“May the God of hope fill you with all joy …” (Romans 15:13)
That’s how Paul wraps up the most theological and thought-provoking of his letters.
Joy? Is that feasible? Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said that “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.” Mind you, his photos are always smiling, so perhaps he had an easy life of it.
Not like you and me, right?
Someone described life as “nasty, brutish and short” (which by coincidence, also describes my Gym teacher at High School). Isn’t that a more realistic appraisal?
Seriously, joy as an emotion might seem just too fickle or fragile to withstand the assault of suffering and the crushing magnitude of pain. Joy, taken in this instance to be tantamount to high-octane happiness, fades under duress and is incapable of being sustained by or sustaining someone across the roller-coaster of life.
Also, that summons to “rejoice always” in Philippians, might even seem ethically irresponsible and politically dangerous, too close to peddling just one more religious opiate to the oppressed masses, almost a demand to be content with the status quo, to the detriment of the dis-content arguably necessary to motivate movements for change.
But Joy is listed by Paul among the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22–23). In terms of the doctrine of God, the three parables of Luke 15—the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son—all describe God’s reaction to the repentance of sinners in terms of joy. This is an echo and amplification of the significance of joy in the Hebrew Bible, perhaps most clearly stated when Psalm 16 boldly declares that “in [God’s] presence there is fullness of joy” (16:11).
Fullness of joy. Imagine that.
Which is where we began, with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.”
Joy is being where God is. We were made for joy.
This is the heart of Jürgen Moltmann’s statement that “Christianity is a unique religion of joy.” For Moltmann, human joy is grounded in God’s own joy, the abundant, excessive rejoicing of the father at the return of his lost child. Christian joy stands in contrast both to what Moltmann provocatively terms the “fun society” (Spaßgesellschaft) with its fake joy and to the opiate-like joy characteristic of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.”
Instead, Christian joy both motivates dissatisfaction with conditions of suffering and is a deep wellspring of abiding hope in God’s work of redemption: “Joy in life’s happiness motivates us to revolt against the life that is destroyed and against those who destroy life. And grief over life that is destroyed is nothing other than an ardent longing for life’s liberation to happiness and joy.”
So joy and suffering are not incompatible. Moltmann goes so far as to assert that the condition of possibility for both suffering and joy are the same—the opening up of oneself to the other in which love consists. “Compassion,” he writes, “is the other side of the living joy.” We might, with good reason, call joy of this sort “a bright sorrow,” following Alexander Schmemann. As the bright sorrow of this present dispensation, joy notwithstanding implicates one in the economy of redemption, in the drama of God’s turning of our mourning into dancing (Ps. 30:11). This is where we live.
And joy pursues an oblique politics. As Volf puts it, that joy would be political at all is “surprising, because joy doesn’t explicitly advocate any values or social ideals.” True joy does, however, involve a right relationship to the good in which one rejoices, and joy wills the perpetual continuation of that good. “In this willing,” Volf says, “joy sets itself tacitly against features of the world over which one cannot or should not rejoice, and does so without resentment or judgment.”
This joy against the world aligns well with the idea that joy is the outward, public manifestation of belief in the lordship of Christ. The joy of early Christians was rooted in the sovereignty of Christ as set against the alternate sovereignty of Caesar. They brought Good News about a different empire, a different kind of empire, one that fundamentally reconfigured preconceived notions of sovereignty precisely by way of the manner in which it is brought about: crucifixion and resurrection.
This is what happens in church, in its restoration of the individual and its creation of community in Christ. Church is an authentic “clear space” combating the deadening fog of consumer culture. Joy is, itself, the wellspring of motivation for revolt against injustice insofar as joy casts a positive vision of what life is truly for; otherwise we would accept innocent suffering and broken lives as our fate and destiny.
No, joy is neither an ideological opiate serving to placate and pacify the dispossessed, nor a sentiment as fragile as garden-variety happiness and, thus, as incapable of weathering situations of exigent suffering and stress. Joy funds both perseverance and critique, both resilience and resistance. The bright sorrow of joy as we experience it in our present dispensation is but a foretaste of the abundant delight that will characterize the Party-to-Come in God’s presence, the fullness of rejoicing that will consist in the sheer joy of being with God.
So, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Today, I will choose joy.