Photo by: Clay Banks on Unsplash
What does it mean to live lives of true joy? Such a question might seem misplaced in a moment in history where realities of injustice, war, dissension, and disease are ever-present. I’d like to propose that no matter your religious or spiritual affiliation, role, or phase of life, the Christian message of joy rooted in love leads to hearts filled with hope, which makes the realities of our time more bearable. We are called to lives of joy!
What is joy?
Often, joy is lumped into a big bucket of positive emotions, such as happiness and gladness, that are contrasted with negative emotions, such as sadness and anger. It is generally believed that the word positive stands for good, while the word negative stands for bad. However, from a Christian perspective, this definition of joy comes up short. For Christians, if joy were simply a desirable positive emotion we pursue while avoiding bad emotions, then this pursuit would rightly be guilty of what Karl Marx criticized as Christian escapism—joy as an opium against suffering for desperate people.
This is not joy.
A theological perspective on joy, goodness, and love
My research indicates that the experience of joy is intricately tied to how we define what is good in the world: we experience joy when we celebrate things in ourselves, relationships, or surroundings as being truly good. Think of the birth of a child, a reunion with a long-lost friend, or the completion of a meaningful project. Think of how communal celebratory traditions (e.g., birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas) elicit feelings of connection, love, and joy.
If joy is linked to what is good, what, then, is true, contagious, life-giving joy, and how exactly is it connected to what is good? When perpetrators of violence deem their actions as good and celebrate in such moments—is this real joy?
Of course, not!
In the Christian tradition, there are two core beliefs about what is truly good:
- God is good.
- God is love.
According to the Christian faith, God is both the root and definition of love, and it is God’s love which is truly good. Therefore, true experiences of joy occur when we begin to understand and define goodness through a lens of love. Christians believe that this love which is God was revealed most vividly in the person of Jesus Christ – the perfect exemplar of love. Thus, the Christian purpose is to model oneself after this example by seeking, striving, and wrestling for hearts motivated by love. When we are shaped by love, we will begin to define goodness through a lens of love. True joy blossoms into life when we see and celebrate love in the world as that which is truly good.
While the Christian message defines love in and through the person of Jesus Christ, many will agree that love is an end worth striving for which reaches beyond artificial walls erected by humans and invites all to take part in the pursuit of lives lived to this end. True joy in and through love is available to all.
Therefore, in seeking out lives of joy, we should strive to:
- embody love in our unique ways and within our unique communities,
- identify goodness in the world through a lens of love, and
- celebrate such loving goodness in joy.
Joy and mourning
While this message of joy encourages us to seek out and celebrate the goodness of love in action, such joy must be held in tension with mourning. Joyful celebrations of love should never drown out the real and existing sorrows of our world. Instead, true joy commands us to be honest about and mourn the realities in which we witness the absence of love. By holding joy and mourning in tension, we can find a blueprint for hope. For Christians, joy is found in the hope of a restored world—a world where God’s rule of love defines relationships with others, self, and the rest of creation. This type of hope is motivating, powerful, and redemptive!
A practice of joy
So how do we as individuals and leaders develop a practice of joy in and with our communities?
Though there are many different ways to practice joy, I recommend an exercise that is centered on love. When we become more mindful of love in our work, in the people around us, and in the beauty of creation, we encounter joy even amidst real suffering. I encourage you to incorporate a practice of joy this week while challenging the people around you to do the same. You can do this by adopting a daily mindfulness practice that (1) seeks to identify goodness around you in celebratory joy and (2) focuses on an area of your life where this might be difficult. Here are some guiding questions:
- Can you identify something in this difficult situation that is filled with loving goodness?
- How is love visible, even if it takes on a different form than you might like?
- When you become aware of the goodness around you, are you willing to value the gifts given to you by celebrating love with joy?
- Reflect on the bittersweet. Can you practice holding the darkness and difficulty that is present in tension with the goodness that you are witnessing and celebrating?
Focusing on love and joy in the midst of darkness reframes our experiences. This is the good news we have to offer at this pivotal point in history. The darkness need not be all consuming. God’s loving goodness is real, and it is a reason for joy!
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