If you hang around Christian circles long enough, someone is going to let you in on the difference between joy and happiness. Happiness happens. It is a pleasurable response to external stimuli, like when your kid does well in school, Adele sings Hello, the Seahawks get their mojo back, you rock a job interview or set a new personal best in the half-marathon. These things do happen and when they do, we are elated.
Joy is used in a more technical sense among us Christian folk. While we use the term in the ordinary ‘happy’ sense, fundamentally joy is a spiritual category. The joy of the Lord is our strength (Nehemiah 8:10), and we experience the joy of our salvation (Ps. 51:12). We have the joy of forgiveness when we realize what Christ accomplished for us and it frees us up to be gracious with those who wronged us. Joy is the byproduct of our life with God (Dictionary of Biblical Imagery , 465). There are over four hundred references in the Bible to joy and rejoicing. In a very real sense it is what life in Christ is all about.
When I posted hope and peace these past couple of weeks, I acknowledged the future dimension of these themes. We have hope grounded in Christ’s first advent, as we wait for his final coming. We do experience a measure of peace now, but not all is right with the world. We are given what Gerard Manly Hopkins calls ,”Patience exquisite, that plumes to Peace thereafter (Hopkins, “Peace”). Joy on the otherhand is the down payment, the firstfruits of of our hope and peace as we trust God’s gracious goodness and provision for us.
After Mary had been visited by the angel and told she was pregnant, she visits her cousin Elizabeth (who is also pregnant). The boy leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb. Elizabeth says, “ Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” (Luke 1:45).
Then Mary breaks into this joyful song:
“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:46–55, NIV)
When the Angel appeared, Mary (speaking words of wisdom) said, “Let it Be according to your word.” But this joyful utterance is different. She doesn’t sing a song of hope about what God will do. She sings a song about what God did do. According to Mary, this is what God already accomplished:
- He was mindful of her ‘humble estate’
- He did great things for her
- He extends mercy to those who worship Him
- He performed mighty deeds
- He scattered the proud
- He brought down rulers from their throne
- He filled the hungry with good things
- He sent the rich away empty
- He helped his servant Israel and was merciful to Abraham’s descendants
- He kept his promises
Mary hasn’t given birth to Jesus yet. He hasn’t turned water to wine, healed the sick, fed the hungry, cast out demons, or died for our sins. He hasn’t been raised from the dead. And yet, Mary is full of joy because her trust in God has given her confidence that the victory is already His. She speaks of the demise of unjust systems, the eradication of poverty, the restoration of Israel, the end of oppression because she knows whom she carries in her body.
She is full of joy because she knows what God is accomplishing through her and her child. She has joy because the future has broken into the present. God has acted decisively. Mary knew, so stop singing that song!
Where have you experienced God’s joy? Was there a time you decided you didn’t have the resources to make life work on your own, so you trusted Jesus? Did you experience a rush of inner peace and contentment even though your outward circumstances remained unchanged? Have you experienced God’s healing physically or emotionally? Have you been set free from sin, darkness, oppression?
Where do you long for Christ to come? What brings you joy today and hope for tomorrow?