We’re reaching the end of 2017, and I can already see the tweets coming. People that Can’t. Stop. Typing. Like. This. “Oooh 2017. I. Just. Can’t!” Sure, 2017 wasn’t perfect. Both political parties are dumpster fires. Famous people who you don’t really know died. And of course there were genuinely terrible things that happened. Here we are in the middle of the Christmas season, and that has me thinking about how these doomsday attitudes fit in with the spirit of Christmas. What can the Christmas story teach us about joy?
To be honest, joyless Christians drive me crazy. Life is painful, and crying out to God in that pain is absolutely understandable. Of course there is a place for that. But what if our times of lament become extremely long seasons of lament that never seem to end? What if our lament turns to constant complaining, finger-pointing, and judging others? I refuse to view life through a lens that leads me to declare everything is awful, and the Christmas season reminds me why: God is with us!
Happiness VS Joy
When life is going great, and my wants and desires are fulfilled, it’s easy to walk around with a smile on my face. Sometimes this is a direct result of choices we’ve made, like finishing a degree in school. That elation of completing all your classes and getting that diploma feels awesome. I’m happy and I made it happen! These feelings are great, but when they don’t last or fulfill us deeply, then we have to constantly seek out the next big thing.
Happiness isn’t always under our control, like the happiness we get from a bonus check at work that is swept away a few months later by a pink slip. One day life is moving along swimmingly, and then out of nowhere some external force can throw our world into a tailspin. Happiness can come and go based on our circumstances. If we’re relying on our happiness to sustain us, something we can lose in an instant, that’s actually downright scary.
Joy can sustain in a way that happiness cannot, because joy isn’t reliant on life going well. In fact, we know life won’t always go well. No matter how much we pursue happiness, the loss of happiness is guaranteed. On the other hand, joy is rooted in a miracle that happened a long time ago, in a dirty stable, when God came to Earth.
Even if your Christmas season is more about Santa than baby Jesus, this problem of short-lived happiness resonates with people. There’s a deep desire to pursue things that make us happy, because we all want our life to mean something, to have a purpose. Why not do whatever it takes to make yourself happy, if in the end, that’s all you have to live for? And yet that feels so empty. No matter how much we pursue happiness, that hunger is never fully satisfied.
What can the Christmas story teach us about joy?
Joy That Reflects the Birth of the Messiah
I’ve been reading the book of Matthew with a friend, and something stood out to me that I had never noticed before. The Magi from the east show up in Jerusalem looking for the Messiah because they saw his star. Herod’s scholars say the Christ would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), so Herod sends the Magi off to find the child and report back to him.
These wise men leave, and then it happens. In Matthew 2:10 they see the star, and they “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” I love this. They didn’t just rejoice with great joy, but they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. Their journey is a success. They have found the Christ child, they are full of joy, and they worship him.
I’ve heard the Christmas story a hundred times before, but I never realized how pervasive joy was in the events surrounding Christ’s birth.
- When the angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that Elizabeth was pregnant with John the Baptist, the angel says, “You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth.” We always talk about Jesus entering the world, but John the Baptist fulfilling prophecy and paving the way for Jesus was reason for joy. (Luke 1:14)
- When pregnant Mary visits pregnant Elizabeth, Mary says that God has done great things for her. He gets all the glory, and she rejoices. Despite the whole pregnancy before marriage circumstance, a situation that probably wasn’t what Mary had planned, she is still full of joy. This is a perfect example of how her joy doesn’t flow from her situation, but from her obedience to God. (Luke 1:46-47)
- One of the coolest examples of joy is when Mary comes to visit Elizabeth, and John the Baptist, in Elizabeth’s Womb, leaps for joy! The guy isn’t even born yet, but here comes baby Jesus in Mary’s womb, and there is joy. If unborn John the Baptist can have joy, what’s my excuse? (Luke 1:44)
- When an angel of the Lord appears to the shepherds, he tells them, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” The news is that a Savior, Christ the Lord, has been born! The birth of Christ is literally great joy. God has entered the world. The Christmas story is “great joy” because it has eternal implications. Joy doesn’t run out. Here we are thousands of years later, and that joy is still present. (Luke 2:10)
- Even Elizabeth’s neighbors and relatives rejoiced when she gave birth. (Luke 1:58)
Over and over during those years surrounding the birth of Jesus, there is joy everywhere. Here we are in the middle of the Christmas season, and I have to wonder, are we living our lives with the same fullness of joy that was present then?
Finding Joy This Christmas
I’ve been trying to decide if joy is something we choose. We can choose to chase happiness and spend our energy trying to get more, but what about joy? Do we simply choose joy, or is joy something we experience indirectly?
Look at Paul’s attitude when he writes from prison to the church in Phillippi.
Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:18-21)
Paul is rejoicing, whether life or death. This is the power of joy! Here’s Paul, in a terrible situation (no happiness here), but he has joy because it is his expectation that Christ will be honored. He is living life not for himself, but for Christ. He’s taken up his calling, and living so fully for God that he has joy even in prison.
That absolutely convicts me. I don’t think Paul chose joy, but instead he chose to follow Christ and be obedient, and that gave him joy. It gave him the joy of Christ (John 17:13). It’s not like happiness, where we decide to put on a smile, or buy things and go on vacations to give our life meaning. We don’t choose joy. We choose Christ.
When we choose Christ, the joy we receive isn’t some super-charged happiness. Paul can have joy in prison, and Mary can have joy in the midst of an unplanned pregnancy because Christ has brought peace. Chasing happiness is an unpredictable roller coaster, while joy is peaceful assurance rooted in an eternal promise.
This Christmas, I want the story of our Savior’s birth to penetrate my soul. I want my heart and mind to rest in the fact that Christ has brought peace. I want a joy that comes from God, knowing that Christ gave himself as a sacrifice on my behalf, and that I am reconciled to my creator. This Christmas, I don’t want to chase happiness, or twist the season to meet my own selfish desires.
This Christmas, I. Choose. Christ.