It’s true that the church urgently needs to reacquaint itself with the practice of lament as a loving, faithful response to a world of suffering (I wrote about this a few months ago). But lament is only one part of what it means to be faithful witnesses to God’s better way. With the ways of death pressing in on all sides, resurrection people must hold equally to two sides of the same coin: practicing lament and cultivating joy. In lament we declare that things are not as they should be, offering a prophetic witness to a different way. In cultivating joy we live that different way, defying the power of suffering and death. Joy defies despair, proclaiming a resurrection reality that springs up from the grave itself so that sin and death do not have the final word. And, unlike happiness, joy is not attached primarily to present emotional experiences but to a deep knowledge of good.
Minister and gospel singer Shirley Caesar says it well in her song “This Joy I Have”:
This joy I have, the world didn’t give it to me
This joy I have, the world didn’t give it to me
This joy I have, the world didn’t give it to me!
The world didn’t give it, and the world can’t take it away.
Shirley Caesar and the many choirs who have sung this song have something to teach white Christians because there are few better witnesses of joy in the midst of hardship than the black church in the United States. If the systems, economics, and judgments of the world are not the source of our joy, then joy cannot be taken from us no matter how severe the injustices of the world.
Joy lives within God, is a gift of God’s Spirit, and is a reality that is available to all in God’s kingdom. Joy knows that death has been defeated, that one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, when all will at last be well. Yet, for us, living in the in-between of the now and not yet, it requires active effort on our part to live in the truth of joy and cultivate the experience of joy in our lives.
In a world where so much is wrong, joy is an act of subversion against the principalities and powers of this world.
Paul reminds us death no longer has any power over Christ, nor over those of us who have been raised with Christ (Romans 6:9–11). Hopelessness, despair, and despondency are certainly all tools in the hands of the enemy that are aimed at bringing death—bodily death, spiritual death, death of hope. So if we understand Paul correctly, even all of death’s most powerful tools are powerless against those who are in Christ. Cultivating joy in the midst of seemingly hopeless levels of suffering and pain is therefore an extremely defiant act, and a supremely Christlike one. In a world where so much is wrong, joy is an act of subversion against the principalities and powers of this world. Joy reiterates the truth that their authority is limited, that they do not have the last word, and that death never tells the whole story.
But here’s the thing. Joy cannot be faked or commanded into existence. Joy does not come from numbing our pain, nor is joy blind to suffering. Joy is wide awake, acknowledging it all. Joy does not ignore the bad news but doesn’t trust the bad news to know all the facts, either. Joy is deeply connected with love and just as persistent—never giving up, never losing faith, always hopeful and enduring through every circumstance (1 Corinthians 13:7). Joy is a choice that is based on the reality of God’s goodness, presence, and activity in the world.
So how do we choose joy without faking it? How do we cultivate this kind of persistent, subversive, death-defying joy? And, perhaps most challenging still, how do we cultivate an honest joy that does not numb itself from sorrow? Life with God in God’s kingdom seems to be entirely built on paradox. There is no concise checklist for this paradoxical way of being in the world, but there are practices to help us be present to the joy that is available to us every day. I suggest three practices here, but this is by no means an exhaustive list. How will you begin to cultivate joy in your life?
Intentionally practicing gratitude requires us to be in an active posture of anticipation, open and ready to receive what we cannot make happen for ourselves. We ask for God’s help to recognize and appreciate the many gifts that surround us every day of our lives. Some have a gratitude journal; others begin their daily prayer time by naming at least five gifts. These can be everything from the trees growing outside, to time with family, to a favorite ice cream. When we intentionally practice gratitude, we find we are surrounded by good gifts we did not create and could not even plan. Over time, joy becomes a natural byproduct of this way of life. It shapes us to see what is good and beautiful and, yes, the things that bring us joy.
We often think of spiritual practices as very serious affairs. But play and the art of having fun are supremely important spiritual habits. Nothing defies the enemy’s efforts at despair more than a good, long laugh! For some, play looks like being out on the water all day. For others, it looks like watching a favorite show, taking an evening walk, or playing a board game with friends. However and whenever you choose to play, know that you are doing seriously good, spiritual work for your soul.
Celebrate Good News
Our culture often adopts the emotional state of angsty adolescence, when somehow being happy is very uncool. Many of us live the reverse of the adage “don’t cry over spilled milk”—“don’t celebrate if the milk is good.” But looking for and celebrating what is good in the world is not only important—it is part of worship! Every time we recognize signs of beauty, resurrection, and hope, we receive God’s activity in our lives and give witness to the presence of God in the world. How can you be intentional about finding ways to celebrate good news in your life, in your workplace, in your family, or in your faith community?