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The kiss of joy

25 April 2024 By Alastair Sterne

Victoria, B.C., author Alastair Sterne reflects on the human and divine possibility of joy. Aussi disponible en français.

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“A revived and joyful church is of the greatest possible importance.” These words arrested me. They were penned by Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the great Welsh revivalist, a doctor turned pastor, a catalyst of joy. At the time I looked at my own church and wondered, Where is the joy? But I couldn’t look outward for long because I felt the problem was more prevalent within – where was my joy?

I had just preached a sermon series through the book of Philippians, the Apostle Paul’s most joyful letter. In 14 sermons somehow I managed to only touch on joy once. At the time the joy espoused by Paul felt more like a lofty ideal than an attainable experience. When the scholar Adam Potkay evaluated the Protestant tradition, he noted how theologians wrestled with “the ideal joy of grace and the actuality of joylessness.” Oof. I was caught up in this very tension.

When I came to see this dynamic at work within myself, something woke up. A sleepy-eyed hunger of sorts. It turned over with the stink of morning breath and I looked into its face. There it was – my longing for joy. This longing isn’t comfort able. It’s a sort of dull ache. I suppose this is why I chose to suppress it, settling for neither joy nor the longing for joy. But as a result I drifted into the dead waters of joylessness. They are still and calm, to be sure. But you can only stay there if you don’t mind being suspended in numbness above a lifeless sea.

Once my longing was reawakened, I felt a renewed desire to figure out how to fulfill it. What did I need to do to become more joyful? I have since spent the better part of a decade researching and cultivating joy. I’ve read a stack of books almost shoulder height. I’ve completed a doctorate on cultivating joy. I also have a forthcoming book on the topic. So it’s worth asking, Have I become more joyful? The good news is I think so, yes. But it’s also not what I imagined it would be.

I’m not constantly floating on cloud nine. I don’t have a perpetual smile. In fact, a big part of my journey required delving into issues of mental health, working through unprocessed trauma with a counsellor, learning to embrace the full spectrum of emotions (because, as the pope of pop psychology Brené Brown says, if you numb one emotion, you suppress them all), and renewing how I abide in Christ with a spiritual director. But at this point of my journey, yes, I am surprised by joy more often than before. So what changed?

If I must sum up what I’ve learned about joy, here it is. Joy is more human, divine and possible than we dare imagine.

Joy is more human

One of the most helpful things I did in my quest to recover joy was expanding my vision for Easter. That seemed like the logical place to begin – the confounding joy of resurrection! The joy nobody can take away from us (John 16:22).

I am situated in the Anglican tradition, where the liturgical calendar annually re minds us Easter is more than a day. It’s a season called Eastertide. It spans 50 days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost. So rather than celebrate Easter Sunday and call it a day, I decided to issue a 50-days-of-joy challenge to myself. I committed to spend a little bit of time each day to identify a big or small moment of goodness. Then I tried to find the joy in it by taking a photo and writing a short reflection to share on Instagram. I soon discovered the truth of what Howard Thurman said. “Whatever may be the tensions and the stresses of a particular day, there is always lurking close at hand the trailing beauty of forgotten joy.” It’s true, so very true.

I started this challenge in 2018 and have kept at it every year since. Here’s what I have discovered. Joy is more human than I expected it to be. For example, last year I shared a reflection about running on the seawall near my home. In the distance I saw a friend. But I was running and couldn’t stop … because, well, goals. So I did the logical thing. I yelled nonsensically, “Arughhh!” To my surprise, my friend turned around and transformed into someone else with a face painted with confusion and shock, expressing a loud and clear thought. “What kind of deranged runner makes this sound?!” Embarrassment washed over me, I looked straight ahead and picked up the pace. Inevitably, I had to turn around and pass the scene of the crime again. Alas, the person was still there! I stopped to ex plain myself. Then I laughed all the way home. As I told the story to my wife, she laughed. I called my friend who I thought it was and he laughed. We all laughed at my misfortune. I ended the reflection with, “The joy of making a donkey of yourself.”

I was truly thankful to God for this silly moment, embarrassment and all. Even now, I feel joy all over again thinking about it. Because life can be so very silly, playful and good – a grace and gift. Now the only “spiritual” dimension (should we create such a boundary) is that moments of ordinary joy become on-ramps to gratitude and thanksgiving to God. But the moment itself, well, it’s very human, just like joy.

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Here what I’ve learned from repeating my 50 days of joy challenge. We can be guilty of spiritualizing joy and censuring the humanity of it. This is most evident in the dichotomy people sometimes create between happiness and joy. Happiness is secular and shallow, joy is spiritual and deep – so the arguments go. I won’t delve into this debate. I only want to make this point. If we want to recover joy, we must start with the fact that joy is a human emotion. Yes, it can be spiritual, it can be deep, but it remains inescapably human.

We can embrace the humanity of joy. Indeed, Scripture even encourages us to do so. Qoheleth of Ecclesiastes says, “So I commend the enjoyment of life because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 8:15). When preaching in Lystra, the Apostle Paul proclaimed that God “has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:17). Ordinary joys are a gift from God to be enjoyed – and even a start ing point into our knowledge of Him.

Joy likes to hide around the corner and then jump out and surprise us, unveiling the very goodness and beauty of life. We often feel joy when our hearts are apprehended in some way – by this goodness or beauty, truth, awe, wonder and so on. If we want a more joyful life, we start by enjoying and celebrating the exact life we have. You’ll find joy is always nearby and there is always indeed “the trailing beauty of forgotten joy.”

Oh Lord, help us be a little less forgetful about our joys.

