One day a few weeks ago as I was driving home from work, I stopped to wait for a red light and happened to glance into my rear view mirror. I noticed how tired and grim the person in the car behind me looked. I felt the stirring of compassion and a sense of connection with her, and then, curious, I looked at my own expression in the mirror, wondering if I appeared as exhausted and downcast as she did. And I did look a little gray and weary. That’s not what God wants for us, I thought. God wants us to have joy.
I suddenly remembered an interesting and mysterious experience I’d had back in my 30s, when my kids were all young and still at home and I was struggling with the major stresses of making a living as a freelance writer, raising a young family, caring for a house, and keeping a roof over our heads. On that particular day, I was stressed beyond stressed. I was up against a deadline, it was almost suppertime, there were too many things to do and lots of people waiting on me to do them. I opened the closet in the kitchen where we kept the trash can and—of course!—it was full to overflowing and someone had just tossed their snack wrappers in on the floor because, Why not?! Nobody else around here cares about keeping this house clean.
And suddenly—and I still can’t explain this almost 30 year later—in the dark shadow of the overflowing trash closet—I saw a phrase being written before my eyes like handwriting on a wall. It said in big, elaborate script, Joy—if not now, when?
What in the world? I stood there, stunned. Just a moment before, I was stressed and irritated and thinking about who I was going to yell at for not taking out the trash. And now—silence inside. Wonder. Curiosity. Even a little humor. What an amazing and startling thought to come right out of nowhere: Joy—if not now, when the trash is overflowing, when you’re worried about everything, when it feels like there’s no one to help you…if not now, when?
And the flip side of that, of course, was the thought, If I can feel joy now, when nothing is going right, I’ll be able to feel joy anytime!
As life has unfolded with all its experiences and ups and downs, I feel like I have learned a thing or two about joy. I’ve come to know it as something deeper than a fleeting happiness that depends on whether things go right or not, whether people behave the way I think they should, or what mood I happen to be in on a given day. Joy arises from a deeper sense that all of life is God’s gift to us and that it is good, no matter how it may feel in a given moment; that there is a holy peace undisturbed by the drama of this world, and that everything works out right in the end, because God is the reality of it all, Alpha and Omega, everywhere, always, and all ways.
The verses we heard from Psalm 30 point to this sense of transcendent, living joy that is the deep gift of God to all God’s children. David invites us to praise God and give thanks because God’s “anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” The pain of life may come and go, David suggests, but God’s favor, God’s joy is the dawn of real existence in God’s eternal and continuing—and present–kingdom.
When we talk about the positive emotions we feel most often, we may use words like happy, content, peaceful, grateful, or glad. But joy can seem like a tall order—in a league all its own–like a level of happiness that is typically beyond our normal, everyday reach. The philosopher Plotinus, who lived in Egypt in the second century, wrote that when the soul, “perceives an object kindred to her own nature, [she] rejoices…” and I love that idea of joy. We rejoice—we feel joy—when we recognize in someone or something “that of God” we know in our own souls. It’s the recognition of kinship, the celebration of God finding Godself, heart to heart to heart. We rejoice in finding one another, in sharing God’s goodness together. That’s why true joy can’t be felt alone—it is sparked by sharing. It bridges the gaps between us and illumines the fact that we are all already—whether we yet have eyes to see it or not–in God’s kingdom together.
We heard this same idea from Jesus in our New Testament reading. These powerful verses in John 15 tells us a lot about Jesus and the way he understood God’s unifying, loving purpose for us all:
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”
I like the English Standard Version of this passage because it uses the word abide. That’s not a word you often hear in normal conversation these days, and it has a certain quality of restfulness about it. Like we can take a deep breath and relax, because we abide in the love of Christ. Merriam-Websters offers five definitions of the word abide, and they all hint at that kind of restful staying quality. Abide can mean “bearing patiently,” or “tolerating” something; it can mean “to endure without yielding,” or “withstand,” as in, The stress isn’t getting to me as I abide in Christ’s love.
Other definitions are “to wait for,” “to accept without objection,” “to remain stable,” and my personal favorite, “to continue in a place,” as in, Yes, it might be stressful over there but I’m here abiding in Christ’s Love, in this completely peaceful and safe place, the kingdom of heaven. The quality of abiding implies there’s no worry, no sense of alarm, nothing to do, no problems to solve. Just abide, wait, rest, and let yourself feel loved. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
But then there’s more. Jesus says the reason behind all these teachings is that he wants his joy to be in us, and that our joy may be full. When I read this passage this week the idea of Christ’s joy jumped out at me in a way I’d never seen it before. When you think back over all the stories you know of Jesus—walking along the sea, calling the fishermen to be his disciples, with John the Baptist in the Jordan river, going off alone into the wilderness for 40 days, coming back to speak and teach at the synagogues—how often do you picture him joyful?
It’s more likely we picture him as serious, sad, even sorrowing. It must have been frustrating, we think, to work so hard to change minds and hearts in a culture that so highly valued power and status. But wouldn’t you love to know more about the friendly, laughing, joyful side of Christ? What would it have been like to sit with him at dinner and see him laughing so hard he wiped tears from his eyes? Or to watch his face light up as the children came running toward him as he began to teach? How touching it would be to notice the tenderness in his eyes when he smiled at Mary or see the playful gleam there when he poked fun at Peter’s enthusiasm?
