Thursday, January 07, 2016
It sometimes crosses our path in a name; or seasonally, on a Christmas card. At the moment it is a recently released film. And certainly it crops up in Christian speak. But in everyday speech, it doesn't feature much.
Oh, we're keen on a few other words. Happiness is big business; as is satisfaction, whether we can't get none or not. Pleasure, that rather hedonistic term, is popular; as are contentment and its more recent obsession, well-being. But joy doesn't get much of a look-in.
Curiously we're comfortable with discussing joy's antonyms: depression, melancholy, misery, and pain. If joy gets a mention, it is as a momentary thing; a fleeting emotion, responding to an unexpected pleasure. we do not expect to live in a state of joy, it seems.
I have been musing on the Biblical assertion that 'the joy of the Lord is my strength' (Nehemiah 8:10). It strikes me that there are three ways to read this: and that, if you are familiar with this verse, the way you habitually read it is highly indicative of your state of mind.
1. I must develop joy in the Lord in order to have strength.
2. The Lord will give me joy in order that I might also have strength, i.e. I find my strength in God.
3. The Lord is joyful (because of me); and that gives me strength.
Probably there are more; and probably this is all so much semantics. But it seems to me that the least likely version is no.1, because that requires so much of me - a frail and grumpy human being; and yet that is the very one that has been ticking away at the back of my brain for so many years whenever the subject of joy comes up at church. Yes of course we can get into a habit of feeling thankful, and suppressing our inner grouch. But when life throws us a curve ball, or just becomes a bit overwhelming, it is a pretty tough ask to summon our inner Mary Poppins instead (incidentally, rather a grouchy lady herself in the books - not terribly Julie Andrews at all). So it is at these times I have to remember that joy is both a fruit of God's Spirit - a long-term result of us walking closely with God's Spirit - and a gift. Time and again the people of the Bible experience joy in unlikely circumstances, transforming their grouchiness into praise. Sarah, Moses, Joseph, Hannah, David, Zechariah, Mary, Peter, Paul... when we read their backstories, it seems to me that joy is less of a duty or even an imperative; it is a gift and a consequence. The Lord gives us joy. The joy of the Lord is infectious.
So what about no.3? The verse reads 'the joy of the Lord', not 'our joy in the Lord'. Yes I realise this is most likely a translation glitch; but isn't there some truth here, however unlikely it can seem to us? God finds joy in us: 'the Lord takes pleasure in his people' (Psalm 149:4). How different would my feelings about joy be if I stopped trying to manufacture it, and instead allowed the joy that God finds in me to wash over me, melting my grumpiness away?