Joy is more divine

My foray into joy began when my joylessness was unveiled and my longing for joy was rekindled. This longing is universal and indiscriminate. We’re likely to experience this longing as much as we experience joy itself. If we misunderstand this longing, we might mistakenly suppress it. I have learned this longing is not meant to be eased and the ache does not need to be feared.

In Ecclesiastes we also read that God has lodged eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Our longing for joy is evidence of this truth. It’s an eternal longing and ache. In the same way, joy is an eternity-seeking emotion. Because even when we experience joy we are often left more in touch with our longing for it. We want the experience of joy to continue, to last, to defy time forevermore. In this way joy and our longing for it orient us toward eternity.

If we stay on joy’s trail, we will find ourselves in the heart of God. Because joy is fundamental to the character of God. Joy is far more divine than we dare imagine. Before we experience the human side of it, joy exists within the Trinity.

This is seen most clearly at the baptism of Jesus. The Father rejoices in the Son as the Spirit descends upon Him. “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Luke 3:21–22). But “well pleased” is too mild a translation. It’s more like, “You bring me great joy.”

We see this joy again after Jesus sends His disciples off on their first missionary journey. After reorienting the disciples’ joy in success toward joy over their names being written in heaven, “Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, ‘I praise you, Father’ ” (Luke 10:21). The Son de lights in the Father through the joy of the Spirit – triune joy on display again!

Wisdom herself testifies to the divinity of joy. In her poem in Proverbs, Lady Wisdom declares:

The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works,
before his deeds of old;
I was formed long ages ago,
at the very beginning, when the world came to be. . . .
I was constantly at his side.
I was filled with delight day after day,
rejoicing always in his presence,
rejoicing in his whole world
and delighting in mankind (Proverbs 8:22–23, 30–31).

Wisdom lets us in on a poorly kept divine secret – joy dances in the corridors of eternity. If we witness it for ourselves, even the wallflowers among us will get caught up in the dance. The Gospels testify to this joy spilling over into the world, into this place, even into our lives. Because Jesus makes a promise to His disciples. He encourages us to remain attached to Him, to dwell in His divine, yet human love, like a branch to a vine. Then He says, “I have told you this, that my joy may be in you and that your joy will be complete” (John 15:11).

Did you catch that? Jesus does not say we will simply take delight in the same things He takes joy in. This is possible, of course. But He goes much further. Jesus says His very own joy will dwell in little old us. The Spirit of joy will dwell in us and will speak to us in the human emotion of joy while simultaneously revealing its divinity. Oh my.

As we embrace the humanity of joy, we begin to learn the language of divine joy – a joy we can’t manufacture, but only receive as a surprising grace. The complete joy of knowing every little and good joy is a glimpse into the very nature of God, the complete joy of God’s own joy abiding in us, the complete joy of our hope – wearing the promised crown of everlasting joy.

Oh Lord, let us share in your joy.

The possibility of joy

My wife and I started dating just before the season of Lent. Whereas some traditions bury the hallelujah as part of their Lenten practice, we decided to bury kissing. We agreed to wait to share our first kiss until after the season of Lent. We didn’t make it. This is one instance where the perfectionist in me was happy to fail.

I now look back on this endearing, albeit slightly misguided commitment with a smirk of joy. The hallelujah is buried in anticipation for the great hallelujah of resurrection. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, refraining from kissing could have also prepared us to receive the gift of resurrection as a different kind of kiss – the kiss of God.

Bernard of Clairvaux, a monk and mystic of the 12th century, gets at this in the most beautiful way. In a sermon based on the Song of Songs, he writes, “Surely if the Father kisses and the Son receives the kiss, it is appropriate to think of the Holy Spirit as the kiss.” Bernard reminds us that God the Father, as portrayed in the parable of the prodigal son, is the kind of God who rushes out to embrace us with a kiss (Luke 15:20). To me, this is the possibility of joy – the Father, Son and Spirit who enjoy a kiss, they have kissed the world with grace, and they also kiss us. And this kiss is often unforeseen. It catches us by surprise. And it leaves our cheek, even our lips wet. It’s a joy more delightful than any first kiss, too.

I want to acknowledge there are barriers and challenges that impede joy. I am no advocate for toxic positivity, a naive refusal to face how deeply heartbreaking life can be. Sometimes joylessness is even appropriate. But in a world that can make us feel like joy is absent, joy remains – we can’t deny it. In our broken yet beautiful world, in my broken yet beautiful heart, I’ve managed to struggle toward a more joyful way of being, even in hardship.

I have intentionally cultivated my life to be receptive to the nearby possibility of joy. Yes, I have a little bit of an equation for joy in my forthcoming book. But it’s not a quick fix. It’ll take time – a few seasons – so get comfortable slowing down and waiting.

When we make our home in Christ, tell our story within the gospel, get wisdom, behold people, welcome every emotion, serve with love, enjoy creation, suffer with Christ, rejoice and give thanks along the way, and make the best use of our time – joy elbows its way into our lives in these spaces.

Our efforts help, but as a grace joy often shows up unannounced and when we are unprepared. So be it.

If you want joy, remember: Joy is more human, divine and possible than we dare imagine. If you decide to intentionally pursue joy, as I did and still do, you’ll find joy is already pursuing you.

Oh Lord, kiss us with joy.

Alastair Sterne of Victoria, B.C., is a creative director turned pastor. He partnered with the church-planting organization Redeemer City to City and founded St. Peter’s Fireside, a creative liturgical church in Vancouver. He is the author of Rhythms for Life: Spiritual Practices for Who God Made You to Be (IVP, 2020) and Longing for Joy: An Invitation into the Goodness and Beauty of Life (IVP, Oct. 2024). He writes and podcasts with his wife Julia at Top-of-page JOY illustration: Janice Van Eck

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