What comes to mind when you hear the word “joy”?
For years, when I heard the word “joy”, nothing good came to mind.
First, I thought joy meant choosing to be happy when I obviously wasn’t or when the circumstances I was in sucked. And that sounded no fun. Second, when I heard that word, I thought about one of the most miserable experiences of my childhood.
At age 14, a woman began attending my dad’s church. She requested to meet with my dad and during their meeting, my dad had a bad feeling in his gut. He told the woman that this would be their last meeting and she didn’t take it well. She had obviously developed an unhealthy attachment to my dad. This attachment turned into a miserable 18 months for our family as she stalked my dad on a daily basis.
For 18 months, we didn’t answer a single call on our home phone, regardless of what caller ID said because she called our house multiple times a day. She would wait in her car in the parking lot and watch our family walk to ours. She sent a letter to all of the leaders in our church, describing the affair she was having with my dad including their liaisons on the church campus. She was escorted out of services kicking, screaming and cursing. Finally, she left our church.
Did I mention her name? Joy.
I don’t know what came to your mind when you heard the word “joy.” Based on the people I’ve talked to as a pastor, I know joy describes an experience few people feel they know personally. It seems like out-of-reach ideal they’ll never meet. Because of my baggage, I know I avoided the subject for years. Joy was for other people not me.
That is until recently.
Last month, I stumbled upon a book written by Margaret Feinberg entitled Fight Back with Joy: Celebrate More. Regret Less. Stare Down Your Greatest Fears. In the book, Feinberg describes how she learned she had cancer and embarked on a journey to learn about joy. Her lessons “helped her to fight back fear, regret and pain.”
I’m in the process of working through the workbook companion to Fight Back with Joy. But I started asking a question I wanted to share with you today.
I wonder if we’ve been been duped. What if we were deceived into thinking joy wasn’t available to us, when in fact it was? What if we gave up on joy, only to discover joy was what we actually needed most?
5 Discoveries about Joy
Through my reading so far and some recent experiences, I have 5 discoveries about joy to share with you. Regardless of what you’ve thought, been taught or believed about joy, I think these 5 discoveries could be life-changing for you.
1. You have to fight for joy.
Twice recently, our family had our joy stolen. On consecutive Sundays, we were in the middle of incredible moments of joy and satisfaction, only to have events outside of our control completely distract us. Each time, we ended up severely emotional – in tears and enraged – completely preoccupied by drama and missing out on the joy of special moments.
After the second weekend, I turned to my wife, Dani, and said, “Do you think we’re under attack? This feels bigger than coincidence.” We were unprepared for what came our way and we didn’t realize that joy would be a fight.
In John 15:11, Jesus said to his disciples, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” I believe God created us to live with full and complete joy. But, as with all of God’s work in us, we experience opposition and attack. When talking to the same group of close followers, Jesus said these words in John 10. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
We have to prepare for joy to be a fight.
2. Joy comes from a secure identity.
Insecurity is a pervasive problem plaguing our culture. We define ourselves by what we do, how we perform, how others respond (or don’t respond) to us, and by our fickle feelings in any moment. When we hitch our sense of self to any of these unstable things, we are destined for a sense of identity that more closely resembles the waves of a hurricane than the roots of a giant Sequoia tree.
In her book, Feinberg writes “joy emanates out of the abiding sense of God’s fierce love for us.” When we know we are loved – fiercely and unconditionally – we can experience the wide range of joy’s qualities. We can delight, shout, rejoice, play and laugh – even while adversity and turmoil surround us.
3. Comparison is the thief of joy.
Due to the voyeuristic nature of our culture, we have access into each other’s lives at unprecedented levels. Via words, pictures and videos, we can build relationships and connections. We can also scroll endlessly, comparing a highlight reel of carefully edited, curated and filtered moments to our monotonous Mondays. When we compare, we rob ourselves of joy.
We have countless daily opportunities to trust God. We can trust who He has made us to be and stay in our lane. We can trust what God is doing and step into the calling He has for our lives. We can empower the voices in our lives who affirm us and provoke us to be our best selves. Few of us will abandon social media entirely, but we can be vigilant for its perils.
4. Joy doesn’t equal happiness.
We live in a time where happiness is the great pursuit. Our current level of happiness becomes the primary metric for making decisions like school, career, marriage, or friends. Happiness trumps all else. In this context, I feel like channeling my inner Admiral Akbar from Star Wars’ Return of the Jedi and shouting “It’s a trap!”
Happiness will not always be available to us. No one can sustain happiness indefinitely. If we make this our goal, we will be perennially disappointed. However, joy is very much within our reach. And it often surprises us in moments that feel far from happy but open up to something much deeper. In his book, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, C.S. Lewis wrote these words.
“The quality common to the three experiences… is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again… I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.”
5. Joy is an emotion and emotions aren’t bad.
One of the challenges of some within the modern church is the way old heresies have creeped back into our thinking. The early church soundly rejected Gnosticism, which suggested that the physical world (including our bodies) were bad and what was truly holy and desirable was the spiritual. The early believers believed the fact that God took on flesh in the birth of Jesus announced the error of this kind of thinking. Also, the early church rejected the Stoics and their idea that life should be received and accepted without emotion. Again, Jesus was the example used – a man who was accused of being “a glutton and a drunkard” and one who famously wept when he reached the tomb of his friend, Lazarus.
Joy is an emotion and emotions aren’t bad. Far from them, they’re part of the beauty of what makes us human. Now, they are only part of who we are, the complex whole of our humanity. But when we make joy purely a mental construct or a “choice”, we rob it of it’s will. We replace the experience of physically being at the ocean (feeling the sand in between our toes, the cool breeze on our face, the smell of the salt water, the sound of the crashing waves) with a black and white photo. Sure, it’s the same thing but it’s not the same, rich, life-altering experience.
In Surprised by Joy, Lewis wrote,
“The frustration did not consist in finding a “lower” pleasure instead of a “higher.” It was the irrelevance of the conclusion that marred it. … You might as well offer a mutton chop to a man who is dying of thirst as offer sexual pleasure to the desire I am speaking of. … Joy is not a substitute for sex; sex is very often a substitute for Joy. I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy.”
Our lives are incomplete without joy. Whatever our experience with joy, we know deep down the longing Lewis describes. We often substitute other things for joy and pursue them to replace the fleeting experiences we’ve had of it. But the thirst remains.
I’m still learning about joy and coming to understand my inner longings for it. But I wanted to remind you today to fight for joy. It’s worth it!