1 Samuel 2:1
“My heart rejoices in the Lord! The Lord has made me strong. Now I have an answer for my enemies; I rejoice because you rescued me.
Today is the third Sunday of Advent, when we celebrate and ponder the miraculous nature of joy.
A little confession: I use oat milk for cereal and coffee. Mary likes half-and-half in her coffee, and I confess that occasionally I’ll take a sip and enjoy that rich flavor. I love cream; it is where the flavor is. Cream rises to the top of whole milk because it is fat and is less dense than the surrounding water. Cream is lighter, so it rises to the surface.
Joy is like that, except it is calorie-free and doesn’t clog our veins and cause heart disease. When we are joyous our lives feel creamy, filled with flavor, wonder, and marvelously enjoyable; we feel light, carefree, and unencumbered. In life, when we experience fine health, worldly abundance and prosperity, close friends, meaningful relationships, loving families, and grand opportunities, it is natural to feel joy from our earthly fortune.
When filled with joy, we are attractive to other people. Mother Theresa of Calcutta said, “Joy is a net by which you can catch souls.” Everything is easier when we do them with joy.
Then there are times when challenges make our lives seem dense and weighty: the financial trials, emotional struggles, work stress, relationship issues, health issues, and physical challenges can so encumber our souls that we just feel heavy. At these times it is difficult to “look on the bright side,” and if we keep looking to the world for some sign of light or a brief respite, we can succumb to the growing darkness that our minds create. In these moments the wisdom of Psalm 36:9 offers solace: For with You is the fountain of life; in Your light shall we see light. When all we can see is darkness, affirm “light”.
At some point we must ask ourselves, “What is joy?” Joy can manifest in many forms: from giddiness and giggles to a solemn reverence. Although joy is akin to happiness, they are not the same. Biblical joy, spiritual joy, is a state of mind based upon something internal, not external as is happiness. Joy is agreeable and comfortable; not something that happens to us from outside over which we have no control, but something that arises from within us, independent of our circumstances. It is not a short-term, changeable feeling, but a long-term decision.
Joy is more than a privilege to be hoped for, waited for, and longed for; it is a duty to be performed. We are commanded to “rejoice in the Lord”. Joy is a responsibility, an obligation.
Spiritual joy arises out of the holy peace of knowing who we are – a Child of God – and understanding that our Source is unlimited. There is no lack, no separation from Spirit. When we release our dependency on the outer world, along with doubts, desires, and fears, then we experience the bounty of God – faith, expectancy, peace, and love. By embracing these Godly attributes and allowing them to influence us, we experience joy, spiritual joy. We experience the joy of faith, the joy of hope, of love, of peace, the joy of God and Christ.
Joy is the combining of peace and love; their synergy creates joy. Joy is more than peace; it is delight soaring toward ecstasy. It is more than love; it is adoration lifted to exaltation.
Depending upon our personalities, our joy takes greater or lesser forms of outward expression along the excitement scale. Spiritual joy is typically a calm serene bliss, an understated elation, but can be a boisterous, cymbal-clanging, dancing, fever-pitched frolic.
In Habakkuk 3:16-19 the prophet responds to a vision: 16 I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled. Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us. 17 Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation. 19 The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights.
Habakkuk teaches us about joy in these verses. Despite an impending invasion and the lack of their primary sources of food, Habakkuk chooses to rejoice in the Lord. He looks passed the typical earthly sources for joy and light and instead chooses the joy and light of God. Habakkuk’s joy arose from his faith, trust, and love of God. He made a conscious decision to rejoice in the Lord and did not wait for conditions to improve or to be struck by some emotion over which he had no control.
It is curious how Habakkuk uses ‘joy’ as an active verb. “I will joy in my Saving God.” I will joy in God. I will be joy in God; I will experience, express, and completely be one with the joy of God. My being, my very essence, is joy in God.
