In a world whose troubles dwarf our own, is joy possible—even permissible?
Samuel Shoemaker said, “The surest mark of a Christian is not faith, or even love, but joy.” I believe him. The problem is how do we get hold of joy in the midst of the pressure, pain, and disappointments that are also part of the Christian life. Besides, is Christian joy even appropriate in the face of human suffering and deprivation that dwarfs our personal problems and characterizes so much of society today?
Tim Hansel (1941-2009) was the founder of Summit Expedition, a wilderness survival school. In 1975, he fell while climbing the Palisade Glacier in the Sierras, severely injuring his back. and was in continual physical pain until the day of his death. [N.B. from Kurt Mähler: The author of this essay, Ray Mayhew, is also in continual pain due to a degenerative spine condition.] Hansel wrote a book with the unlikely title, You Gotta Keep Dancin’ (revised edition published by David C. Cook, 1998). I am in debt to him for many of the quotes from various authors in this article. Let’s begin by taking a brief look at God’s joy, and then I will try to show that joy is firstly a choice, secondly, that it is crucial to our witness, third, that it is therapeutic, and finally, that it can become a habit.
God Is Full of Joy
Having lived in Cyprus, I am familiar with religious art, as every Orthodox church there contains icons. Many of the paintings are very beautiful, but there is a curious omission that reflects the neglect of joy in Christian theology down through the centuries. The paintings portray God’s character in many different ways, sometimes loving, often stern, perhaps sad and, of course, compassionate—but never, never as joyful.
And yet in the Scriptures this is one of his chief attributes. Consider the following: He has a joyful spirit (Galatians 5:22), he sings with joy (Zephaniah 3:17), his presence is full of joy (Psalm 16:11), his actions are joyful (Psalm 105:43), his strength is characterized by it (Nehemiah 8:10), and his house is a joyful residence (Isaiah 56:7). In fact, every time a sinner repents on earth, God’s angels have a party in heaven (Luke 15:10). Since missiologists tell us that 78,000 people a day become Christians, this must keep the angels in a frenetic state of rejoicing!
If this is not convincing enough, then look at the life of Jesus. Although he was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3), he was also a man anointed with the oil of joy above everyone else (Psalm 45:7). G.K. Chesterton said that man is more fully human when characterized by joy than when characterized by grief (Orthodoxy, 1909). He must be right, because Jesus, the second Adam, was drenched in joy. Even when he embraced the sorrows of the world on the cross he did so with joy (Heb 12:2). In addition, he prayed that his followers would be filled with joy (John 17:13), and told them to leap in the air for joy when things got rough (Luke 6:23)—giving us a hint that he did so himself once in a while! And if he who drank the world’s suffering so deeply could be filled with such cheer and laughter, then so can we. But how?
Joy Is a Choice
Someone has said, “life can be counted on to provide all the pain that any of us might need.” It is true! We cannot escape suffering and heartache, and even if we could, as Christians we would only have to embrace it again as we take up the cross and go out to win the world. Our choice is not whether we will or will not experience trials—our choice is how we will respond to them when they come. I cannot decide whether I will break my ankle, lose my wallet, or have my house burgled—but I can decide how I will respond to such reversals if they occur.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of the astonishing freedom and responsibility which enable human beings to say “yes” to life and take the helm of their journeys: “The children of earth are rightly proud of being allowed to take a hand in the shaping of their own destinies.” (Letters & Papers from Prison, Simon & Schuster, 1997)
In no area is this more true than that of suffering. In 1962, research scientists Victor and Mildred Goertzel published a study of 413 famous and exceptionally gifted people in an attempt to discover the factors that produced such lives. Their research revealed that virtually all of them had overcome severe difficulties on the way to becoming the people they were called to be. Suffering is a common human denominator—how we choose to respond to it determines the kind of people we will become.
Tim Hansel was right when he said, “Pain is inevitable, but misery is optional; we cannot avoid pain, but we can avoid joy.” The choice is ours, and faithfulness to Jesus means that even in the tough place of life I choose to rejoice in the Lord. (Psalm 34:1, Phil 4:4)
Albert Camus said, “In the midst of winter I finally discovered within, an invincible summer.” (Return to Tipasa, 1952) We can do the same. Paul said, “We know sorrow, yet our joy is inextinguishable.” (2 Cor 6:10, Phillips translation) Similarly, novelist Jean Paul Richter (1763-1825) said, “Joy is inexhaustible, unlike seriousness.”
Joy Is a Witness
Joy is an indispensable ingredient in our witness to the world. The resurrection was a cosmic eruption of joy, and the privilege of the church has been to bear witness to it. But when we lose our joy we lose the world. In response to suffering and deprivation, the humanist can be compassionate, the atheist can be socially involved, and the Muslim can give alms, but only the Christian can give joy—and therein lies the power of our witness. Because of the resurrection, we have hope and an effervescent joy that cannot be hidden—and to those locked into 21st century despair, this is incredibly attractive.
In the 2003 motion picture dramatizing the life of Mother Teresa, she tells her first class of novitiates, “Never forget the joy in your hearts and in your eyes. Wherever a real Christian goes, he brings joy.” Later, she instructs young nuns on their first day of work in the slum, “Remember to smile always. Smiles are infectious, and the more it costs us the more precious it is. Smiling is our first act of love. It’s a sign of our love for God.” [Mother Teresa of Calcutta, starring Olivia Hussey. Directed by F. Costa. Produced by A. Parrinello. Written by F. Scardamaglia and M. Cerofolini.]
