Christian Wiman, the celebrated poet, professor of literature at Yale and Christian intellectual, in his book Joy, which is a collection of poetry and writings on the subject of joy, opens the book with an essay on the maxim used by artists the world over: Light writes white. Meaning, if you are a poet or a novelist or a painter, and you sit down to a blank page, if all is light in your life, all is well, then you have nothing to say.
Art, so the thinking goes, is born out of out of inner turmoil and the demons that lurk below the surface. Wiman’s essay is basically a counterargument; that light writes white says less about art and more about the artist.
I read Joy last winter after Christmas. In the Comer house, we observe Jolabokaflod, which is a tradition we picked up on a trip to Iceland. Jolabokaflod is Icelandic for “Yule book flood,” and the tradition is, on Christmas Eve, you gift each other a book and chocolate, and then—if you are a family—you cuddle up in bed together and read. For a literary family like ours, it’s a great tradition.
But reading through Wiman’s collection over the winter, I was struck by how easy it is to miss the goodness of life with God in his world. It’s easier to be sad than glad.
Whatever you think about the origins of human beings (I myself am a bit of a skeptic with evolutionary theory, but …), evolutionary biologists tell us the human brain is hard wired to focus on the negative in our field of vision; we evolved, they would argue, on the plains of Africa, and our ancestors’ survival depended on scanning the horizon for a threat.
Years ago, I read an article by a neuroscientist that said it takes just three seconds for a negative memory to imprint on the brain, but fourteen seconds for a positive one. He said, your brain is like flypaper for negativity and Teflon for positivity.
Since then, if you ever hang out with our family, on the sabbath or a vacation, we do this weird thing we call “take an imprint,” where, whenever we’re in a good moment, we pause for fourteen seconds, and just sit, eyes open, in the moment to imprint the memory on our brain. That way, whenever we call up that memory, our brain will release the chemicals of happiness.
All that to say, our brains are wired and warped to focus on all that is wrong with the world.
Add to that, we are living in a world that is under assault from the three enemies of the soul—World, Flesh, and the Devil. Add to that, the 24/7 digital news cycle which is an economic model built to profit off our in-built fear of predators on the horizon. Add to that the global pandemic, which has magnified our bent toward the negative. Add to that, the holidays are a mixed bag for people, for some it’s “the most wonderful time of the year,” but for others, it’s a mixed bag.
A lot of us are feeling little to no joy this Christmas. But listen to the lyrics of this well-known Christian hymn.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come
Let earth receive her King
Let every heart prepare Him room
And Heaven and nature sing
Joy to the World, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy
No more let sins and sorrows grow
Nor thorns infest the ground
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found
He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The light of His righteousness
And wonders of His love
What is this? Is it denial? Wishful thinking? Christian escapism? Or is it something else?
(Read Luke 2:1-20)
‘Do Not Be Afraid’
Now, I know most of you are familiar with the story, but let’s key in on verse ten, the crux of the story. “Do not be afraid …” is the most common command in Scripture. Fear is at the root of what has gone wrong in the human condition.
“I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” The phase “good news” is euangelion in Greek, where we get the word “evangelism.” It can also be translated “gospel” or in Christmas’ vernacular, “glad tidings.”
We think of “gospel” as a serious word, but in the first century, it was a happy word. Whenever a new king was born or a war was won, the empire would send out a herald to “preach the gospel” or spread the good news.
Hence the next line, “Good news that will cause great joy.” Not just joy, but great joy . The word “great” in Greek is mega. Mega joy!
Imagine the feeling you get when something you’ve been waiting for and wanting, out of the blue, comes to pass? Imagine if somebody burst in the back door right now, or into your living room, and said, “I have good news! They discovered a miracle cure for COVID, here it is, the pandemic is OVER.” What would you feel? Mega JOY!
That’s the idea in the story.
Last, notice, joy is the result of the gospel, but what is the gospel?
A King and Kingdom
“Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”
The gospel is not:
You can go to heaven when you die!
You can be justified by grace through faith not by works!
You can be healthy and wealthy!
No, the gospel is not about you, or me, at all; it’s the long-awaited Messiah has been born, in Bethlehem, just like the prophet said, and he is more than just a king, he is the Lord, the title used for God himself.
Now, where there is a king, there is a kingdom. To say the king has come is another way of saying the kingdom has come. But since we live in a twenty-first century American democracy, not a first century Jewish monarchy, the kingdom of God is a bit of a foreign concept for most of us.
Let me sketch out for you a biblical theology of the gospel of the kingdom in three simple parts.
First century Jews divided human history into two ages: this age, and the age to come.
This age was marked by the rule of “Satan, sin, and death.” It was an epoch of pain and suffering and waiting for God to come and put the world to rights.
The age to come was marked by the rule of God. A time of peace and prosperity for all in God’s kingdom. As the prophet Isaiah said of those in the age to come: “Everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”
First century Jews were waiting for the Messiah, or in Greek, the word is Christ, both words for a coming king, who would usher in the age to come, or in other language, “the kingdom of God.”
