Three events have convened that have put the question of what joy is at the forefront for me. Two different message series (here and here) are proving to be powerful yet challenging to me, and the movie Selma knocked me in the stomach with a presentation of a story that isn’t new but had new power to me at this stage of life. By the way, any clever ideas below are from these message series and the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Do not assume plagiarism is not at play here.
The amalgamated truth from all three of these convening factors, for me, is this: joy, which is much greater than happiness though not always pleasure-ful or happy, comes from purpose, and purpose always comes God.
Joy is not something you can find on your own. When you search for joy as an end unto itself, you’ll probably get temporal pleasure, and you might get something you call happiness, at least for a time. But joy is different, and wholly spiritual in nature. Here is my elementary school diagram that helps my elementary theological intellect:
God → Purpose → Joy
I wanted purpose before I wanted God, so I could switch the first two, but really, I believe, this drive for purpose was God, waiting in the wings for me to notice Him. Regardless, the prize, the fruit, of God is joy.
But what is purpose? Your purpose might be to the best you that you can be. That’s good. But that’s not enough. It is not enough for you to simply be extremely physically fit and able to wear your wedding dress on your twentieth anniversary. We need purpose outside of ourselves (because, if you’ve lived in the world long enough you know that when you live for yourself all you have to show for yourself is yourself).
Back when I was searching for purpose (not God, just purpose), I immersed myself in reading about the civil rights era in the United States. I read lots of Taylor Branch and the legal geek in me read the briefs from Brown vs. Board of Education and related minutiae. I even listened to recordings of the oral arguments in the US Supreme Court on this and other seminal cases.
Watching Selma brought back that time in my life. I don’t want to argue about Selma‘s claimed inadequacies. Did it properly portray LBJ? I thought so but hey, I’m no civil rights scholar. He seemed to be the cunning political @#! that I always believed him to be (and I thought Tom Wilkinson was masterful at embodying that). I thought David Oyelowo was fascinatingly deep in his portrayal of a man almost too large in life to portray in death. But what this film brought back for me was purpose. I didn’t live through Selma. I sat next to a woman in the theater who clearly lived it and this movie hit her differently, of course. I could feel it in her presence next to me. For me, it is history I did not live through but through which I sought purpose as a college and law student. This drive for purpose lead me to God.
And in that sense, so did the people, and indeed one dear family member (not a Christian, not a theist at all I believe) who encouraged my drive for purpose and my insatiable desire to study justice issues, from reading the entire The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich to my study of the U.S. civil rights movement.
We are all on a trajectory, and it is so myopic to think that if you are now a Christian, only Christians can impact you. As the tragedy and horror and, yes, blasphemy, that is the toxic soup of the recent Charlie Hebdo massacre shows, we learn our life lessons, our purpose, and indeed, our quest for joy from the way in which we approach and traverse these horrible life situations. For me, the driving force that courses me back in the middle of the road when I wish to take the sidewalk is God.
My favorite scriptural verse is from James 1: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
James is writing to the tribes in dispersion, who have been homeless, nation-less. They are surely not happy or full of pleasure. But what is the wise counsel? “Count it all joy.”
Joy is not happiness, pleasure, or even purpose all alone. Joy is a gift of peace, even in turmoil, that you can have if you want it. You can have it, even in January. Even in sorrow, in loss, in addiction, in divorce, in death.
Count it all joy.