I’m running on a road next to a woods early one winter morning. An oppressive gray sky, brown trees stripped of the signs of life, and white snow blanketing the earth attempt to beckon me to the day’s promise. I’m not impressed, and my mind drifts to the meetings that lie ahead. All of a sudden, the song of the cardinal arouses my attention. There it is, a splash of red perched in a nearby tree. The red bird always brings a smile to my face. A few minutes later, I pass an ordinary bush filled with a few extraordinarily bright red berries. Where did they come from in the dead of winter? The smile broadens. Joy: pure joy.
“Don’t postpone joy.” It’s the motto of a couple with whom Gary and I recently became acquainted. Wally told me the story of how, not too many years ago, he was working 80 hours a week in a very stressful job. He didn’t have a life. When a friend of theirs died at a young age, these words became the theme at her memorial service, “Don’t postpone joy.” In other words, enjoy life now. See the red bird right in front of you. Don’t wait until it is too late to fulfill your heart’s desire. Taking that wisdom to heart, Wally retired early, and he and Eileen have spent the last few years traveling the world.
“Don’t postpone joy.” I can’t seem to get the phrase out of my head. What is joy, anyway? A dictionary will likely define “joy” as “an emotion of great delight and happiness caused by something exceptionally good.” Kind of like Easter joy. Somehow that just doesn’t ring true to me, though. Do we have to enjoy great wealth in order to experience joy? Do we have to quit our job, wait until everything is perfect in our life, or travel to exotic lands to have joy? Do we even have to be happy to experience joy?
One of the most profound revelations in my life was the realization about 15 years ago that, for a Christian, joy is not related to happiness. In fact, Christian joy is very different from worldly happiness. Joy is a deep sense of wonder and oneness with God, creation, and others. Joy is recognizing the intrusion of God into our lives, even in the midst of pain. Joy is a splash of red in a dark world. Joy is our response to the fullness of life.
The Greek word for joy is chara. When we study how chara is used in the New Testament we discover its richness.
- At the last supper in the gospel of John (16:22), Jesus comforts his disciples by saying, “So you have pain now; but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
- James encourages his readers to see joy in all circumstances by writing at the very beginning of his letter (1:2), “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”
- The author of Hebrews (12:1-2) saw joy in Jesus’ sufferings, “… let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Interestingly, chara is closely related to another key theological word, charis. Charis is translated as grace, the unmerited and unconditional love of God that takes root in human hearts. So chara: joy, results from charis: God’s grace. True joy is not based on human standards but is divine in origin. Joy is a gift of God.
There is yet another related word. If we put the Greek prefix eu in front of charis, we get eucharis: Eucharist, the Greek word for “thanksgiving.” When we read that Jesus gave thanks over the bread and the cup, the word is eucharis. Eucharist is the word that Catholics and some Protestant denominations use for holy communion. We shouldn’t postpone joy because joy, like the elements of communion, is foundational to life in Christ.
Joy is a surprising encounter with God, often coming at the least likely times.
I’ve learned a lot about Christian joy from C.S. Lewis. A most intriguing definition of joy comes from his Screwtape Letters, where a senior devil named Screwtape writes to a junior devil named Wormwood. Keeping in mind that for Screwtape, the enemy is God, he writes that joy is “a meaningless acceleration in the rhythm of celestial experience, quite opaque to us.” For a believer in God, then, joy is the exact opposite. Joy is a meaningful and surprising movement toward the divine, which is evident to those who believe but opaque to everyone else.
Another great Lewis quote is that “Joy is the serious business of heaven. It’s the grand truth. It’s the surprise that happens when we discover God’s love.”
We often experience the deepest joy when we suffer.
Why was Jesus able to endure the cross? Why can we consider it joy when we face trials? Because it is precisely in the midst of great sorrow that we discover God’s faithfulness and goodness. The meaningful acceleration of joy is not found by escaping from reality but by embracing the pain of the present with grace and thanksgiving.
Time after time we witness the rhythm of celestial experience by walking with people in their times of greatest need. We see people battered by the most awful circumstances find a deep sense of God’s care. We pray with people who are staring death in the face, yet they are the ones to reach out to others. We see intense joy radiate from the most dire of situations when God is invited to be present.
Joy lets go of expectations and does not demand that things go the way we want them to go. Joseph Campbell once wrote, “Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.”
Don’t let anyone take your joy from you.
If joy is light piercing the darkness…
If joy is a red bird singing in the dead of winter, not because it has an answer but because it has a song…
If joy is an everflowing stream underneath the tumultuous surface of life…
If joy (chara) is accepting God’s grace (charis) with thanksgiving (eucharis)…
If joy is not so much believing that circumstances will improve but trusting that whatever happens, we’ll find our way, with God’s help… then don’t postpone it!
- Will you open your heart and spirit to be surprised by joy, not just at Easter but every day?
- Will you slow down enough to discover the hidden secrets of the meaningful acceleration of joy?
- Can you experience a quiet joy in the midst of chaos, knowing that God helps us to grow strong through our trials?
- Do you know that Jesus can give you joy every day, no matter what happens?
- Can you taste the joy of the celestial banquet in the sacrament of communion?
Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. (Psalm 30:5)