Joy is a wonderful, life-giving experience, yet for some reason joy is also such a rare commodity in this world. Just take a look around you. Most of us go through life with gloomy outlooks and live such dull, weary lives most of the time. And for all the talk of the glory of Christianity, a quick glimpse around you and you'll see that Christians are generally no more joyful than the non-Christians you know. Christians know that they're not supposed to feel this way but somehow we all slide down the same slippery path of unhappiness.
We all know there is enough infidelity, depravity, crime, famine, war and ecological warnings to depress even the most optimistic optimist. But joy is supposed to be taken seriously by the church. After all, believers in Christ Jesus are commanded to be joyful. Yet no matter how hard we try to force joy into our lives it quickly slips away again. It seems no more than a flimsy experience. So why are we so tempted by melancholy, cynicism and dark moods?
An Unfortunate Joy
Joy is often understood as the absence of unfortunate events in our lives; in other words, our response to joy is to feel good about our lives and ourselves as long as adversity and problems are kept at bay. Oh sure, we all experience periods when things seem to be going our way. We are happy that our car hasn't broken down again or that the roof doesn't leak or that the kids haven't come down with one of those never-ending flu bugs. But in the end life has a way of taking away any memory of happiness and leaving us with the same sense of futility that really sinks deep inside our gut.
What are we doing wrong? Well, if we look at the life of one of the earliest believers in Jesus Christ -- the apostle Paul, we can learn so much on how we might respond to joy. Even while rotting in a dark, dank prison waiting to have his head cut off Paul writes, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice" (Philippians 4:4 NIV). Paul's joy was the type of experience that was alive even in the midst of sorrow and suffering. Which explains why he could easily describe himself "as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything" (2 Corinthians 6:10 NIV). Where is this unbounded and uncontainable joy we read about in the early church found today? The secret to finding real joy is not in foolish giddiness or in some pie-in-the-sky attitude because none of these really lasts very long. Rather Christian joy is a lasting, steady sense of peace and contentment. Now that's the kind of joy I want. So how do we get it?
Dying to be Born Again
If we go back to Paul and see the wondrous joy he experienced even when things looked hopeless, we can see why he lived a joyful life. You see, for Paul and for all those early Christians, this life here on earth was indeed temporary. Unlike Christians today who have fallen asleep under the weight of the pleasures of this life, Paul was weaned off this life and already lived in eternity. He understood "how absurd [it is] to think that wealth brings true happiness" (Ecclesiastes 5:10 NLT). Joy can't be found in the flesh and blood of this life. Paul knew that as long as we are preoccupied with life here on earth we will miss out on the hope and joy that never ends. He knew that the Way he chose to follow is the way of death so that life may be found. It is the way of becoming a new being by going through the pain of being reborn:
"We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved" (Romans 8:22-24 NIV).
Anyone who has experienced the pain of giving birth or has watched as their wife has cried and groaned in labor knows the uncontainable expectation for a child to be born. If Christians have lost the fire of their love and faith in Jesus Christ, it is because we no longer desire deep from within our gut to be born in the Kingdom of God. We are too satisfied with the decaying and dying life here on earth to hope for life with God. Even the way the church lives out her life shows that she is grounded here on earth. We spend more time and money erecting buildings in the hope of setting roots on this earth than we do spreading the gospel message to all nations and preparing the people of Christ to become new creations in God's Kingdom. We do not worship God in the Spirit, but in brick, mortar and gold. Is it any wonder then that we can barely get a squeak out of our yearning to be with Christ? We do not lust after the Kingdom the way Paul and those early Christians did and so we no longer share in the exuberant joy of knowing Christ.
So what does it take to find true happiness? Is it all just a bunch of platitudes to be read and forgotten? It doesn't have to be. God pursues us to share in His joy. But we can only find joy knowing that the poorer we become, the richer we are. We can't receive God's joy if we are weighed down with the things of this world: you know, more stuff, more of ourselves, more wasted lives. Paul said, "I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him" (Philippians 3:7-9 NLT).
Jesus came to give us life. We are God's masterpieces. God set us free from the bondage of sin so that we can live life, but the only way to do this is to choose less of this world and more of Christ. Only then will we find more purpose, more joy, more peacefulness and more of life the way God intended it to be lived. Joy is found only in the presence of God: "You will show me the way of life. Being with You is to be full of joy" (Psalms 16:11 NLV). In God's presence we finally find what we're looking for.
God always rejoices and His desire is that the love, mercy and forgiveness that He gives us lead us to share in His joy: in a joy that will overflow. Not because we have become perfect or because the world has been converted from the darkness of sin, nor because all the troubles of this world have been solved. No, God commands us to rejoice with Him because the Kingdom of God is a celebration. It is a celebration of the joy of being with God -- the same God who conquered death and gives us life. It is a celebration of being satisfied only in Christ Jesus. And it is a celebration of knowing that even in the midst of wars and hatred, plagues and famines, betrayal and brokenness we already belong to God's Kingdom of joy.
John Kapsalis has an M.T.S from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.