Our God is a God of joy. The psalmist describes the presence of God as an experience of joy: “You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11). God’s love and mercy transform our experiences of sorrow into joy: “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy (Psa 30:11).
The prophets look forward to such transformation on a wide scale, a day when “the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; . . . and rejoice with joy and singing” (Isa 35:1). On this day, God’s ransomed people will travel along a path toward Zion singing, with everlasting joy and gladness and “sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”
Christians believe that the presence of God has entered our world in Christ: we live in a time infused with God’s spirit of joy. This big picture of joy in God’s presence inspires Paul, even as he faces possible death, to write, ” I am glad and rejoice with all of you — and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me” (Philippians 2:17-18). Peter encourages people facing a fiery ordeal to “rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13).
As these passages show, joy is not the absence of challenges or a fake-happy smile that ignores our own problems or the very troubling injustices of our world. In The Book of Joy, Bishop Desmond Tutu writes:
Discovering more joy does not save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreaks without being broken.
Joy is an openness to the fullness of life we receive from God’s presence. In the face of tragedy, such openness can be hard to find. I read once of a woman who experienced such profound loss that she could not pray. A friend advised her to call out in pain to God, but she couldn’t even do this. So the friend advised, “Just cry out, ‘Lord, no words, no words.’” In a way, this kind of prayer is joyous because it is open to God and thus to the fullness of life that, in time, will come again from God’s presence.
Jürgen Moltmann describes Christian joy as an affirmation that God is “nearer to us than we believe and is enlarging our life more than we think. Joy is the power to live, to love, to have creative initiative. Joy awakens all our senses, energizing mind and body” (Joy and Human Flourishing).
As we reflect on the centrality of joy to our faith, may we be encouraged to ask this question every day: how is my life resonating with the immense joy of God?