Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:9-11)
I wrote last month about the subject of joy, focusing on the perspective of C. S. Lewis. I have reflected often on the subject since, in part because of the approach of Advent. As you know, joy is frequently associated with Christmas, as in the famous text of Luke quoted above and, of course, in the great Isaac Watts carol Joy to the World.
Indeed, one chapter earlier in Luke, an angel announces to Zechariah, “You will have joy and gladness” (1:14), and several months later Elizabeth tells Mary, “For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy” (1:44). Similarly, we are told in Matthew that the wise men, upon realizing their goal, “were overwhelmed with joy” (2:10).
Scripture contains many dozens of other references to joy. Nehemiah 8:10b proclaims, “the joy of the LORD is your strength.” According to the Psalms, in God’s “presence there is fullness of joy” (16:11), and “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes with the morning” (30:5). Joy is mentioned numerous times in the New Testament beyond the Gospels. In Galatians 5:22, it is listed second only to love as a fruit of the Spirit.
In light of all the Bible says about joy, it is strange that so many of us so often find it difficult to believe in or to trust joy. We have no such problem with, say, disappointment, a solid and substantial feeling, whose reality never comes into question. But joy’s appearance can be suspect, having to pass an almost impossibly high standard of verification. It is a welcome guest, to be sure, but kept under discreet surveillance throughout its visitation.
It hasn’t always been this way for me. Somewhere in the process of growing into adulthood, I experienced enough pain, enough dashed expectations and disillusionment, to become a bit guarded, to learn to hedge my emotional bets. Becoming an academic has worked to accelerate this process, since good scholars live by careful nuance and reservation.
The result is that the negative can become more real, more trusted, than the positive, even though, objectively, one is as genuine as the other. Pain is not described as fleeting, though pleasure often is.
I do not imagine for a minute that I am unusual in this respect. One indication is the finding by psychologists that we weigh negative impressions many times more heavily than positive impressions. The seven good things Joel did before his one mistake are hardly remembered, and if Joel was unlucky enough to err on our first acquaintance, the offense is harder still to overcome. First impressions, at least when they are negative, do seem to play an inordinately large role in human affairs.
Consequently, we might judge others unfairly, even ruthlessly, and we might weigh our own emotions and experiences on a similarly tipped scale. Negative memories are powerfully persistent. Most find it harder to forget humiliation than happiness, and disappointment lingers longer than feelings of success. We need reminding to count our blessings but require no encouragement to supply an account of our misfortunes.
The issue is not just that of personality type, although that’s part of it. Linked to it also is the question of faith. Faith in God, if the Bible is to be believed, orients life toward joy: joy as life’s most genuine and final reality, the bottom line, as it were, to which Christian existence should return, time and again, and the ultimate destiny of our life in God.
It is interesting that one encounters the idea of joy on both ends of the Gospel story. The word is repeated on multiple occasions near the conclusion of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of John, e.g., in 15:11: “I have said these things so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Looking back decades later, the author of Hebrews could say that Jesus, “for the sake of the joy that was set before him, endured the cross” (12:2). And, of course, the disciples respond with joy to the resurrection in Luke (24:41, 52).
So, a proper goal for this Advent season is, in faith, to believe more in joy, to look back and to look beyond: back to the joyous surprise of Bethlehem, and beyond to God’s joyous future, so that the joy of God might be our strength today.