In Scripture and in life, joy refuses to fit into a neat and consistent form. Joy is born among us and spills out. While I hunger for a pithy shorthand for joy, I often find instead a deeply rooted contentedness that comes from encountering the Divine.
In October, my wife, Jess, gave birth to our first child, a girl we named Junia. Underneath the sleep deprivation and mysterious language of newborn cries there runs a deep and steady current I can’t quite name but seems to find its source beyond my own capacities.
It is something more than happiness. It is undaunted by pandemics, racism and political turmoil. Is it joy?
Wendell Berry picks up on this current in his poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” He urges, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”
Paul’s version of this sentiment shows up in Colossians 1:11-12. He expresses his prayerful hope that the church in Colossae will be “prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.”
Paul knows true joy is immune to contingencies. Hardship can be endured, and joy still flows. Whatever new injustice today’s news cycle uncovers, whatever burdens we carry with us daily cannot hold back this deep current of joy.
At a glance, this attitude might resemble a pollyannaish denial of reality. Yet this is far from the truth. True joy contains the ingredients to stand up to injustice and oppression. It is the yeast that bubbles up toward liberation. Theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez places joy at the center of facing injustice. He explains:
Christian joy is not tied to a particular object but to the experience of God’s unconditional love for us. . . . We can see from the Magnificat that, when Mary rejoices in God, she is also celebrating the liberating action of God in history. Mary rejoices in a God who is faithful to the poor.
God doesn’t work singlehandedly for liberation. Instead, according to Gutiérrez, the joyfulness of our participation with God is what makes it effective: “Our service of others must be wrapped in this joy. Only work embraced with joy truly transforms.”
Gutiérrez claims that without joy our work is in vain. Joy is more than motivation or consolation. It is a building block of God’s shalom. It is a non-negotiable piece of our participation in the mission of God.
On one side, joy is experiential, drawing us to bask in the love God shines on us. On the other side, joy is practical. To cultivate joy is to enable transformation. Joy-making becomes a partner with peacemaking. If we ignore joy, we short-circuit the good work we do toward the goal of peace.
In this season when division and misinformation spread as quickly as the pandemic that weighs heavily upon us, we are jarringly interrupted by Advent — and then by the Christmas celebration of the incarnation’s impossible beauty. The question is not whether we will set aside the troubles of our days to make room for joy. It is whether we will tap into the true joy that begins the work of transformation.
Kevin Chupp is pastor of First Mennonite Church in Aberdeen, Idaho.