The Advent season is a time of preparation and reflection, and it is also a season of anticipation as congregations all over the world watch and wait with expectant hearts to celebrate the birth of Emmanuel, God-with-us. We mark his holy birth each year on Christmas Eve. During the four preceding Sundays, we focus on the four themes of Advent, which are hope, peace, joy, and love. We’re currently in the middle of week three – the week we celebrate the theme of joy.
It’s a tiny word, but it sure carries a heavy load of baggage with it! We often seem to confuse happiness with joy, and although they are both “positive” emotions, that’s about where the similarities end. Happiness depends on our external circumstances. If you are a student and you get a good grade on a final exam, you’ll probably feel happy, but if you find out that you flunked that same exam, you’ll likely feel unhappy.
You won a trip to Hawaii? Happiness. Your business went belly-up? Unhappiness.
You got a promotion at work? Happiness. You got fired? Unhappiness.
You’re dating someone new? Happiness. You find out that they are already married? Unhappiness.
See the pattern?
Joy is very different than happiness.
Did you know that joy is one of the nine characteristics or “marks” of the Holy Spirit described in Scripture?
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22–23).
Joy is a scriptural quality, a spiritual “good” that, as people of faith, we are called to cultivate. We are invited by God to encourage joy in our daily lives, to practice it, just like we practice the piano, or baking, or the front crawl, or any other skill we’d like to improve.
You may be thinking, “yes, but … how can I possibly cultivate joy when my circumstances are so sh--- shoddy!? I don’t think I have very much to be joyful about! And Omicron is on the loose, in case you haven’t heard!”
These are honest, valid questions. And here’s the answer: joy is a gift of God. It isn’t something we have to try to manufacture on our own strength. Joy is given to us by God, which means it is part of our human skill set. We each have the capacity to express the joy that has been given to us. Joy lives within us. Joy bubbles up organically from our hearts and souls. It does not depend on favourable circumstances.
Joy is also a behaviour; it’s a deliberate choice that we can make, day-by-day, moment by moment. Please don’t misunderstand me, here. I am not talking about putting on a syrupy, “Pollyanna” kind of fake sweetness, the sort of twisted motivation that forces a smile over gritted teeth, smothering grief or pain beneath a blanket of religious platitudes. That kind of behaviour seems pathological to me, and it’s the polar opposite of biblical joy.
True joy sees things clearly. Joy is honest. Joy doesn’t seek to manipulate people or events. But when we pursue contentment and godliness, joy is often a beautiful by-product. You see, joy depends on the first two gifts of Advent—hope and peace. When our hearts find hope in Christ, and when they are saturated with the peace of God, then the conditions are ripe for joy to bubble up within us and to spill over into the lives of others.
Joy isn’t an exclusive emotion, either. It’s possible to feel joyful in the midst of great hardship, grief, uncertainty, and pain. Joy doesn’t rely on happiness to exist. Happiness doesn’t stick around during times of difficulty, but joy can and does; joy reinforces our spirits, buoying us up, bringing us a deep sense of contentment, even when our external circumstances look like they ought to generate only unhappiness or outright misery.
Happiness is a temporary, fleeting emotion. Happiness is the feeling of opening a much-hoped for trinket or toy on Christmas morning, only to discover that your feeling vanishes faster than the snow during a winter chinook when that toy breaks, when the trinket is lost. Joy is discovered in the certain knowledge that our worth is not in what we own; our worth comes from Christ, who loves us unconditionally.
In Emmanuel, God-with-us, we are gifted with a love that is both fierce and tender, a love that gives us the ground of our being for the duration of our lives on earth, and for all of eternity. We can rest securely in the embrace of this love, a love like no other, and this is the true source of our joy.
We find joy when we find Jesus. We find joy when we stop trying to impress God with our grades, our addresses, our bank accounts, our job titles or our social media profiles, and we simply offer ourselves as worshippers, instead. Joy comes when we acknowledge that we are frail, finite people who need the love of God to heal us and help us.
I really like how the psalmist describes God clothing us with joy. God delights in transforming our difficulties into blessings, our heartache into moments of profound gratitude. Like a parent gently swaddling a baby after their bath, God wraps us up in the warmth of joy:
“You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy” (Psalm 30:11).
Does that mean that when joy arrives, all of our difficulties will magically vanish? No, although joy does tend to vanquish despair. Joy helps us see our hardships as temporary difficulties. Joy changes us—and so joy also changes our perspective of our pain, opening us up to new possibilities and new potential.
When I feel overwhelmed by the difficulties I face as a person living with disabilities in a world designed for healthy, able bodies, I remember that by choosing joy, I am also inviting hope and peace into my heart. I remember that Mary chose to rejoice in her Saviour, magnifying the Lord despite hearing extraordinary, humanly-impossible news (see Luke 1:46–55 for Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel) that would profoundly change the trajectory of her life. I remember that God fills the hungry with good things, but sends the rich away empty. I remember, as Paul instructs us, not to let ourselves “be overcome by evil, but rather to overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
As I’ve been reflecting on these scriptural themes this week, I’ve also been filling our Advent baskets of gifts for hungry families in our city. I pray for each recipient to be filled, not only with the grocery staples and Christmas treats we are giving them, but also to be filled with hope, with peace, with joy. As I pack up Christmas stockings for the kids and teens who are staying at the women’s shelter this December, I pray that every young life traumatized by domestic violence in our region will be able to feel the love of God in the items they receive. It isn’t just a new toothbrush: it’s a new beginning. It isn’t just socks and shampoo: it’s a prayer for safety and an expression of worth and value.
So many of our neighbours are suffering this Christmas. Happiness isn’t strong enough to help them, but joy certainly is! So, will you share the gifts of Advent with the hurting hearts around you this Christmas? Will you ask God to show you where an extra measure of generosity is needed in your neighbourhood and the nations?
In the busyness of December, will you choose to open yourself to the kind of joy that the Scriptures describe, joy that withstands any difficulty, joy that far surpasses happiness, the enduring, dependable, not-gonna-quit-until-the-whole-world-has-heard-the-Good-News kind of joy that this weary world is so longing for?
I hope that your answer will be yes.
I hope that you will choose joy today, and every day.
Song below: "joy." by for KING & COUNTRY (© 2018 9t One Songs (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing)