I’ve always struggled with joy.
If I were an ancient Roman, sitting in the office of the famed physician Galen, he would have diagnosed me as a “melancholic,” having an excess of black bile in my body. Likely he would have prescribed a treatment of leeches. Leaving aside the black bile and leeches, he would have got the “melancholic” right: serious-minded, introverted, cautious, focused, conscientious—and susceptible to moodiness and sadness.
But melancholic or not, at some point life catches up with everyone. The rose-coloured glasses begin to fade. The half-full glass looks more and more empty.
Disappointments pile up, rejections and dead-ends and broken-down dreams. Injury or illness enters, disease takes up residence. A friend dies, or a sibling, or a parent—or a spouse, or a child.
And we become more aware of the world, more aware that there are seven billion other selves who are each experiencing these things—and far worse. Horrific abuse. Horrendous violence. Utter poverty. Plagues of disease. Cataclysmic natural disasters. Waves of war.
Yes, at some point, for all of us, life catches up with us. And it gets harder and harder to “rejoice in the Lord always” or “consider it nothing but joy whenever you face trials of any kind.”
What is joy? And how do we experience it? Can we truly experience it?
Let me start with this: “Rejoice always” cannot mean “be happy all the time.” Having “the joy of the Lord” cannot mean that we are perma-smiling, always happy, bubbling over with joy, every minute of every day.
You see, we are commanded by the Apostle Paul not just to “rejoice” but also to “mourn.” We are assured by Jesus that those who mourn are blessed by God. And then there’s the Psalms: filled with the whole range of human emotions, from deep sadness and despair to overwhelming delight and celebration.
These biblical commands and promises and descriptions reflect the full depths of the human soul, the whole spectrum of human experience. We are created for all these things: sorrow and gladness, sadness and joy, and everything in between. It’s no coincidence that the most enduring art, the most soul-touching music, the most profound ideas, have been produced by artists and thinkers who fully experienced the full range of human emotions.
As with Jesus himself.
At least half a dozen times in the Gospels we hear of Jesus being filled with compassion for the suffering of others: compassion, empathy, entering into their suffering. Three times the New Testament describes Jesus weeping: at the death of his friend Lazarus, at Jerusalem’s rejection of his ways of peace, and as he faced his own suffering.
At Gethsemane Jesus confesses to his disciples: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” At Golgotha Jesus cries out to God: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Isaiah certainly gets it right when he speaks of the coming Servant as “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.”
So, no: “rejoice always” cannot mean we are to “be happy all the time.” That way of thinking about joy just doesn’t make sense of human experience, of the Bible, of Jesus himself.
In fact, very often in the Bible “joy” isn’t simply tied to feelings of happiness. “Joy” is more of a posture of joy, a settled disposition of joy, that opens us up to moments of joy, those feelings of joy.
The posture of joy is what we are called by God to develop, even when the feelings of joy are not there. This posture of joy is the “joy” that is the Spirit’s fruit in our lives, it’s the “joy” that characterizes God’s kingdom. This posture of joy is what Paul is getting at when he calls Christians to “rejoice in the Lord always.”
The “in the Lord” is the key. This posture of joy is grounded in the assurance of God’s work in the world through Christ and by the Spirit. It is rooted in the gospel, the good news that brings great joy for all people. God has already entered our world in Jesus, the crucified Jesus has been raised from the dead, and this means that every good thing is possible, even when the worst is happening.
This posture of joy, then, means having an underlying sense of love, trusting that God loves us thoroughly and deeply and wants us to experience all that is good and beautiful and true.
This posture of joy means having an underlying sense of hope, believing in the always-open possibility that God will do a good thing even in the midst of terrible things.
This posture of joy is this kind of settled disposition. It’s a Spirit-cultivated faith in the good news of God: hoping in God, trusting in God’s love, and so always being open to those moments of joy when they arrive.
And those moments of joy are there, if we have eyes to see them.
Moments of joy in celebration. Celebrating achievements, whether yours or others. Celebrating the overcoming of obstacles, whether big or small. Celebrating milestones, birthdays and anniversaries and baptisms and more.
Moments of joy in delight. Delighting in a picturesque snowfall, a stunning sunset, the northern lights on display. Delighting in the laughter of a child, a good meal, a loved one’s warm embrace. Delighting in both the spectacular wonders of the world and the simple pleasures of life.
“Rejoicing in the Lord,” then, does not mean we have these feelings of joy all the time. The “joy of the Lord” is not about constant happiness, having a permanent smile on our face and laughter on our lips.
Instead, cultivate a posture of joy, regardless of whether the feelings are there or not. Practise faith and hope and love, until that becomes a settled disposition, the way you look at the world. This will open you up to those moments of joy when they come, those occasions of celebration and delight. You will see these moments of joy around you—and when you do, grab hold of them, fully experience them, cherish them. Enjoy them.
Hey, if it can work for this incurable melancholic, it’s worth a try, right?