In his recent book, The Second Mountain, David Brooks of The New York Times says: “our society has become a conspiracy against joy.”
We’ve emphasised pleasure and status as the paths to a fulfilled life. But these things are sticky traps that end up making us sad. We now live amidst an epidemic of anxiety and depression. According to Beyond Blue, in every 12-month period two million Australians will experience anxiety. If you are anxious or depressed, it isn’t just you: it’s the times we live in.
We should not be those without joy.
We’ve lost the ability to cultivate joy in our lives. We don’t know how to find it. I’ve been trying to think how many people I know are genuinely joyous, and apart from toddlers and puppies, I don’t know many. Paul lists joy as one of the fruits of the Spirit – fruit that he expects Christians to cultivate. In Philippians 4 he says: “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice.” We should not be those without joy. Christians should be those who know joy.
So, what is this joy, and how can I have it – even in the midst of a society which has become a conspiracy against joy?
We should start with God. Does God have joy? Yes. The God of the universe has delight. And he has delight especially in two things: in his creation and in the people he has redeemed. We know that God has great joy in his creation because, in Genesis, he sees what he has made and declares it “very good”; and he then takes a day off to enjoy his work.
The book of Job describes the moment of creation as a time when all the angels of heaven sang for joy. But God has particular joy in his people. In Zephaniah 3:17 we read: The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.
God’s people make him rejoice. And in particular he delights in us when we delight in him.
Jesus also shows us this divine joy in his people. In Hebrews 12 we hear that Jesus endured the cross “for the joy set before him.” He was so dedicated to us, and so wanted to rejoice in us, that he went to his death for us.
When he teaches his disciples about the command to love one another in John 15, he says: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” Jesus gives his divine joy to his people, through his command to love. When they love one another, they will know his joy.
So then: the joy we are to pursue is the joy that belongs to God himself. And from God’s joy we learn two things. First, that true joy is found in other people; and second, that joy involves hope.
This isn’t a “don’t worry, be happy” philosophy.
True joy is found in other people. For this reason, a narcissist can’t even conceive of joy. We can have pleasure as individuals, but not joy. We most enjoy the world when we have someone to enjoy it with. And our deepest joys are found in others. David Brooks says that “joy animates people who are not obsessed with themselves but have given themselves away.”
He could have been talking about the apostle Paul, who himself was copying Jesus. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, even though he is writing from a prison cell, he is overflowing with joy – because he has joy in the Philippians. He calls them “you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown.”
Paul’s joy comes first from delighting in Jesus Christ, and then from his focus on others. He tells us: “rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice.” This isn’t a “don’t worry, be happy” philosophy. He’s not just telling us to fake it till we make it. If we remember what God has done for us in Christ, and that he delights in us, then we will rejoice in him.
Joy is found in other people; it is bigger than just you. And joy involves hope. This is why the Bible can speak of having joy even in trouble and suffering. This idea is totally mind-blowing in a world where we think that suffering robs us of meaning and happiness.
But can you imagine having a joy that cancer and divorce and poverty can’t take from you? Paul has joy even in the midst of disappointment, pain and imprisonment. James tells us: “Consider it pure joy when you suffer all kinds of trials.”
How is this possible? Because joy in God comes with hope. Because joy knows the future rests in the joyful God; it’s not dismayed and it never despairs. True joy can weep with sorrow.
But joy comes with a longing. This is not the kind of longing of loss, or the ache of an appetite. Joy has an eager anticipation. You know when you are looking forward to something great, that you sometimes find yourself smiling to yourself about it. You don’t yet have it, but you have the joy of it in anticipation. I feel that way about going to our beach house with the family each year. Joy anticipates joy.
And this makes it possible to have joy even when you suffer. If you have joy in God, you have a different outlook – and that means you can have an unassailable joy.
If you want to cultivate joy, the first thing to do is some weeding.
C.S. Lewis once said: We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
Infinite joy is on offer for you, in Jesus Christ. Are you too easily pleased in the way Lewis suggests?
If you want to cultivate joy, the first thing to do is some weeding. There are many things in your life that can rob you of your joy.
Envy or comparison will rob you of your joy. Looking over the back fence will make you miserable.
Excessive debt will rob you of your joy. Being stingy will rob you of your joy. Unresolved conflict and broken relationships will rob you of your joy. Not looking after your physical health will rob you of your joy. A person without sleep and with unmanaged stress will not be joyful. Sleeping around will rob you of your joy. Laziness and workaholism will rob you of your joy. Keeping your burdens to yourself will rob you of your joy, as will isolating yourself – since joy is found in others.
If you desire to have infinite joy, the joy of God, you need to do some weeding. What all these things do is turn us in on ourselves. They remind us of ourselves. They keep us from having wonder, gratitude and hope. Above all, if you want to have joy, you need to give yourself away. Let yourself go! This is the way of Jesus, who did not consider equality with God as something to hold on to, but humbled himself, even to death on a cross, for the joy of saving his people.
The greatest antidote to self-obsession is just humble service of others.
Get rid of the things that will rob you of your joy – especially your self-obsession; and instead pursue joy in God and his people.
How? By praising God, and by serving others. We praise God when we gather together because we are rejoicing in him and what he has given us. We want to please our Heavenly Father, and to delight him: and he is delighted in us when we have joy in him. We put praise of God to music because we want to feel joy in God. We want our delight to be in him. When you open your heart to engage in the praise of God, you are practising for divine joy.
And serve others. The greatest antidote to self-obsession is just humble service of others. It’s the greatest antidepressant ever invented. It makes Paul smile even when he’s in prison. What do others need? Who are they? How can you see Jesus in them? What can they teach you? The selfish reason to be more selfless is that it will nurture your joy. My prayer is that you won’t see joy as an option but as a necessity; and that you won’t settle for anything less.
Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of several books.