard, because joy can become something abiding.
Joy, with the indispensable assistance of the Holy Spirit, can become a steady source of peace, contentment and delight that we choose to cultivate moment by moment, day by day. One way of articulating it is that, “a person pursues happiness, but chooses joy.” Even so, these distinctions are rather unstable and are not without their faults. In the final analysis, joy is simply a deep well-spring from which to draw our peace, wholeness and continuous jubilation from.
As Paul concluded his letter to the Romans, he left them with a blessing by stating, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13). The relationship between joy and the Holy Spirit seems to be bilateral because as we are filled with joy and peace from trusting God, the power of the Holy Spirit overflows in us. This measure of joy is then increased even further by the power of the Holy Spirit. We know this because joy is listed as one of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians (5:22-23).
While Scripture encourages and promises that joy will be given to us, there is also an expectation and responsibility for the believer to choose joy themselves. Romans 12 encourages the reader to be “joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer” (Rom 12:12). Gladness and peace are within our reach. This is the present and earthly joy that is available to us in this life. Paradoxically, our present joy is coupled with the joy of the eschaton. There is joy now and there is joy to come. Our hope in this reality ultimately feeds and nourishes the joy that we already have, reminding us that the peace that God has given us now is merely a foretaste of things to come.
To experience the fullness of joy, one often has to become vulnerable. Vulnerability allows us to experience emotions in a less restricted fashion. When we are tense and defensive, the ability to feel something like joy is muted. Caution and defensiveness can protect us, but they can also inhibit our ability to experience something positively. For joy to be authentic, it has to be organic, not artificial.
The Bible is replete with proclamations, which often take the form of the exhortation, “Rejoice!” These appeals indicate that joy is not simply spontaneous. Joy is a conscious choice, an abiding gift and the presence of the divine within an individual. As we see in the New Testament, the language of being “in” Christ is fundamental to our sense of spiritual fulfillment, growth and identity. In tandem with God’s grace, individuals are invited and empowered to enter into life with and in Christ. It is through doing this that true and lasting joy is found, as described in Hebrews, where the author encourages us in 12:1-2 to run and endure the race set before us, “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorned its shame and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” The same joy that was set before Jesus is also set before us. In fact, it is promised that this joy is not just a future privilege, but a present one!
The question facing us presently is how to bring joy from the abstract to the practical. It is one thing to know what joy is, it is something else entirely to experience joy. The experience of joy is not a result of just one thing. It is multifaceted. Joy comes from knowing your purpose and from living in the reality of that purpose. As Christians, our purpose is ultimately boiled down to loving God and loving others. When we know our purpose, we have a reason to live and when we have a reason to live, the uncertainties and burdens of life become far more bearable. Joy can become the fuel that carries us through life. An ongoing relationship with God cultivates, sustains and matures our joy and ultimately multiplies it, if we choose to allow it. A passage in John’s Gospel comes to mind. While speaking on the subject of our present trials and tribulations which often give us grief, Jesus tells us that there will come a time when our hearts will rejoice and that, “no one will take your joy away from you” (John 16:22, NASB). Following that statement, Jesus encourages us to, “ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be made full” (16:24, NASB).
In short, joy takes ownership and openness. It requires us to shift our disposition so that we ourselves are nurturing and pollinating our inner being with joy. In addition to this, we need to be open to asking for more joy, coming before God with the expectation that He will faithfully provide. If we don’t utilize our own autonomy or God’s grace, then we will simply maintain the status quo.
Employees in organizations like Damascus Way can and should become greater conduits of joy in the workplace and in our interactions with the residents. As followers of Christ, this joy should come naturally. At the same time, this joy is more than just a response to spontaneous and accidental moments that occur at random in a day or a week. Instead, this joy is a steady, “assurance” that dwells within us just as the Spirit does. Nehemiah tells us that this joy comes from the Lord and it is our strength! The point of this month’s article is to remind ourselves that while joy is an impromptu experience, it can also be innate.
We have the capacity to carry a deep-seated joy without it becoming generic or purely situational. This joy comes from a place of truth because it emerges from our genuine belief that there is good, that there is beauty and that there is joy in life and in all the things that God has created and sustained. Consider the Apostle Paul’s own demeanor when he wrote from prison. His hardships did not deflate his joy. In fact, his difficulties may have had just the opposite effect. Without a doubt, the Apostle was not without his sorrows or his afflictions and he certainly felt the spectrum of emotions that all of us have felt in life. But what Paul did not lose in the midst of his imprisonment was his inner hope, peace and joy, the kind which carried him through all kinds of suffering. In his prison epistles, Paul reiterates that his circumstances have not diminished his joy. When we embrace Paul’s approach to joy, it becomes an everyday experience rather than a novelty.
G. Morrice. “Joy” in the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin and Daniel G. Reid. Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1993.