During the week, before work starts each morning, my routine involves a porch swing, Yorkshire Gold in an uber-legit Superman mug, my Bible, and a volume of Matthew Henry’s commentary. If it sounds idyllic, that’s because in my neck of the woods it kind of is.
For the past few months, I’ve been making my way through the Psalms, which has been humbling, convicting, and deeply comforting on many levels. Joy has been on my mind, mostly because it was on David’s mind in so many of his songs. It seems to me a forgone conclusion that joy was of overwhelming importance to the great warrior king. So I ask myself: how important is it to me?
Not very is the most honest answer I can come up with. It isn’t that I don’t desire joy, or that I consciously neglect it. No, it’s not that at all. Perhaps my attitude is best described as ambivalent. There it is. I’m ambivalent about joy. I shouldn’t be, and I know I shouldn’t be, but I am. “If I have it, great. If not, no biggie.”
I think a great deal of this ambivalence can be attributed to what Matthew Henry terms “practical atheism.” I’ll come back to this in a moment, but first it should be noted (and I trust we can all agree) that joy is not just another word for walking on cloud nine. It sure as hell isn’t Pollyanna-isms. It cannot be reduced to a smile, or to feeling generally braced about life. (It may manifest itself in such and such a way, but let’s not go confusing roots and branches.)
Lewis once said that “love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness.” In the same way, joy is something fiercer and more fixed than mere happiness. Whether I’m feeling happy at any given time depends on a variety of factors, all of them in a state of flux. My health; the attitude of those around me; the status of projects at work; how much sleep I got last night; the list goes on, and happiness is its slave.
Joy is no slave. Joy stands outside of that list, for it is hidden in what God has done, what He is doing, and what He will do. Joy abides. Joy looks at the ebb and flow of life and says, “But God.”
This is illustrated beautifully in Psalm 27:5-6: “For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock. And now my head shall be lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord.”
For David, as for every blood-bought sinner, joy rests on the fact that God is Who He says He is. He is God and He is our God. There is an objectivity to this truth against which even the gates of Hell cannot prevail.
By now you probably see how the concept of practical atheism figures into this. My ambivalence toward joy can only exist alongside a practical denial that God is Who He says He is. But was the precious blood of His Son not shed for my sake (1 Peter 1:18-19)? Has He not sworn that the work which He began, He will finish (Philippians 1:6)? Does He not provide my daily bread (Matt. 6:31-32)? Is He not my God and the God of my children after me (Acts 2:39)?
If the answer to these questions is yes – and there is no other answer – then joy cannot be of petty consequence to me. When sin nips at my heels, and my conscience is restless, I look to the cross for comfort and assurance. And by that same cross I see the truth of Chesterton’s words: that “joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian.”