The gospel that Jesus is the long-awaited king, and he has come to usher in the kingdom and make it available to all who repent and believe.
Note the word in v. 10: “Good news … for all the people.” Not just Jews, not just the wealthy and well-connected, not just people who are “good,” but all who, in Jesus’ language used later, “repent and believe.” All who rethink everything they think they know about what will lead to life, and put their trust in Jesus’ mental maps to reality. And apprentice under him into kingdom living.
The kingdom of God is ‘now and not yet.’
What most Jews in the first century were expecting was a clear line of demarcation between this age and the age to come, but what actually happened was Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension dragged the future into the present. The age to come, into this age.
Jesus opened a portal to the coming world. A way to live under God’s rule now as an advance sign of what is yet to come for the whole world. That is the aim of the church, to function as the vanguard of the social order that is coming. But don’t veer into utopianism.
We now live in what theologians call “the time between the times.” Between Jesus first coming to inaugurate the kingdom in the church and his second to bring the kingdom to its climax over the whole world.
Contrary to what you might think, in church history, the advent season was less about Jesus’ first coming, and more about his second. Fleming Rutledge, in her magisterial Advent book, writes about how Advent isn’t just a season in the church calendar, it’s the timber of our spiritual life.
In a very real sense, the Christian community lives in Advent all the time. It can well be called the Time Between, because the people of God live in the time between the first coming of Christ, incognito in the stable in Bethlehem, and his second coming, in glory, to judge the living and the dead. In the Time Between, “our lives are hidden with Christ in God; when Christ who is our life appears, then we also will appear with him in glory.” Advent contains within itself the crucial balance of the now and not-yet that our faith requires … The disappointment, brokenness, suffering and pain that characterize life in this present world is held in dynamic tension with the promise of future glory that is yet to come. In that Advent tension, the church lives it life.
Because we live in this age, we feel sorrow; but because we also live with a foot in the age to come, we feel joy. Not sorrow, or joy. But sorrow and joy.
Now, you may ask, if all that is true, why am I not experiencing that joy? Well, one because it was a very hard year, and we’re human, fragile, and vulnerable. We suffer, and in the end, we die.
If you’re not all chipper this Christmas, go easy on yourself, because joy is more than just an emotion. The same is true for the other Advent themes of love and peace and hope. All four are more than emotions, they are an inner condition of the heart of Jesus that we take on in our own heart as we apprentice under him.
But herein lies a key idea: our relationship to joy isn’t just passive, it’s also active. Joy isn’t just something we feel; it’s also something we choose. It’s a deliberate decision we make to joy in God, or in the language of the NT, to “rejoice.”
Henri Nouwen said it this way: “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”
Or here’s Richard Foster: “The decision to set the mind on the higher things of life is an act of the will. That is why celebration is a discipline. It is not something that falls on our heads. It is the result of a consciously chosen way of thinking and living.”
Or look at this from Rick Howe, whose book series on joy is a hidden gem:
Emotions … are the tip of the iceberg. There is much more beneath the surface. And when we explore that territory, we discover that we are active participants and contributors to our emotional states. Even if it seems that we have little control over our feelings per se, we do have a say about their entourage of values, beliefs, and desires. We can affirm them or deny them, embrace them or reject them, cultivate them or put them in check. This is what makes it possible for us to ‘school’ our emotions. Wisely or foolishly, in healthy or unhealthy ways, we all manage our emotions. This is turn plays an important role in the formation of our character. And this makes our emotions morally significant. … The pursuit of joy is a moral obligation.
Now, how do we do this? As we live in between the ages with a brain hardwired to focus on the bad, how do we move from fear (like the shepherds in the story) to joy.
The short answer is, by practicing the way of Jesus; by arranging our days so that we regularly experience deep joy in our life with God in his kingdom. A more specific answer is found in Philippians 4. The best “how-to” text I know of on joy, in all of Scripture.
(Read Phil. 4:4-8)
Three Basic Steps
“Rejoice” – note that joy is a command. Something we are commanded to do. As Martin Luther once said, “A Christian should be joyful, if he’s not, the devil is tempting him.” “Again I say, rejoice” – driving home just how important joy is in our spiritual formation. But how?
You could break down Paul’s tutorial into three basic steps:
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving ...”
In Paul’s theology, the practice of gratitude is how we grow in our faith, or trust in God. But gratitude is a posture before it’s a practice. It’s a posture, where you receive life as a gift, rather than grasp for it as a right. But it is also a practice by which we cultivate joy through both ritual and redirection.
Ritual: We find ways to habituate gratitude into our day and week. For me, I start every morning with a gratitude ritual. For our family, we begin and end every sabbath with a table conversation on what we are grateful for.
Redirection: When thoughts come about how bad your life is, or hard your life is, or unfair your life is—and those thoughts come a lot!—you redirect your mind, which is best defined as directed attention, to what you are grateful for.
So, when the thought comes to you as a native Californian, what a dark, cold, wet, miserable day, you redirect to, Thank you God that I’m safe and warm and dry and have a job and community to care for me.
