I have pictures I took as a kid (OK, maybe even as a teenager) of battle scenarios. Using my extensive collection of G.I. Joe’s, I would set up elaborate battle scenes on top of the family pool table. Those scenes included ground wars of epic proportions, complete with the appropriate amount of carnage you’d expect in a fight of such intensity between the Joe’s and Cobra. In the early photographs, from my artistic “dork” period, the only thing that was missing was the aerial assault. And then it happened.
I opened the package on my birthday to find the object of my heart’s desire, the thing that would propel the Joe’s to victory and my battle scenes from good to great—the Skystriker. It was the G.I. Joe’s primary flight vehicle, and I immediately started to configure elaborate plans in my imagination of how to suspend it from the ceiling fan in attack mode.
And I felt deep inside of me that rare feeling—pure, unadulterated joy. At least that’s what I thought it was. But here’s the problem with that feeling: Your older brother can, and will, set your Skystriker on fire to see how plastic melts. So what do you do then? There’s nothing left for you to do except wait for your next birthday so you can get another one and regain that feeling you lost the day you saw the plane go up in flames.
Joy and Pain
That, in a microcosm, is what most of our experiences are like with joy. It’s a feeling, and it feels good, but then it goes away. And we try to find something else to cause that feeling inside of us. The result is we live on a yo-yo, moving up and down on the emotional string. While this is in fact the way we live, it’s hard to imagine this is how God wants us to.
What about rejoicing always?
What about eternal and lasting pleasures at God’s right hand?
What about joy being number two on the fruit of the Spirit list?
When the Bible describes joy, it seems not as fleeting as the “Skystriker moment.” It seems lasting, better, and more deeply satisfying than what I experienced then and continue to experience now.
But there’s something else about the biblical notion of joy that doesn’t seem to fit with my own experience. In many places in Scripture where the word joy is mentioned, the context is radically different than our own. Now we honestly wouldn’t expect the Bible to say something like, “Blessed are you when you get a new iPod. Rejoice and be glad!” even though we might live like it. No, that’s pretty much materialism at its finest, and we know that the Bible steers far clear of that.
But it’s counterintuitive to see exactly the context in which the Bible does describe joy. For in these pages, we find people finding their joy in unbelievably bad circumstances. Maybe the best case study for this is the Book of Philippians. It’s a short one; you could read these four chapters easily in one sitting. And yet inside its pages we find the concept of joy and rejoicing mentioned at least 14 times. But the most shocking thing of all was that as Paul penned the words of Philippians, he was sitting in a Roman jail cell waiting for a trial that could result in his execution.
This is where he chose to write about joy. That’s not Skystriker stuff.
More than a Feeling
So what exactly did Paul, and so many others throughout the history of the Christian church, seem to know? It seems that first and foremost, they knew the source of true joy. In order for joy to become more than emotion, or as Journey put it, “more than a feelin’,” then we’ve got to move beyond finding our joy in our circumstances. Paul must’ve done that, since he had little to rejoice in if you look at the shackles on his hands and feet.
This issue of circumstance is vitally important, for circumstances are the reason our emotions ebb and flow so easily. To have real joy is to live, somehow, above the influence of circumstance. It’s to be on a higher plane, recognizing that in any circumstance, we still have what really matters. Ultimately, regardless of health, wealth, or anything else, we still have God. He is stable. He is firm. And if our joy is found in Him, we can start to rise above the influence of circumstance.
But something else that these biblical joy-seekers had that eludes us came not just in the source of joy, but in the reflection upon those circumstances. We have the tendency to fixate on what’s happening to us, how we will be affected either positively or negatively by the stuff that’s going on in our lives. But Paul? Paul had gained the perspective to see that negative circumstances are really just a way for the kingdom of God to be extended. The same principle applies to us today.
It’s one thing for us to express our joy when everything is going right—when we have a safe bed to sleep in, a steady income, and friends to do life with. But it’s another thing when we retain our joy as everything seems to be going wrong—parents are on the verge of divorce, your friend was diagnosed with a rare illness, and there doesn’t seem to be enough money in the bank to make it to the next payday. Maintaining joy in the face of those issues shouts to the world around us that we have something better. It emphatically resonates the truth that we have something that cannot be touched by illness, the economy, or nasty break-ups. And that message resonates strongly in a world ruled by circumstance.
It’s tough to pin down, but to find what joy really is, you would have to describe it as stable. Solid. Enduring. Satisfying. Meaningful. But how do you get there? How do you move past the emotional pendulum and into the unswerving domain of joy?
There are the ways you would expect. You can pray. You can seek. You can read and memorize Scripture. But there’s also something else. What about those circumstances that cause the pendulum to swing the other direction? The ones that right now seem to rob us of “joy” or whatever we substitute for it? You can actually begin to see those circumstances not as the robbers of joy, but as the means into it.
Is it possible that at least one of the reasons God has allowed those circumstances into our lives is to teach us the temporal nature of all the things we currently find joy in? Our typical reaction to unhappiness in a given situation is to then just look for another temporal thing and put our joy in that. If we have joy in a relationship, and that ends, we look for a different relationship. If we have it in a car, and it gets wrecked, we find something to take its place. What if instead, we used those circumstances as an opportunity to be weaned off those things that ultimately won’t satisfy us? What if we embraced the teaching method of God and started buying stock in Him, rather than in … well … stock, or anything else? Then we’re really moving toward joy. We can still enjoy the Skystrikers, but we start to find ourselves far less devastated when they get lit on fire.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2009/10 issue of Collegiate magazine.