City of Joy (Arrow Books, 1985) is the story of a Polish priest who goes to live in a Calcutta slum. The area is the size of three football fields and contains 50,000 people. His “house”, one room, measures six by four feet, and when he lies down his feet touch one end and his head the other. On his first night, with the rats running around the room, he prays, “Lord, it’s me, Stephen. I’m here for you…” As the story unfolds, Brother Stephen’s joy is the obvious dynamic that begins the process of transformation. He transcends his environment and incarnates the joy of the resurrection in the midst of unspeakable suffering. And today, the slum and lives of the people in it have been transformed. The poor and the powerless lack the two qualities that make life worth living—dignity and joy. Jesus gave them both. We can too.
The New Testament is full of accounts of how the first Christians transformed their environment through joy. For example, in Acts 16:22-34, Paul and Silas are in Philippi’s jail. Though they had been flogged and thrown into stocks, they transcend their misery, and they incarnate resurrection joy with midnight songs and prayers while the other prisoners listen. Heaven empowers their joy such that an earthquake occurs (cf. also Matt 28:2), everyone’s bonds fall off, the prison doors swing open, and the jailer appeals, “What must I do to be saved?” He and his family are baptized that same night.
Joy Is Therapeutic
There has been a lot written in recent years on the negative effect that bitterness, anger, and rejection have on the body. In the words of Scripture, “a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (Prov 17:22). Biochemically, this includes a chronic over-release of adrenaline and cortisol. However, we have not adequately emphasized the other side of the coin: that “a cheerful heart is good medicine.” (ibid.). Biochemically, this includes the consistent release of endorphins, enkephalins, and serotonin.
God’s joy in our spirit is a therapy to the whole person. It is the environment in which we were designed to live. It issues forth in spiritual buoyancy, mental health and physical stamina.
Norman Cousin’s miraculous recovery from fatal collagen vascular disease was attributed to high doses of vitamin C combined with even higher doses of, yes, laughter. In his book, The Anatomy of an Illness (W.W. Norton & Co., 1979), he writes, “Scientific research has established the existence of endorphins in the human brain—a substance very much like morphine in its molecular structure and effects. It is the body’s own anesthesia and a relaxant and helps human beings to sustain pain.”
Scientists don’t yet know exactly how the brain releases endorphins, but there is strong evidence that they are released by positive actions such as exercise and laughter. It should not surprise us. The Bible is full of exhortations that we should rejoice, sing, shout, laugh and dance (e.g., there are more than 110 such encouragements in the Book of Psalms alone). God wants to bless our minds and bodies with health, and joy is the medicine he provides.
Joy Is a Habit
How then do we develop the art of living joyously for God? It will take some discipline, but it can be done. Three keys emerge from the lives of those who have pioneered before us.
First, realize afresh the wonder of simply being alive. We often think of salvation as the greatest of God’s gifts. It isn’t—life is. Salvation is only necessary because we already have been given the astonishing privilege of being alive. So do not procrastinate. Get in on the joy of being alive!
As a young boy, David Rothenburg’s father doused him with gasoline while he slept and burned him alive. He will always be disabled and will need frequent skin grafts, but at the age of seven he had the perception to say, “I’m alive! I’m alive! I didn’t miss out on living! And that is wonderful enough for me.” (David, Fleming H. Revell Co., 1985)
Second, live as if today is all that you have. The Masai language of East Africa has no future tense. For nomadic herdsmen, life is fragile and has to be handled one day at a time. Our problem is the exact opposite. We are caught up in the pressure to achieve and succeed to such an extent that “today” is almost irrelevant. We have forgotten “the sacrament of the present moment”. (cf. Jean-Pierre De Caussade’s book by the same title, Harper Collins, 1989)
Similarly, Russian Orthodox Father Paul Evdokimov writes, “The hour through which you are at present passing, the man whom you meet here and now, the task on which you are engaged at this very moment—these are always the most important in your whole life.” (The Sacrament of Love, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985) Not only are they the most important, they are also the most likely to be the containers of joy, if we will but recognize them. This insight is not restricted to theologians. Dr. Debbie Alford, an nationally award-winning South Texas public educator, works with adults who failed high school and are now earning that basic degree. She teaches this motto as a primary principle to those whose earlier choices have delayed their educational progress and may tempt them to regret the past:
“Live in the present.”
Third, ask the Holy Spirit to make you truly child-like in your capacity to appreciate the wonder of ordinary things (Matt 18:3). Hansel describes us as flies crawling across the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, sadly unaware of the grandeur at our feet. Joy comes from simply appreciating the rich pageant of ordinary life. Savor it: the smell of fresh coffee, children laughing on the street, the texture of a fabric, the wind in your face. Joy is all around us if we will only pause and breathe it in.
Our Town is Thornton Wilder’s play about everyday life in the small town of Grover. Emily dies in childbirth and asks for the privilege of going back to see life one last time. She views it through the gossamer veil that separates life and death, and she exclaims, “Oh earth, you are too wonderful for anyone to realize you. Did any human being ever realize life [and how wonderful it is] while they live it? Every, every minute.”
Jesus did. Now he invites us to do the same. Choose joy! It won’t disappoint you.
By Ray Mayhew and revised with permission by Kurt MahlerG.K. Chesterton, joy, norman cousins, Ray Mayhew, Tim Hansel