Joy is and is not…

Introverted. Analytical. Curious. Reflective. Prone to loneliness and sadness. These are a few of my personality traits. And joyful? Optimistic? Can they be reconciled with the first group mentioned?

Growing up, I heard how Christians should be joyful people, and not morose. Lately, I have been hearing public theologians like Miroslav Volf and Willie James Jennings, or prolific writers like N.T. Wright discuss the theology of joy. According to them, Christians ought to orient themselves toward joy. Jennings describes a theology of joy as a kind of “resistance against despair and death.” While I agree wholeheartedly, I think it is important to explain what we mean by a theology of joy. What does it mean and not mean to be a joyful people?

To be joyful does not necessarily mean we walk around with smiles on our faces, or laughter and jokes on our lips. This may be default behavior for the light-hearted or for extroverts. This describes more of a personality type rather than a person living out their faith based on conscious decisions and full of hope.

Being joyful does not mean we repress feelings of sadness, depression, nor do we ignore pain and suffering in ourselves or others. Mourning is still practiced appropriately by the joyful, and prayers of lament are comfortably in the vocabulary of a theology of joy.

Jennings’ description of a theology of joy is an antidote to the dystopian films and novels of today, as well as to the postmodern aversion to hopefulness. It is a defiance against despair. It is recognizing God. James, in his letter to the early Christians, claims this as counting it all joy when we meet trials of various kinds, even persecution and calamity (James 1:2-4). Paul reminds us that it is possible, even Christ-like, to rejoice always, even in prison, even in dire need (Philippians 4:4). These are not men oblivious to the plight of others or naive in their positivity. Their joy has a hopefulness for the ultimate future; it relies on the truth that once God promises his presence, it is as good as received (Romans 4:17-18). Joy is inextricably linked with hope. Not wishful thinking, but the hope that depends solely on the character and Word of God.

At times, joy may be paired with fear, as when the shepherds witnessed angelic messengers ripping through our skies and proclaiming beauty in such startling terms (Luke 2:8-18). Surely they raced to Bethlehem both rejoicing and struck by fear. Joy may come only after a night of terror and anxiety as when King Darius paced the palace sleepless and Daniel reclined uncertain with lions’ teeth uncomfortably in sight (Daniel 6).

Joy is not void of troubles. It is not necessarily conditional, but rests on truth. The apostles discovered this, when, threatened by the powers-that-be, they prayed for boldness (Acts 4:29-30). When their prayers were answered, and they were flogged after meeting with the religious legal body, the Sanhedrin, instead of simply mourning, they rejoiced (Acts 5:40-41).Although they suffered, it was because of their greater hope.

Whereas happiness may manifest itself as a visible emotion, joy is quieter, deeper, more constant, steady and fixed. It enjoys a foundation secure, not easily shaken or destroyed. For this reason, Nehemiah bolsters the spirit of the returning remnant with the words, “The joy of the LORD is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10). And this, as they were weeping in the face of strife and chaos.

How do we, then, become joyful people? It is through practiced faith and love, by leaning in and acting as if we believed these things. We are both formed by what we believe in, what we consider and think about, and we are even formed by the acting out of these ideas. This partly means in order to become joyful people, we act like joyful people, not in disingenuous ways, but stepping toward God in hope. His Holy Spirit will meet us and guide us the rest of the way.

“There is no suggestion at all that these signs of the world’s darkness will ever be absent. But still, God’s joy can be ours in the midst of it all. It is the joy of belonging to the household of God whose love is stronger than death and who empowers us to be in the world while already belonging to the kingdom of joy.”

– Henri Nouwen in The Return of the Prodigal Son, pp. 116-117

Diet Coke and Moral Pluralism

Advertisements and commercials are no longer just selling goods and services. They want you to buy a worldview. Perhaps they have always been like this, but it certainly seems more blatant now. Maybe blatant is good. If we are observant of what is being promoted maybe we will be able to make decisions more easily about whether or not we choose to jump on the bandwagon.

Case in point? The new Diet Coke commercial: Because I can. A minor celebrity, a millennial, walks a city street passing shops and cafes talking about what they enjoy, how it’s ok to be genuine, to be who you are. Perhaps it is a positive message in a graceless, unforgiving and demanding world, yet somehow I feel manipulated. Instead of feeling refreshed (pun only slightly intended) or encouraged, the Diet Coke drinkers come off as pretentious. This message seems to be birthed from the reactions against the “moral relativism”of the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Our culture wants something more concrete to cling to, but we have opted for watered down alternatives, based on little other than our own personal preferences.

Apparently, we are now living in a shame-based culture. Whereas many eastern cultures have lived with this for centuries, Americans, accustomed to individuality and maverick personas, are tasting the devestating effects for the first time. Many blame our society’s readiness to inflict moral shame on phenomena like social media pressures and, ironically, the negative aspects of globalization.

What Diet Coke may be hoping to reinvent alongside the image of their soda can, is a far more welcoming culture of moral pluralism. We may not share the same set of moral values, but we are trying our best to live up to what our value code deems good. This is distinctively different from moral relativism, which says my truth is as good as yours. Moral pluralism recognizes, instead, that everyone perceives themselves to be answering to a higher value code, though they may differ. Moral relativism promotes the idea that no belief is wrong, while moral pluralism asserts that there may be multiple, even seemingly opposing views on an issue which can all be equally right.

In A Practical Guide to Culture: Helping the Next Generation Navigate Today’s World, authors John Stonestreet and Brett Kunkle state that

“…in a descriptive sense …Christians can and should be pluralists, aware that we live in a religiously diverse culture and ready to make a case for the Christian worldview while recognizing the inherent dignity of all people..”

from Chapter Eighteen. “The Right Kind of Pluralism”

This thought is similar to Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, who opts for both religious exclusivism and political pluralism. As people of faith, we hold to the viewpoint that our religion is the only one which is true, and yet we embrace the diversity of our society and encourage the peaceful coexistence of all peoples. In his book Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World, Volf discusses this current cultural phenomenon by saying,

”A soft relativism of doing one’s own thing and letting others do theirs is an echo in cultural sensibilities and philosophical arguments of a world in which ‘solid things’ have been profaned. World religions stand in deep tension with important aspects of the ‘intolerance of the intolerance,’ a moral stance reinforced by present globalization processes.”

p. 101


As a Christian, I want my children to be grounded not only in truth, but also to have a strong sense of how that truth plays out in their lives. I want to teach my kids to anchor their beliefs to something more authoritative and less ephemeral than the swinging pendulum of our cultural mores.