on static joy.
I had a very interesting chat with a friend the other day on the concept of joy. The premise of our conversation was whether one can ascertain the signs of true joy in another person, or if it is possible to chide someone into believing one has joy when it is in all actuality a façade, a veil draped over the ugly truth of fear and unknowing. We began talking about joy in comparison to happiness, and as usual, I found myself surprised by some of the things I said on the subject.
To me, joy is almost as intangible as love itself, in terms of defining and recognizing a state of being that goes above and beyond our own relative experiences with either. I can look back at my own life and establish what I considered to me my definitions of what “joy” and “love” were in that moment, as a culmination of this that and the other little learned truth, usually based on an experience that demands the response, “oh! THIS must be what I’m feeling.” Yet as I have grown up and [lazily] dug deeper into the process of life, the limits I have placed on both these words have ballooned into something that bears small resemblance to what they once were in my mind.
The Lord has continuously placed the word “awareness” on my heart over the past few years, and it has come to the point where my involvement in my own life by the guidance of God can be measured in a twofold system; my awareness of what’s going on around and within me, and my response to that awareness. More specifically, how that awareness transforms my interactions with my known world. As I have taken part in this process, it has been fascinating to see how much I have learned, and how much this is still to go.
There is no overstating how much “experience” shapes our understanding of the world. The basic rule of creation is just as every fifth grader memorizes from the theories of Sir Isaac Newton: for every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction. This is simply the way things work. It’s pretty hard to argue that, in most any context you can imagine. Stars implode, then create black holes; sodium and chlorine molecules collide, and then form salt; you don’t put gas in your car, and then you find yourself on the side of the freeway thumbing a ride up to the nearest Exxon for a gallon. Our world is built upon “if/then” statements.
Even within the confines of our faith, the most basic tenants of salvation follow this logic. “If” you call upon the name of the Lord “then” you shall be saved. So on and so forth. There are myriad examples of this thought, and by no means am I suggesting it is dangerous or wrong. It’s at the foundation of existence. However, I am becoming increasingly convinced that while the world MUST exist within the structure of this simple rule, the Kingdom of God incorporates, but is not bound by it.
Joy and love are, to me, perfect examples of this. When my friend posed this question to me about the constructs of true-joy, I was immediately reminded of the examples of Jesus’ disciples in prison. There are numerous stories of the earliest followers of Christ (Paul included) sitting in confinement, persecuted for their boldness, yet praising and worshipping God for it. And one doesn’t have to stop at the New Testament to find more examples of this; throughout Church history, there have been innumerous cases of Christians maintaining an attitude of joy in the face of horrific persecution. Now, the traditional reading of these passages as I have come to understand is they were filled with joy because they were found worthy to suffer for the Gospel. I would like to add upon that idea, because very often we are tempted to read their attitude of joy as one that is conditional on their situation. Yet as we often do when we read the bible (and this may be a whole separate essay to come), we tend to compartmentalize these stories and divorce them from the rest of the grand Story that begins with the begotten Word establishing creation by the Creator, and ends with the return of the Word and the reconciliation of Creation to Creator.
One needn’t look farther than our spiritual ancestors within the Bible itself. There is an almost direct correlation between a person’s awareness of the Truth of creation and their indwelling joy. The psalmist puts it so well in Psalm 92: “For you make me glad by your deeds, LORD; I sing for joy at what your hands have done.” The psalms themselves are a continual uncovering of this idea, that while the world keeps us in this place where conditional happiness is the rule, the constant of God’s unconditional love instills in us a static joy that transcends our experiences. Christ himself explains this to his disciples by telling them how their grief will transform to joy as they come into full revelation of who he truly is: “Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy…I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:22, 33). I love the parts of the Bible where it is evident how long it takes people to “get it” before they have that final revelation of what exactly it is that Jesus has been saying all along. In this story, Jesus is demonstrating that the joy that stems from wrapping our heads around his identity is unchanging, even in the face of the world’s trouble.
Happiness is dependent upon experience. This thing over here “feels” good, while that thing that happened last week was a bad instance; our happiness from moment to moment hinges upon a constant succession of “if/then” statements. The reality is that we confuse happiness and joy for both the internal and external symptoms of the moment. Unfortunately, I think most of us attribute to joy was is only in fact a temporary happiness, because we have never opened ourselves up to the unwavering joy that Christ told his disciples they would receive in revelation. So in one moment we speak of our joy found in the hope of Christ, and the next we are acting as if that moment never existed. Where is the Kingdom in that? Yet, how do we achieve something we have never entered in, something that exists above and beyond our collection of experience up to this point in our lives?
It is my opinion that we are called to live a life of static joy and love. What I mean by this is that we are to remain in a constant place of awareness (joy) and respond to that awareness in a way that transforms our reality (love). I can see the periods of my life in which I am choosing to perceive the Truth of God’s love for me, and the presence of joy in that moment. This is step number one for any Christian. If I am truly choosing God in that moment, my response is love, which is a transformation of everything I am in Mind, Body, and Spirit. By that gauge, I’m an atheist about 90% of the day, but I’m okay with that. For now. We are finicky creatures, and for beings who chalk so much up to understanding through experience, we tend not to trust our senses with any sort of consistency. Yet the love and joy we are called to walk in through each and every moment of our existence is something that transcends experience to a sort of hyper-experience: that while the world operates in this “if/then” continuum, our state of being is unchanging, undependent, as it is in the being of our Christ and our God.
Next I’ll write about the paradox of joy and despair…