“For he remembered his holy promise to Abraham his servant. He brought his people out with rejoicing, his chosen ones with shouts of joy.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
What is it that makes you happy? Perhaps many different things fit that particular bill for you. I’m happy when I’m spending time with my family, when my sports teams are winning, when a sermon goes just right, when I’m doing something good for someone else, when I’m out at night to see the stars twinkling, and so on and so forth. Your list may include some things like those, or it may be totally different. What I suspect your list does have in common with mine, though, is that the things on it are all situationally-linked. That is, they depend on the presence of a certain set of circumstances. Happiness is a good thing. But in the Scriptures, we are called to something greater: Joy. This week, as we continue our Advent journey, we are going to dig into the idea of joy and how we can experience this deeper reality in Christ. I hope you’re ready.
I guess the first thing we need to do is to define joy. Well, at the risk of committing the error I poked fun of in the standard way peace is often defined last week, let’s start here: joy and happiness are not the same. If I don’t accomplish anything else this morning, I want to leave you at the very least convinced of that.
Psalm 105 here is basically a recitation of Israel’s history. Not the whole of it, but rather of God’s promise to Abraham and the Exodus. It is a call to the people to place their hope and trust in the Lord because of what v. 42 here proclaims right near the end of it: God keeps His promises. The period of history from Abraham to Moses is being cited as evidence of this. The point is here: If God kept His promise then, He will keep His promises now. Therefore, you should trust in Him and rejoice in who He is.
So, what does this have to do with understanding what joy is? Not a whole lot. I just wanted you to understand what was going on in this Psalm. The people’s journey and their response to what God did for them, though, does tell us something important.
The psalmist here talks about the people rejoicing when God had brought them out of Egypt. That’s rather to be expected. They had been slaves in Egypt for 400 years and had been set free from captivity. The only response that made any sense was rejoicing. They weren’t just happy, they were deliriously happy. They now had their entire future stretching out ahead of them and could make anything of it they wanted. Life was looking up.
Except, if you looked around at their present physical circumstances, it really wasn’t. Most notably, they were sitting in the middle of the wilderness. They were nomads wandering in a harsh, desert region with little idea how long they were going to be in that situation. How do you rejoice in the Lord when you’re dwelling in the desert? In the case of the people of Israel, not very well.
It didn’t take long after they left Egypt before they began looking around at how things appeared to be going and started complaining about it. They complained about the challenges. They complained about the dangers. They complained about the food. They complained about the accommodations. They pretty much complained about everything. They openly wished on more than one occasion they could go back to being slaves in Egypt. At least then they had good food and a safe place to sleep every night. They didn’t worry about starving to death in the desert or dying of dehydration. What kind of God would subject them to circumstances like these anyway?
Not much joy in all this griping. So where did it go? Why did their joy disappear? Where was the rejoicing they had been doing and which the psalmist wrote about here? It got swallowed up by their circumstances. It was lost in the immediacy of the moment. You see, the times the people were rejoicing and filled with joy were the times they were the least focused on their present circumstances. Their times of greatest joy were consistently the times when they were focused on who God was and the future fulfillment of the promises of the God who told them He was going to get them out of Egypt and then went on to do exactly that.
Here, then is where we find a clue to understanding more fully what biblical joy is over and against the happiness our culture calls us to embrace. Happiness is rooted in a certain state of affairs. It is dependent on how things are going in a given moment. For the people of Israel, when things were going well, they were happy. They celebrated. Their excitement was great. The same goes for us. When things are going well, we are happy. But, the antecedent of this is true as well: when things aren’t going well, we aren’t happy.
Happiness is a wonderful thing. Let’s not disparage happiness at all. Let’s simply be honest about its limitations. Happiness is situationally dependent. Good situations allow it to grow and flourish. Hard situations don’t. That’s natural. In this, we can understand happiness to be an emotion. It is an emotional response to circumstances that are consistent with our present plans.
The trouble is, our circumstances aren’t always consistent with our present plans. At all. Sometimes the disparity between the two is rather vast. Now, to a certain extent, this is to be expected. Things don’t always go the way we want them to go. We’re not in control of the world. That’s just life. We aren’t going to be happy all the time. Sometimes the situation we are in calls for sadness or anger. But given the choice, we’d rather be happy, yes? Or at least, something like that would be good.
Well, there is indeed something like that. Something very much like that. Something that is, in fact, much better than that. This other thing is joy. Where happiness is rooted in our circumstances, joy is not. Joy is not an emotion at all. Joy is a choice. It is an intentional commitment to contentedness in our circumstances stemming from our trust in God’s character and the promises He’s made.
When we rely on happiness to provide us an emotional lift out of whatever situation we are in, we are settings ourselves up for failure and disappointment. Sometimes we can draw on a well of happiness to help us weather a rough moment, but eventually that well runs dry and we’re left floundering. Absent joy, we wind up plastering on a fake smile to hide the pain we are feeling and a deep and abiding unhappiness with the state of our circumstances. Ever found yourself there?
With joy, though, we can prevent this from happening entirely. Joy allows us to feel a whole range of emotions depending on the current state of our circumstances. It lets us be honest about those emotions whatever they are. But, unlike when we are committed to merely being happy, we are not left at the mercy of those emotions, mastered by them and running around trying to make them something other than they are. With joy, we have a spirit of contentment abiding in our hearts and minds that persists in spite of our circumstances. This contentment comes because of our trust in who God is. We believe He is God and that He is good. We are committed to the notion that He keeps His promises and that His promises are for our good. Because of this, we don’t have to let ourselves be dominated by the emotional demands of the situation we are in.
If our situation calls for sadness, we can be sad. If it calls for anger, we can be angry. If we aren’t feeling particularly cheerful in a given moment, we don’t have to fake it. Through all of these different emotions, though, our joyfulness persists. It allows us to remain positive when things are negative. It helps us be gracious when our circumstances are mean. It gives us the strength to be generous and kind when people are ugly and hostile. It enables us to remain hopeful when things look grim. It lets us put on a smile even in hard times and this smile isn’t fake. It’s a real reflection of the state of our hearts. Because of who God is, we are filled with joy.
Friends, this is what Jesus offers us. This is the hope of the Christ child. This is the gift He has for you. As we continue in this Advent season, may you seek out and experience the joy of Jesus in a fresh, transformational way.