The Gospel’s Joyful Parade

When Happiness Isn’t Enough

Jeff Hual / 5.12.21

Joy may seem a strange subject to explore, given the pandemic experience of life through which we have all been living for over a year. But joy is a recurring theme in scripture, especially in the upper room discourses and, indeed, the passion narrative of John’s Gospel, which places the idea of joy into some of the most difficult passages of Jesus’ passion.

The reason for joy with regard to the cross is easily grasped: the joy is that this relationship with Christ will never be severed. The joy is that we will never be abandoned. The joy is that Jesus is preparing a place for us. The placing of that joy within the midst of the passion, however, serves to remind us that joy doesn’t take away the reality of being in this world, caught between death and resurrection. This is a joy that holds simultaneously the sorrow of separation and the hope that we have been given in Christ Jesus.

In order to understand this gospel joy, we need to consider for a moment what joy might mean in such a gospel context. Just what is joy? How might we define joy, and how does it differ from happiness? What might the opposite of joy look like?

A good starting point for such a consideration is neurotheology, which seeks to apply neuroscience, the internal workings of the human brain and its resulting drives and emotions, to the drives and emotions that strive towards a belief in God. A recent contribution to this field is Neuroscience and the Fruit of the Spirit by Bryan Spoon, who works as staff chaplain in a children’s hospital that specializes in pediatric neurology.

Spoon writes at length about joy in both neurological and theological contexts. He is quick to point out that joy is not the same as happiness, because happiness is generally defined by outward experience or circumstance:

If I have piles of money in the bank, then I will be happy. If I have a fancy car, then I will feel secure. If I am famous, then I will be glamorous and happy. If I can just get hold of whatever it is, then I will finally be happy. The problem is that getting hold of something is only half of it. Once we get hold of anything, then we must keep it. Keeping hold of something fleeting is difficult indeed.

Turning instead to joy, Spoon couches the “habit of joy” for Christians within the theological construct of the fruit of the Spirit:

Joy is beyond the happiness of resting in the security of outward experiences and circumstances. Joy is an end in itself … The habit of joy deeply involves how we relate to any of the fruit of the Spirit working within us. When we surrender to God’s work in us, then we can stop striving and trying to clutch onto success or failure … No matter what fruit of the Spirit is working through us, when we lose ourselves to the utter joy of feeling and relishing God at work in us, then we can enjoy it no matter what the outcome.

Regarding the opposite of joy, one would expect that to be sadness, but for Spoon the opposite of joy is actually addiction:

Joy is a reward in itself, but its opposite is truly opposite. Addiction craves external rewards and numbs us to the joy of actually experiencing them. Addiction is not reward in itself. It does not provide either love or creativity. The thrill comes from the chase. It is a hedonic treadmill. Addiction is defined by abuse, dependence, and pathological craving.

Viewing gospel joy in light of the falseness of happiness, the dangers of addiction, and the difficulty of our current crisis, certain truths related to joy emerge. If joy is not dependent on happiness, then joy is not dependent on my life situation. Joy is available to us even in the darkest times, like the events of the passion, which in John’s upper room discourses are right around the corner for Jesus and his disciples — or indeed like the events of our year of loss in the pandemic.

There’s a very worthwhile episode of PBS Frontline that premiered last month, which considered the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on African-American funeral practices in New Orleans during the last year. A funeral in New Orleans is an event, with a jazz band leading a horse-drawn hearse and all the attendant pageantry. In New Orleans, a funeral is truly a celebration. The pandemic ended the music, parades, and public gatherings, but the African-American community was still finding ways to celebrate.

One of the funeral home directors makes the point that such celebration arises from the painful 400-year experience of life for African-Americans. Out of necessity, they found joy amid its opposite. The joy in these communities has always been experienced in spite of their external situation. The 2020 pandemic was no different, as so many said good-bye to the patriarchs and matriarchs of their communities. If the African-American community couldn’t have a band, they had a boom box. If they couldn’t have a boom box, then they sang. If singing was banned, then they clapped their hands. Nothing could stop them from celebrating.

The promised joy of the gospel is no different. Nothing could take away their joy, and nothing can take away ours, either. No matter the suffering or circumstance, we have the joy of knowing and being known by God through Christ. And nothing — not COVID-19 or even the separation of death — can ever change that fact. The joy of being known by such a love surpasses everything.

Surrounded by pain, death, and frustrations, we march onwards with joy. The cacophony of singing, trumpet blasts, and bass drum rolls resound. The spectacle evinces glances of disdain and confusion from onlookers. Why are they making such a racket? What do they have to be happy about? But this tune isn’t a dirge, and this march isn’t a funeral. It’s a love song for a savior who is leading the parade toward eternity.

featured image via here