Habakkuk received two powerful gifts because of the state of joy that he chose: the first is strength. Nehemiah 8:10 tells us, “The joy of the Lord is our strength.” Habakkuk received sufficient joy to see him through his difficulties, enabling him to cope with his challenges. Habakkuk teaches us that while we cannot always eliminate strife, through God’s gifts, including the gift of joy and the strength it provides, we can endure and overcome the obstacles we face.
The second gift Habakkuk received was that of confidence and surety of action. His feet became those of the deer or gazelle, which can run safely and surely among the rocks of the highlands, able to maneuver through the most difficult of situations quickly and easily and escape its enemies.
The difficulties that he encountered, and those which still lay ahead, had no power over him. He was focused on the joy of God and that joy transformed him from a trembling incapable individual into an empowered servant. This is the lesson that the rebirth of Christ brings – that through joy, we can surmount any adversity and endure any trial.
So why do we sometimes not exhibit the victorious joy of God? Three things come to mind. One reason I see in myself is that I do not focus on joy; it is easier for me to see only my challenges and succumb to self-pity than to call on joy and God’s gifts.
Second, there are times when I simply do not allow myself to feel joy. I think it inappropriate, or I am too concerned with what others might think. I fear appearing foolish or misguided. This is all ego-based thinking, and our ego will do its best to deprive us of joy and the strength derived from God’s joy. That smallest part of us will tell the rest of our self that we are unworthy and not entitled to God’s joy.
The third reason I see in myself why I do not always choose joy is that it takes effort. It is easy to succumb to our old ways, our old habits of how we respond to challenges. It takes courage to stand firm in joy when darkness surrounds us. So, we give up and are tossed and thrown about emotionally.
After all, how can someone feel joy amidst calamity and struggle? I think Habakkuk would answer, “How can you not?” Of all Habakkuk’s lessons, the most important is that we get to choose. We have heard that the one thing we can control in life is how we react to it. We choose despair or joy, fear or courage, doubt or faith, victimhood or victory.
It is in rejoicing - joying again – that we unleash the totality of God’s good into our lives. When we rejoice, feeling and displaying God’s joy, we are claiming our connection to God; we are acting like sons and daughters of our Loving God. Paul teaches in Act 27:25 – “…be of good cheer: for I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me.” He is saying, “Cheer up. Don’t be such a grumpapottomas. Have faith that what God told us is true: His plans for our abundance, a wonderful future, strength, security, and joy.” Believing and rejoicing ushers into our lives God’s Good and Glory.
It is God’s pleasure to fill us with joy, and Jesus spoke with the purpose of bringing us joy. In John 15:9-11 Jesus says, “Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also 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 so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.”
Maya Angelou said, “When you wish someone joy, you wish them peace, love, prosperity, happiness…all good things.”
Many world religions embrace joy as a fundamental quality in life for which to strive. From The Buddhist holy scripture, the Dhammapada we read:
“Live in joy, In love, Even among those who hate.
Live in joy, In health, Even among the afflicted.
Live in joy, In peace, Even among the troubled.
Look within. Be still. Free from fear and attachment,
Know the sweet joy of the way.”
Jesuit Priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin states simply: “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.”
Although joy manifests in many ways at Christmas, the boldest appearances of joy impress upon us to forever keep alive two messages: Christ’s commandment ‘to love one another’, and the angels’ declaration of ‘peace on earth, goodwill toward all.’
So, as Christmas approaches, let us continue to express the Hope, the Peace, the Joy and the Love of Christ. My prayer is that we can keep things light, keep our perspectives light, so that joy rises to the surface of our lives like the cream in milk. Joy is where the flavor is, where the excitement waits, where our strength lies. I pray that we will bring it forth; let it rise.
As this week progresses, may we find the time to be still and listen; listen to the awaiting Christ within; and as we raise our awareness, we may hear the voice of God whispering to our hearts, “Rejoice always, and again, I say rejoice!”