I’ve been thinking about joy lately. Where does it come from? How can I live in joy when there is so much wrong not only in this world, but in my own life?
Our church has just started a study on the letters of John. John opens his first letter by telling his readers that his whole purpose in writing was to make their joy complete (1 John 1:4). How is it that followers of Jesus can experience complete joy? We live in the same world as everyone else, we experience the same trials and troubles. The world knocks us all around, rather unmercifully at times. Where does this joy come from? How is it possible?
No one explained this better than G.K. Chesterton. In his book, Orthodoxy he wrote, “The mass of men have been forced to be gay about the little things, but sad about the big ones.” What did he mean by that? He simply meant that unbelieving people are forced to find their joy in the “little things” of this earth, but when they consider the much bigger questions of their ultimate existence, they’re sad. Chesterton writes, “…the pagan was…happier and happier as he approached the earth, but sadder and sadder as he approached the heavens. The gaiety of the best Paganism…is all a gaiety about the facts of life, not about its origin. To the pagan the small things are as sweet as the small brooks breaking out of the mountain; but the broad things are as bitter as the sea. When the pagan looks at the very core of the cosmos he is struck cold. Behind the gods, who are merely despotic, sit the fates, who are deadly.”
This past weekend I had the joy of watching my son play football at Wheaton College. Both he and his team played well and there was joy on the Wheaton College field when the game was over. While God grants us these moments of earthly joy, and it is good for us to enjoy them, the reality is that if the night had not gone so well, our joy would still be complete. This remains true even amidst life’s more devastating tragedies. Chesterton explains that in the Christian faith, “joy becomes something gigantic and sadness something special and small. The vault above us is not deaf because the universe is an idiot; the silence is not the heartless silence of an endless and aimless world… We are perhaps permitted tragedy as a sort of merciful comedy: because the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce. We can take our own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels. So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear.”
If Chesterton is right—and I believe he is—then we would expect to see this sort of complete joy in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was known as “a man of sorrows,” but could it be that he was restraining something deep within? I’ll let Chesterton answer that question: “The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”
I believe it is this very real joy of his that he shares with us. We still experience the tears and the anger, as he did, but all the while the laughter of the heavens echoes in our ears.