Texts: Prov. 9:1-6; Gal. 5:22-26
This summer the congregation that I serve in Ottawa will be inviting a number of lay preachers to speak on the theme of joy. I’ll preach a bit less, and some of my sermons will deal with this topic as well. So what I’m offering here tracks away from the lectionary and opens up this topic for our congregation.
All kinds of interesting questions come up as soon as we begin to think about the word ‘joy’:
Is experiencing joy something that depends on our circumstances?
Can we take joy in the wrong things?
Is joy something that happens to us, like the sense of excitement we feel when someone surprises us with a gift, or is joy something we work at, like patience or courage?
Then there are the more personal questions:
What brings us joy?
How have we found joy during this pandemic?
When we can no longer do the things that once brought us joy, how do we find new sources of joy?
I’m going to give a first take on the theme of ‘joy’ this morning. My goal is simply to open up the conversation and get us thinking.
When I think about joy, one of the memories that comes to mind is of a time when I knew I was not experiencing it. I think it was some point early in my undergraduate student days. I had travelled most of the way across the continent to go to school. I knew nobody. The learning environment was not what I had hoped it would be. The trees on campus were ugly. My roommate had a hunting knife strapped to his belt at all times.
I recall drifting through the bookshop looking for something that would be helpful. I found a book with the word ‘joy’ in the title. I bought it. I read it. It was terrible. It did not help me at all. Essentially is said that joy was a decision (the book was written by someone who seemed pretty wealthy).
What actually prompted change for me was a subtle improvement in my circumstances: I began to make friends and have adventures. It turned out that my roommate didn’t just keep a hunting knife; he kept a hunting rifle in the back of his old station wagon. We scooted into the mountains on weekends, bumped up logging roads, camped in the snow and looked for elk. We didn’t see any, but it was still fun.
I didn’t know it at the time, but it turns out that my experience rode the fault line between ancient wisdom traditions. How to find joy was a common question for ancient philosophers and religious teachers.
Long before the time of Jesus, Greek philosophers would talk about how to achieve a satisfying life. Buddhists spoke of an Eightfold Path for dealing with cravings that cannot be satisfied. Our questions about joy are part of a conversation that goes back thousands of years.
Ellen Charry, a theologian whose work I appreciate, was a social worker for a time. So she might be more attune to these matters than most. She has tallied things up and suggested that the wisdom traditions generally present us with two paths to finding joy in life. One way is to turn inward, to focus on changing our desires. Decide to be joyful! If you can’t get what you want, change what you want. If you can’t achieve the level of wealth that you think would make you happy, then convert your desire into something spiritual.
The second general path, again according to Ellen Charry, is more straightforward and more common today. Here, instead of turning inward, we are advised to turn outward. If you don’t have what you want, then develop the skills to manipulate your world so that you get it. The first path has a spiritual focus, the second has a material focus. The first path can be independent of our circumstances. The second is entirely dependent on our circumstances.
If you happen to find yourself in a pandemic and want to find more satisfaction, you could use your isolation to focus on prayer (path 1) or take some courses on investing (path 2); you could bang pots and pans in support of healthcare workers (path 1) or buy a swimming pool and a bigger TV (path 2).
It’s possible, on a surface level at least, to divide the Bible up along these same lines. Here’s Paul’s famous advice from 1 Thessalonians 5: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” That seems like path 1 doesn’t it? Choose to be joyful. Disconnect your mood from your circumstances.
On other hand, think about the ending of the book of Job. You may recall that in the very last paragraph of the book he gets all his stuff back—and more. Actually, he gets twice as much (42:10). Jobs ends up with 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1,000 yoke of oxen, and 1,000 donkeys. He has seven more children, and the writer even tells us that his daughters were super beautiful . . . . (One wonders if the last two paragraphs of Job might have been written by somebody who was late for a dentist appointment.)
But the ending of Job isn’t unique. In the book of Deuteronomy (c. 8) we find a description of the land to which the Israelites were headed. We read this:
“For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you.”
Job and Deuteronomy make it look like the path to satisfaction and joy runs through having the right stuff. It might not be fig trees and camels today, but I think we can make the leap.
Here is Ellen Charry’s conclusion, and in a different context I would be curious to hear what we think about it.* This isn’t a direct quotation, but Charry essentially says that happiness (or joy) is having what we want and wanting nothing wrongly or having what we want and wanting what is truly worth wanting She’s amending Augustine.
The point is that denying the importance of our physical circumstances fails to take account for the goodness of the created word and the goodness of having bodies. We are right to take joy in the goodness of creation, in relationships, in learning, in stories, in song, and in visual art. We are right to enjoy contributing something to the world.
The set of verses we read from Proverbs 9 are fascinating in this light. In these verses wisdom is depicted as a woman inviting us to a feast. We can think of wisdom as understanding how to live well. Wisdom leads us toward satisfaction. And in this passage satisfaction is akin to a celebration, a meal with good bread and wine, a table that is prepared, a barbeque that is ready to go.
Or think about this, Christians are called to both fasting and feasting. One of the two central Christian practices is a feast. The early church saw the link more clearly: Communion was part of an actual shared meal. We experience God’s provision, God’s solidarity with us, through food! Along the same lines, we can note that, although money is surely at the root of all kinds of evil (I Tim. 6:10), not having enough for an occasional feast does prevent us from enjoying the life God has given.
Do you remember the core of Ellen Charry’s suggestion? It was the idea that happiness is having what we want and wanting what is truly worth wanting. In Galatians chapter 5 the apostle Paul presents the famous “fruit of the Spirit”—meaning that when God is present in our lives certain virtues will be evident. Here’s the list: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” When the Spirit travels with us through life this is the result. These virtues stand in contrast to vices like idolatry, jealousy, anger, quarrels, envy—stuff like that. The vices stem from our shadow selves channeled through passions and desires that come at a cost to others. They come from passions and desires that require others to lose so that we can win.
The upshot of the biblical witness is this: While joy can’t be entirely separated from our circumstances, true joy cannot be found simply from pursuing every passion and desire without reflection and prayer. This is part of our life project: considering what we want, inviting God to reshape our desires where needed, and looking for the Spirit to seed new hopes and new possibilities for joy. This process is an adventure in itself.
So, with that, I invite us all into our summer conversation: What brings you joy? How do we cultivate joy? We’ll explore this in the weeks to come.
*Here’s a talk Ellen Charry gave in 2014 on happiness in the Christian life.