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December 12, 2011

I must admit that I’m not entirely joyful about the theme of Advent’s third week (at least, its theme within the stream of Christianity in which I grew up), joy. This is largely the result of hearing the call for Christians to be joyful being used as an optimistic battering-ram by the overly-cheerful. Be happy all the time. Grin until your face splits in two and your jaw falls off. Be happy about that, because nothing is really worrisome. Call all this “joy”.

Emotions are deceitful creatures. They flare up in great bursts and then disappear again. When you try to count on them they vanish, and when you don’t want them interfering they love to yell. You can’t depend on them. Far too many Christians have been lured into believing that the inner life is the emotional life and that God’s presence is primarily an emotional event. Worship leaders try to pump up the crowd so that they’ll feel something, which is about as responsible in the long term as preparing a campfire to burn all night by dousing it in gasoline. Inevitably, one leaves the darkened room full of other people singing the same songs in the same hyped-up manner and descends from the high. The next morning when you wake up with an emotional hangover you can wonder why you aren’t a good Christian because, obviously, a good Christian would be glowing with joy.

The real depths of the inner life are not nearly so manic. This is partly, I suspect, because they aren’t primarily emotional. Emotions, to a certain extent, simply are. They can be brought under some semblance of control but to do so it seems that one must ignore them and go about doing what is good and right without them. Sooner or later they’ll catch up. However, joy is something we are called to in the Bible. (As an aside, this is one of the valuable things about being subject to the guidance of others. Both the Bible and the Advent traditions of my youth have conspired to make me consider a topic I might otherwise have avoided.) What is it and why is it good?

Let me suggest, right off, that two of the first answers many people give to these questions are wrong. Joy is not relentless cheer and it’s not good because we all love to feel happy. In fact, telling unhappy people to just cheer up or they’re failing at Christianity is a great way to spread more unhappiness. Moreover, while being happy is nice it’s not the be-all and end-all of the ethical life. I gather that being high on heroin all the time would make one pretty happy and so I’d like to avoid defining a virtue as metaphysical heroin. Defining joy in clear positive terms is a bit harder and so I plan to circle around it from behind.

In my last article I mentioned that when one starts digging through one’s own hidden secrets it is pretty easy to come to rather dark and hateful conclusions about humanity and that love is needed to counter that. It’s also pretty easy to come to simply dim and depressing conclusions about humanity. The more you understand how the world should work and who is being ground up in the gears of the current system the more the world feels like a terrible place. This is largely correct – the New Testament refers to Satan as “the prince of this world” and frequently contrasts the Kingdom of God to the world. The world is certainly a place where many things are deeply wrong and failing to recognize this is a barrier to growth.

However, the world is not all there is. Central to Christian hope is that there is a Kingdom of God opposed to the system of the world. This is where joy rejoins us. The threat is that in contemplating God’s purposes we will become depressed at how disobedient to God everyone is, including ourselves, and what terrible consequences this has for people. The antidote to this is joy that God’s rescue is already being enacted. I do not mean by this that one must constantly skip for joy at this, although if one is actually inclined to do so then do so. Instead, I mean that we must be able to find as full a measure of joy in God’s work and God’s ways as we find hopelessness in the world’s ways.

Let me expand upon this further. I do not mean that we should pretend that while the world is in darkness and pain we are always in light and health. Instead, I mean that if we find the darkness and the pain of the world wearing we must be able to turn and see the light, however far off, and see in it a true antidote to the darkness. If we find the light weak, a half-measure against the terrors of the night, then the night will swallow us (although I trust the Lord, in His mercy, has ways to get us back again). If we find that hate burns our souls, then we must find that love heals all wounds. If we find that lies corrode us, then we must find that the truth builds us up. The day that “Thy Kingdom come” means nothing is the day that hope dies – we must always find joy in the hope of the coming Kingdom. As long as we find joy, deep joy, perhaps so deep that it barely ripples at the surface, in the victory of God over evil, then we are equipped to keep going.

Behold, he died and yet he is alive forever and ever. The Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, has triumphed. Where, oh death, is thy victory? Swallowed up in the joy of the risen saints.

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