What a relief it would be for us to understand and know the laughing Christ, the one who was untouched, unbound, unburdened by this life, who knew that the end of the story was God’s bliss, God’s perfection, and the realm of a kingdom where there is never any pain or tears, want, struggle, or division.
Right now in the Christian calendar we’re in the season known as Lent, a period of prayerful preparation leading up to Easter, in which people of faith open their hearts and do their best to remove whatever gets in the way of their relationship with God. In observation of Lent, some folks try to make changes they feel will help them live more in keeping with their faith. Some give up things they feel are too indulgent. The idea is not to focus on what we’re giving up—whether that’s chocolate or social media or swearing or the home shopping network—but to spend more time with God, putting God first, loving God, reflecting on what it means to be really in touch with, really seeking first, the kingdom of heaven each day.
The season of Lent commemorates the 40-day period Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness, being tempted in his weakest moments to give up his dedicated focus on God and instead rely on his own strength, go his own way, feed his own desires, and choose to pursue fame in the world instead of the path of service that was stretched out before him. We get the feeling that Jesus was sorely tempted during this time: All his senses testified to the reality of the trials he experienced as the tempter took him first to the highest point of the temple and then whisked him away to a very tall mountain. But we know the end of the story—Jesus abides in God’s love and withstands the temptations–and after Jesus says once and for all, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only,’” the trials were over and angels came and cared for him.
This is where I think Jesus discovered the joy that he spoke about in John 15, the joy he wanted to share that was deeper than any surface thing the world can offer. In her 1956 William Penn Lecture, “The Joy That Is Set before Us,” Quaker Elise Boulding shared her understanding of this holy joy, writing
“… the real difference between happiness and joy is that one is grounded in this world, the other in eternity. Happiness cannot encompass suffering and evil. Joy can. Happiness depends on the present. Joy leaps into the future and triumphantly creates a new present out of it. It is a fruit of the spirit, a gift of God — no man can own it. His Kingdom is Joy, said Paul. Joy is the ultimate liberation of the human spirit. It enables man to travel to the very gates of heaven and to the depths of hell, and never cease rejoicing. … Part of the very essence of joy is a vision of the Kingdom of God, which is, was, and ever shall be. The temporal fruit of this joy is the leap into the future, to wrest this vision from its position on the horizon and pull it into the present, to make it a reality for this world. This is exactly what Jesus did, but people were afraid, and quickly pushed the vision back to the horizon. We have kept it safely chained there ever since, but the memory of what Jesus did, and the knowledge that it could happen again, has ennobled all mankind.”
We can easily imagine that after the time of trial Jesus experienced in the wilderness, when he knew he’d stayed true to his devotion to God, he likely felt the joy that “is the ultimate liberation of the human spirit.” In that moment he was free of any chain the world could throw at him; no temptation could hold him, even going without food for 40 days and living alone in the wilderness had not weakened his resolve. God was first for Jesus and would forever be. He knew it without a shadow of a doubt. It was the source and seed of a holy joy—God’s holy joy—that would be with him ever after. And throughout his ministry, it was that joy he sought to share.
We too have the ability to experience God’s holy joy in our daily lives, whether we’re fuming about overflowing trash cans or sitting, weary, at a stoplight at day’s end. The joy Christ shares with us—and the Christly joy we can share with one another—has nothing to do with any circumstance of this world but everything to do with who we put first in our lives, what we worship, and how we love. This joy isn’t fragile; it doesn’t fade; it isn’t conditional or dependent on the actions of others. It is as strong and as sure as God is.
Quaker author Paul Lacey, who served for many years with the American Friends Service Committee and Earlham College, wrote
"The spiritual life has many sources of nourishment, among them the companionship of other seekers, the pleasures of solitude and silence, keeping faith as we wait for leading, experiencing the confirmation of having followed the leadings we have been given, and times of testing. In each of these, when I know I am being nourished and nurtured, I know something of joy. And there are other times I receive joy - as a gift of serenity, balance, deep happiness, and I know this is good for my spirit now and through the rest of my life. When we share about the spiritual life, let us not be afraid to say what we know. Let us not, above all, be afraid to share the fact of joy, the gifts of joy. Joy is finally the greatest source of nourishment for the spiritual life, because it is God's greatest gift to us."
When we feel joy in our lives or in our worship—when we rejoice—our soul is recognizing its kindred in another; we are feeling in real-time, the presence of God and the closeness of God’s kingdom. Let’s intentionally and happily follow that lovely thread of joy through all our outward circumstances—if not now, when? As we do, we let God naturally, easily, lovingly draw us together as the family of God we already are and will forever be.
- OT Psalm 30: 4-5
- NT John 15: 9-11
- Plotinus: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plotinus
- Boulding, Elise. The Joy That Is Set before Us. William Penn Lecture, 1956. https://quaker.org/legacy/pamphlets/wpl1956a.html