I struggle with joy.
Saying this feels like a confession, especially right after the celebration and merriment that comes with the Christmas season.
I often read through the list of the fruit of the spirit and make mental notes: peace, tick, love, tick, patience, self-control, kindness, gentleness, yes. They are not all easy to embody but I do try with the power of the Spirit to flesh out these values. However, when I get to joy I stop.
Is Joy a Gift?
I sometimes wonder if joy is a gift that is given to some people and not others. So then it seems to me that that some people are naturally joyful and others are not. Could it simply be that some people just prefer advent to Christmas and lent to Easter for instance?
But then I read 1 Thessalonians 5:16, “Always be joyful”. There it is—a command not only for the sanguine but for everyone, that includes the melancholics, the pessimistic, the glass half empty types and those down in heart.
We are to be joyful primarily because God is joyful. There is joy in the Godhead. We see this in Luke 10:21 which says,
At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.
It often stuns me when I reflect on the joy that is at the essence of the three members of the Trinity. Father, Son and Holy Spirit rejoice in each other even though there is so much grief, sadness and evil in our world. Joy in the midst of sorrow and brokenness, this is the human condition at present.
In Luke 10:17, before Jesus’ prayer of joy in the Spirit to the Father, the disciples return from their mission with joy because of incredible results. Demons have submitted to them, they have healed people and Jesus had a vision of Satan falling from heaven because of their obedience to God’s mission.
Thin Slices of Joy
It seems to me that the disciples and even Jesus, are here practicing the discipline of “thin slices of joy”.
I came upon this expression through a book Joy on Demand by Chade-Meng Tan. In this book he explains that joy can be learned as we become aware of ordinary and small moments of pleasure and delight. As we notice the beauty of a sunrise or the pleasure in eating a delicious ice-cream or hearing the sound of trees swaying in the wind, our brains actually “rewire” so that we become accustomed to the posture of joy. He notes that as we observe these “thin slices of joy,” we in fact, become joyful people.
I think we can realign this thought to the purposes of the kingdom of God.
I believe that we can work with the Holy Spirit as he “rewires” our minds for joy, and as we practice finding “thin slices of joy”in our contexts, the Spirit will make us more Christ-like as we become joyful disciples of Jesus. We do this not in order to become better people who practice joy as some kind of self-improvement gimmick. We practice joy because our theology says that the kingdom of God is here, Jesus has come and Emmanuel is with us so this changes everything. We practice joy because even though the kingdom is “not yet” we have a sure hope that it will one day be complete and death, brokenness, sorrow and sickness will cease to exist. We practice joy because our theology says that the kingdom of God is here. Click To Tweet
Joy is Subversive
As we discern thin slices of joy, we glimpse into a window and see a reality that is already here and will one day fully manifest right before our eyes. Joy is indeed a preview of another world, and this preview comes through us as we embody and become witnesses to it. Joy is subversive in that it proclaims laughter, contentment and hope in the midst of a reality which seeks to convince us this is all there is and we should hope for nothing more. Joy overturns and challenges this despairing thought.
Just as Jesus and the disciples celebrated the evidence and impact of the reality of the kingdom of God in our world, we must also faithfully and intentionally rejoice when we see glimpses of the kingdom in our society. When a person struggling with alcohol abuse makes it another day without succumbing to his addiction, we rejoice. When someone struggling with practicing a kingdom of God sexual ethic refuses to give in to temptation, we rejoice. When we see beauty rather than darkness triumph in the public spaces of our neighborhoods, we celebrate. When we see the institutions that we work in be set free from evil workplace practices, we rejoice. When we notice the stunning rays of light coming through a sunset, we rejoice. Delight, joy and mirth are revelations into the heart of the Trinity. Tim Keller in The Reason for God explains the perichoretic nature of the Trinity and writes,
“Each person of the Trinity loves, adores, defers to, and rejoices in the others. That creates a dynamic, pulsating dance of joy and love.”
For us, practicing the discipline of thin slices of joy is like any other spiritual habit. We see the disciplines not as a way of earning God’s favor or becoming better persons by our own merit.
Instead, we see spiritual habits as instruments that the Spirit works through in order to help us continue our conversation with God so we reflect the image of Christ.
Joy in 2016
Currently, I’m writing a book on “Urban Spirituality.” While writing it, I’ve become aware of how important it is for those working in urban contexts to daily practice and model joy and celebration. In an essay called “Subversive Urban Spirituality in Asian Cities,” the authors Pascal Bazzell and Amelia Ada-Bucog see that celebration is “one of the important spiritual disciplines of the Christian life, and this is especially true for a homeless community that may seem to have fewer reasons to celebrate.”
This is joy in the midst of grief, sorrow and brokenness, and this is what Jesus practiced.
How much more then should we practice this discipline after such a year of darkness and sorrow in 2017?
Perhaps we can throw more parties, commemorate key life transitions in creative ways and practice gratitude more frequently. As pastors and leaders how do we model this in our congregations so that we increasingly become communities of joy? This will make us subversive communities in the midst of so much hatred and darkness in our world. Often, however, discerning moments of joy is about paying attention to the beauty, truth and life that often quietly disrupt our daily lives yet we fail to notice them. Joy in the midst of grief, sorrow and brokenness is what Jesus practiced. Click To Tweet
2016 ended for me with a reminder of the importance of discerning joy and practicing celebration in the midst of struggle. I attended my neighborhood center Christmas party for the first time and there I sat on a table surrounded by people from all walks of life; the battlers, the homeless, people who have mental illness, those who are well-off but perhaps living lives of “quiet desperation”, migrants, refugees, the gay community and the elderly.
Conversation around the table was merry but tinged with insights into lives that are far from perfect and ideal. Yet we ate delicious food prepared for us, reveled in the lights and sparkles of Christmas celebrations, we were entertained by a singer who knew how to bring joy into the room and we laughed, danced and clapped, all spurred on by the celebration that comes with the season. I discerned the in-breaking of the kingdom there in the room that day as I noted the presence of joy before me.
I made a commitment then to try to practice discerning and celebrating these kinds of “thin slices of joy” in 2017 and so take seriously those words from scripture:
Always be joyful.