Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice,
and no one will take away your joy.
We were talking about happiness yesterday, Jenn and me. She is a bit younger than me (quite a bit) and she’s still working, but she’s been poorly, and it’s January, and it’s cold, and we’re all fed up with the Covid stuff, and she’s a bit broke, so she was feeling blue. We’ve all been there. As we spoke, something seemed to interest her, a definition that I heard a couple of years ago, from a wise Pastor, about happiness, and it went something like this: happiness is fleeting, affected by our circumstances – when everything is going well we are happy but as soon as our circumstances take a dip, so does our happiness. Joy, on the other hand, is with us whatever our circumstances. Joy is not dependent on our environment, or the weather, or success and wealth or any other external influence. It isn’t even dependent on health (one of the most joyful people I’ve spent time with recently was dying).
Jenn couldn’t name something that gave her joy and even when she spoke of happiness she struggled – she just shrugged and said ‘I just want to be… you know… happy.” I said that I’ve been happy and it doesn’t last. Now I look for something calmer, deeper, and that’s called joy. Christ is my joy. No-one and nothing else ( I can be quite annoying like that, but it just popped out. I wasn’t in a pulpit wearing a surplice) .
Joy is deeper, truer, sturdier than happiness. I would even say that we can be unhappy and still joyful. I’m sometimes sad and often lonely but there’s always a core of joy and wonder, keeping my head above the waves. Jenn isn’t Christian and I wondered if I was making any sense but she was interested. Her head went on the side, as she explored the ideas, following her own train of thoughts. After a while, of course, we turned to other things but when she left to go home she said ‘Going to think about joy. See if I can find what you have.’
I’ve just looked up a few definitions of joy, and Merriam-Webster and the Oxford Concise are both inclined to tie joy in with happiness, link it to success and all the rest of those happy-making things. Who is right, them or my Pastor and me? Well, come on, folks. It’s obviously him and me, innit? Are we ever wrong? (Shush, now)
But listen, if joy was the same as happiness and the two were tied in with success and money, mansions and luxury, how is that so many millionaires are miserable, dissatisfied with what they already have? Why do successful people commit suicide? How come private clinics are full of wealthy cocaine and alcohol addicts, of millionaires struggling with depression? If joy and happiness are both connected to our environment and our success how is it that so many wealthy couples end up in acrimonious divorce battles? How on earth is that the harder we strive for happiness the more desperate we are and the further away it seems?
I was supremely happy yesterday, driving up the coast to get my car serviced. The sky was an amazing blue and as the car crested a hill a great murmuration of starlings flew across the road, seeming to rise from the hedge on my right, almost surrounding the car. It was a wonderful moment of almost-flying and I was SO happy. Thirty minutes later I was at the harbour and in the café where I had planned to have lunch and read my book while the car was serviced but the kitchen was closed and the proprietor was grumpy. I was not happy. Half an hour later I was in another restaurant, my lunch was being cooked and I was happy. An hour after that I heard that I needed two new tyres and I was a bit glum again. But through it all, happy or less happy, I was living in joy. I was. Don’t look at me like that. I was.
I think my wise Pastor has the truth, not Merriam-Webster. There is a difference between feeling happy and knowing joy. I make the distinction deliberately; we feel happy and we know joy. Because, (and I have only just realised this, as I write) joy is Joy. Joy is a person, a truth, a reality. Joy is Jesus Christ.
Jesus, known and experienced as our God and Lord, is our constant joy. Just as he brings his love into our lives because he is Love, so he brings joy because he is Joy. There is no other way to an unshakeable inner contentment and peace, except through him. He is the only eternal. The only ‘always’. Whatever else we feel (or see or touch) it will not be eternal. Sad today, cheerful tomorrow, weeping tonight, singing in the morning, sober at noon, drunk by ten, married at twenty, divorced at twenty five, a millionaire one year and bankrupt the next – all these things come and go. Joy remains.
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
When the person of Jesus comes into our lives and becomes our everything, he brings joy with him. Inescapable. Joy is not about a fleeting sense of pleasure, an orgasmic experience on the top of a mountain with a healthy bank account and someone I love at my side. It’s not about us and our achievements or even our potential. It’s about God, it’s the gratitude and wonder that we feel, and assurance too, when we look on the character of our creator and realise that he loves us and will always love us. That is joy. How can I feel anything other than joy when I look at the one who loves me without end?
If we know Jesus but today our joy seems to be hidden (and we all have those times) then maybe we’ve wandered away, slip-sliding into our own plans and schemes and not his. Fret not! He’s there with you, Love eternal, Joy unending. Our part in this story is simply to receive, to submit, to accept.
‘Simply’? Sometimes it doesn’t feel simple, but we’re not alone. Even when the joy is hidden, we are not alone. Prayer and reflection, reading the Word, and asking for help… Joy will never fail us. .
Quite late last night, reflecting on that last thought, I realised something else: joy can be a sign of God’s leading. If we feel a deepening and increased awareness of joy when we undertake some activity, having surrendered our actions to God, prayerfully, this is an indication that we are following him. If serving in a particular way, in a particular ministry, fills us with a new or renewed energy and passion, selah – pause and think – what is God telling us?
If we are not sure which way to turn, or where God is leading us, look for the joy. Look for the Joy.
Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy.
With that in mind: here’s a few minutes of joyful worship for you all. I have a soft spot for all the many Blessings videos that went online during Covid, but this one (even more than the Irish Blessing) has me up and dancing, singing, praising. It’s the World Blessing, 154 nations singing in 257 languages. EnJOY!