And we need gratitude now more than ever! We’re coming off Thanksgiving. Did you know the Thanksgiving holiday was made official during the Civil War, under Lincoln, when our nation was divided and torn apart. When our ancestors were more aware of the human capacity for evil than ever before. The need to focus on how good our life is before God was, and still is, key.
Draw Near to God in Prayer
“The Lord is near … do not be anxious … but in every situation, by prayer, present your requests to God.”
The main source of our joy is proximity to God, who is the most joyful being in the universe. As the magnificent 20th century Swiss Theologian Karl Barth said of the Trinity: “This triune being and life … is radiant, and what it radiates is joy.”
Or in the language of Psalm 16: “You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” A text which for many years was common to engrave on your tombstone.
C.S. Lewis used this analogy:
Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection. If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire; if you want to be wet, you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them. They are not a sort of prize which God could, if He chose, just hand out to anyone. They are a great foundation of energy and beauty spurting up at the very center of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you; if you are not, you will remain dry.
Meaning, his formula for joy, was basically get close to the source of joy, God himself!
Again, Rick Howe:
Joy can become a steady Godward disposition, orienting our hearts and including us toward him. It can be a foundational emotion. A shaping and empowering affection. It can be a current that flows steadily beneath the surface of all that we experience. This is not the joy of a spiritual novice, but of seasoned saints who, like Paul, have their spiritual sense trained, focused, and centered in God, and who can say, without hypocrisy, that they rejoice in the Lord always.
This is nothing but the spiritual journey back to union with God, or what we call heaven. Howe goes on: “The primary conviction in a quest for joy is that the enjoyment of God is our highest good … The pure, undimmed, and unbroken enjoyment of God is another way of describing heaven.”
We experience this joy by living in God’s presence and for his pleasure.
Curate Your Mindstream
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
“Think about,” means to mediate on, direct your attention to. Note that Paul’s list of what we are to think about is the exact opposite of the mindstream that is wired into our brain by digital media. Read the news or scroll through Twitter it’s a feed of all that is untrue, ignoble, wicked, impure, ugly, gross, of bad reputation, poor in moral quality, and blameworthy. How are we going to fill our heart with the joy of Jesus if all we ever think about are the things that humans have made ugly or sad?
You can make a strong case that joy is a cultivated way of seeing the world, just like cynicism, negativity, or paranoia. Milton so famously said in Paradis Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” What we give our attention to has the potential to move our life toward hell or heaven.
As disciples of Jesus, we must discipline our mind to focus on the goodness of our life in his kingdom.
So we ought to give thanks, draw near to God, and curate our mindstream. Do this over and over, year after year, and in time, you will experience what Paul calls “the renewal of your mind.” You will become a person for whom joy is your baseline. Other emotions come and go, yes, and you’re not happy all the time, but joy is the default setting of the person you have become in Christ.
None of this is natural for me. Leading clinical psychologists say 50% of happiness is genetic. By personality, I’m melancholy and sensitive. Many of you know about my struggle with anxiety and depression since my late teens. Doesn’t mean I’m not joyful too.
One of the reasons I love Jesus, prayer, and the practices or spiritual disciplines, is not because I’m disciplined, it’s because I’m desperate. I’m not happy by nature. I need God to be happy, and in God, I am. But I’m also human. And it’s easy for any of us, especially for those of us on the underside of that genetic 50%, to give into sorrow.
But this pandemic has given us a once in a lifetime chance to grow. If we want to enlarge our soul’s capacity for joy, the best way is to open our heart to suffering, because suffering is the number one way God does his work of stripping us from our attachments, from all the things we think we need to live a happy life, but actually hold us back from God, and therefore, from joy.
Bono once said, “Joy is an act of defiance.” To rejoice in a year with a global pandemic is an act of defiance against the three enemies of the soul—the world, the flesh, and the devil.
The world: In city like Portland, OR, joy is a sign that you are living in another kingdom.
The flesh: Over a millennia ago, Aquinas said, “No one can live without delight and that is why a man deprived of spiritual joy goes over to carnal pleasures.” Morality, as a form of duty, is a Stoic idea, not a Christian one. There is a place for duty in discipleship, but it’s a holdover until we are mature, as discipleship itself is about the journey from morality as duty to morality as delight.
The devil: The devil is anti-joy. Martin Luther, who had a lifelong struggle with depression, said the devil “cannot stand gaiety.” He can’t stand joy.
Take a look at this beautiful poem from Jack Gilbert (in A Brief for the Defense):
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
This doesn’t mean we don’t grieve over the pain and suffering of life, or work against evil and injustice in the world, we do. It doesn’t mean we don’t feel sorrow over the state of the world, again, we do.
It does mean we don’t take it as the whole measure of reality.
I think of Paul’s line in 2 Corinthians 6:10: “As sorrowful yet always rejoicing.”
Sorrow over all things pandemic related, AND joy over the fact that we are living in the kingdom with Jesus, and it’s good … and it’s coming in full.