Introverted. Analytical. Curious. Reflective. Prone to loneliness and sadness. These are a few of my personality traits. And joyful? Optimistic? Can they be reconciled with the first group mentioned?
Growing up, I heard how Christians should be joyful people, and not morose. Lately, I have been hearing public theologians like Miroslav Volf and Willie James Jennings, or prolific writers like N.T. Wright discuss the theology of joy. According to them, Christians ought to orient themselves toward joy. Jennings describes a theology of joy as a kind of “resistance against despair and death.” While I agree wholeheartedly, I think it is important to explain what we mean by a theology of joy. What does it mean and not mean to be a joyful people?
To be joyful does not necessarily mean we walk around with smiles on our faces, or laughter and jokes on our lips. This may be default behavior for the light-hearted or for extroverts. This describes more of a personality type rather than a person living out their faith based on conscious decisions and full of hope.
Being joyful does not mean we repress feelings of sadness, depression, nor do we ignore pain and suffering in ourselves or others. Mourning is still practiced appropriately by the joyful, and prayers of lament are comfortably in the vocabulary of a theology of joy.
Jennings’ description of a theology of joy is an antidote to the dystopian films and novels of today, as well as to the postmodern aversion to hopefulness. It is a defiance against despair. It is recognizing God. James, in his letter to the early Christians, claims this as counting it all joy when we meet trials of various kinds, even persecution and calamity (James 1:2-4). Paul reminds us that it is possible, even Christ-like, to rejoice always, even in prison, even in dire need (Philippians 4:4). These are not men oblivious to the plight of others or naive in their positivity. Their joy has a hopefulness for the ultimate future; it relies on the truth that once God promises his presence, it is as good as received (Romans 4:17-18). Joy is inextricably linked with hope. Not wishful thinking, but the hope that depends solely on the character and Word of God.
At times, joy may be paired with fear, as when the shepherds witnessed angelic messengers ripping through our skies and proclaiming beauty in such startling terms (Luke 2:8-18). Surely they raced to Bethlehem both rejoicing and struck by fear. Joy may come only after a night of terror and anxiety as when King Darius paced the palace sleepless and Daniel reclined uncertain with lions’ teeth uncomfortably in sight (Daniel 6).
Joy is not void of troubles. It is not necessarily conditional, but rests on truth. The apostles discovered this, when, threatened by the powers-that-be, they prayed for boldness (Acts 4:29-30). When their prayers were answered, and they were flogged after meeting with the religious legal body, the Sanhedrin, instead of simply mourning, they rejoiced (Acts 5:40-41).Although they suffered, it was because of their greater hope.
Whereas happiness may manifest itself as a visible emotion, joy is quieter, deeper, more constant, steady and fixed. It enjoys a foundation secure, not easily shaken or destroyed. For this reason, Nehemiah bolsters the spirit of the returning remnant with the words, “The joy of the LORD is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10). And this, as they were weeping in the face of strife and chaos.
How do we, then, become joyful people? It is through practiced faith and love, by leaning in and acting as if we believed these things. We are both formed by what we believe in, what we consider and think about, and we are even formed by the acting out of these ideas. This partly means in order to become joyful people, we act like joyful people, not in disingenuous ways, but stepping toward God in hope. His Holy Spirit will meet us and guide us the rest of the way.
“There is no suggestion at all that these signs of the world’s darkness will ever be absent. But still, God’s joy can be ours in the midst of it all. It is the joy of belonging to the household of God whose love is stronger than death and who empowers us to be in the world while already belonging to the kingdom of joy.”
– Henri Nouwen in The Return of the Prodigal Son, pp. 116-117