If Christmas is supposed to be a season of great joy, what am I to do when I don’t feel very joyful?
At our church this past Sunday, we sang Chris Tomlin’s chorus to Joy to the World:
Joy, unspeakable joy
An overflowing well
No tongue can tell
Joy, unspeakable joy
Rises in my soul
Never lets me go
I struggled to sing that. I didn’t feel like unspeakable joy was welling up in my soul. I knew there were no rivers of joy overflowing to those around me. I just felt tired. And sad.
But I still sang. And in the act of singing I did what Pastor John Piper speaks of so often–I fought for joy. I believe joy can be–and should be–fought for. Joy is not the same as happiness–it does not originate in circumstances but in truth.
When we speak of joy, we usually imagine a big smile and feelings of happiness. When we sing of joy, the music swells with an upbeat, excited air. A doleful song in a minor key would not seem fitting for a song of joy.
Yet sometimes Scripture pairs joy with sorrow. The apostle Paul wrote of joy in the midst of affliction: “In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy.” (2 Corinthians 7:4) How can that be? It seems contradictory.
But maybe joy truly is different from happiness. My friend Jeff and I spoke about that difference in our co-valedictorian speech at the end of high school. I delivered my part of the speech, but I had no idea of the significance of that point. I certainly could not have imagined that 29 years later I might have to fight for joy.
“Happy” comes from the same root word as “happen,” a root which means “luck or chance.” Happiness is connected to circumstances that constantly change, or to emotions that fluctuate up and down. Thus happiness is fleeting and elusive–it comes and goes like a breeze in summertime.
Joy–at least the joy that Scripture speaks of–is a settled assurance based not on human circumstance but on God’s unchanging truth. Joy is the confidence of knowing that God is on His throne and that one day He will make all things right. Joy doesn’t ignore the sadness and pain of this world, nor does it merely try to medicate the sadness away; rather, joy looks beyond the sorrow to the end of the story when everything sad will come untrue. Joy clings tightly to that hope and sings in the midst of the sadness.
So if this Christmas is not a happy season for you, or if you also feel a dissonance inside as you sing Joy to the World without a big smile on your face, know that you are in good company. For even Christ Himself experienced joy in a minor key as He endured the torment of the cross for the joy set before Him (Hebrews 12:2).