In my first few months of pastoring, I decided I was going to preach on the topic of joy. Our newly relaunched church was that of two churches becoming one and this brought with it some awkwardness and confusion. We had to figure out who we were and what pieces of each church would continue on in our new dynamic. Needless to say, this created a strange atmosphere for a little bit and I greatly desired to break the mood of the room. I discerned that what we needed in our services was joy and so I told my highly educated mentor that I would be preaching on the topic the upcoming week.
Thinking over my reasoning for doing so, he responded, “What do you think joy is?”
Oh crap, I thought. Isn’t joy just another word for—“Uh… like… happiness?” I responded.
“That’s not exactly what joy is,” he told me. He then went on to never explain what joy actually was and it wasn’t until years later that I finally decided to find out for myself. I read through Father James Martin’s book, Between Heaven and Mirth, to find a truer understanding of what joy was and found that while joy is happiness, it is much more than that. The Jesuit priest defines it this way:
In popular terminology, joy is happiness. For the religious person, joy is happiness in God. Joy is not simply a fleeting feeling or an evanescent emotion; it is a deep-seated result of one’s connection to God. Although the more secular definition of joy may sometimes describe one’s emotional response to an object or event…. religious joy is always about a relationship. Joy has an object and that object is God.
Greg Forster elaborates a bit more in his book, Joy for the World:
When I say joy, I don’t mean an emotion. I mean the flourishing of the whole person in mind, heart and life. This flourishing is a transformation that extends to all of life as an integrated totality. It is not a natural phenomenon. It is a miracle. It is a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. Nothing else can produce it. This joy is what makes the church distinct from the world, precisely because it is a miracle.
Have you experienced the joy of God before? We’re familiar with joy in many other avenues. It’s the time and thought you put into making a gift. It’s watching a person open that gift. It’s when your laugh changes to one rarely heard because something is beyond funny. It’s when your cheeks hurt from laughing at a comedian for an hour and a half. It’s spending the holidays with your family (sometimes). It’s eating and playing with your friends. It’s being with old friends you haven’t seen in years. It’s belting out all the lyrics at a concert. It’s cranking the music up in your car. It’s sitting silently at a movie with your friends. It’s taking part in a hobby. It’s dancing like no one’s watching. It’s tasting combinations of foods you didn’t know could work together. It’s being submerged in a good book, movie, or video game. It’s taking a walk through nature and being amazed by its beauty.
It’s that feeling you get when you’re in love and can’t stop thinking about the other person. It’s a nice date with that person. It’s sitting in silence next to that person when your relationship goes deeper than words. It’s hearing the words “I love you.” It’s the wedding where you’re excited to start your new life with this person. It’s sex with your spouse when you’re both more concerned about the other’s experience. It’s holding that beautiful baby for the first time. It’s your son’s reaction when you ask if he wants to play a video game with you. It’s your daughter’s face when you hand her her favorite blanket. It’s your kids and your pets celebrating you the moment you walk in the door. It’s introducing your kids to things they’ve never done or seen before.
So yeah, one way or another you are familiar with joy because you’ve found it in connection to people and even in connection to inanimate objects. It doesn’t have to be anything complicated or over the top. In the Charlie Brown Broadway song, Happiness, the Peanuts gang refers to joy coming in all kinds of small ways: it’s pizza, whistling, learning something new, knowing a secret, climbing a tree—“for happiness is anyone and anything at all that’s loved by you.”
Perhaps it’s really that simple. Perhaps joy is anyone or anything that you love. If so, then you can find spiritual joy by loving those things in relation to God or in submission to him. For example, sometimes I get so caught up in a song that I just have to thank God for music. My happiness in music becomes happiness in God and therefore becomes spiritual joy.
You can find it all throughout the spiritual life. It’s found in your salvation story. It’s in hearing other’s testimonies. It’s that mountaintop experience you had during a big event or retreat. It’s learning to hear God’s voice. It’s actually hearing God’s voice. It’s a confirmation from elsewhere that you have, in fact, heard God’s voice. It’s seeing someone healed. It’s seeing an answer to prayer. It’s seeing someone freed from a demon. It’s waking up from a dream you know God gave you. It’s watching Jesus disciple someone into a new place. It’s realizing you’re not the only one who struggles with the things you do. It’s being freed of a struggle or addiction. It’s sharing a new revelation God gave you.
It’s feeling moved to kneel at the altar. It’s the smile on your face during worship. It’s your amazement at signs and wonders. It’s a Bible verse popping out in a way it never did before. It’s a deeper knowing of God’s love. It’s a truer acceptance of God’s grace. It’s seeing the fruit of your spiritual labors. It’s what you feel when you stick around after church to be with God’s people. It’s provision when you didn’t expect it. It’s a secret God gave you just for you. It’s the feeling of a calling on your life. It’s watching an impossible vision come together. It’s an experience with him you just can’t put into words. It’s the money that you received when you really needed it. It’s the tears you cry when you’re overwhelmed by him.
This is happiness found in God. This is spiritual joy.
This is an excerpt from my book, A Taste of Jesus.
Martin, James. Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. New York, NY, HarperOne, 2011, p. 25.
Forster, Greg. Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence & Can Begin Rebuilding It. Wheaton, IL, Crossway, 2014, p. 58.
Musical Cast Recording. “Happiness.” You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. Masterworks Broadway, 1999.