Last week, we talked about how Nehemiah called the people of God to depend upon and give expression to “the joy of the LORD” at a time when they may not have felt much like rejoicing. We noted that suffering, disappointment, and guilt can rob us of a connection with God that nourishes our souls and strengthens us for daily life. And I argued that one of the things we can do to restore our strength is to reacquaint ourselves with the goodness of God.
This week, we will continue our reflections on “the joy of the LORD” by exploring three ways that God demonstrates His goodness. I will argue that, when we come to understand the ways in which God works to see His will done, we find it easier to recognize the very specific ways that God’s goodness has manifested itself in His interactions with us. But before we move to that discussion, we need to deal with a preliminary concern—the affective nature of joy.
Who Is Afraid of Emotions?
Those of you who read last week’s blog may have been a little concerned by the forthright way that I associated joy with happiness. “After all,” you might be thinking, “happiness is an emotion—something that is ephemeral and deceptive—whereas joy is something that does not depend on how we feel or what happens to us.”
If this is what you were thinking when you read last week’s blog, your concerns are worthy of consideration. Joy is such an important concept in the Bible, and we certainly do not want to predicate the joy that God gives us on the size of our bank account or the job title associated with our name.
Nevertheless, joy is an example of and an expression of happiness. That is simply a linguistic fact—one that we have discussed on the blog before. Notice, for example, that the Greek noun we translate as “joy” (χαρά) is defined in the standard lexicon used by New Testament scholars (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature) as “the experience of gladness” (or as a person or thing that causes such an experience). The verb (χαίρω), which we usually translate “rejoice,” is defined as “to be in a state of happiness and well-being.” (Some forms are also used as a “formalized greeting” that wishes a person well).
I think that there is a deeper issue that needs to be addressed here. As Peter Scazzero notes in the first session of his teaching on emotionally healthy spirituality, many American Christians have been taught that “feelings are unreliable and not to be trusted.” Scazzero notes that this is especially true with respect to the negative emotions of fear, sadness, and anger, but I have found that it is also true with respect to positive emotions like happiness.
As Scazzero rightly points out, this view does not correspond with a biblical anthropology. It constructs people (at least ideally) as logic machines rather than as fully integrated human beings. To put the matter in another way, it leaves us in the unenviable position of trying to generate joy with half our brain tied behind our back. And, as psychologist Jim Wilder would almost certainly argue, we are keeping the half of our brain that is least able to generate meaningful change in our nature and identity.
So why am I taking the time to point all of this out? Why does it matter whether joy is an affective reality? I do it for this reason. We cannot logic ourselves into joy, nor should we try to do so. Joy is something that is generated from a healthy, dynamic relationship with God. Joy derives from the interactions that we have with God, from seeing God’s love on display in our lives and responding with love in return. The more positive experiences that we have with God, the more we are able to rely upon what we know about God to endure the challenges that we face.
Three Ways That God Demonstrates His Goodness
We can help ourselves have positive experiences with God by understanding who He is and how His character is manifested in His interactions with the beings that He has created. From the biblical record—and from my own journey with God—I have found that God’s actions fall into three categories, each of which demonstrates God’s supreme goodness.
First, God gives us things that we know we need. To put it another way, God answers prayers oriented around felt needs. There are numerous examples scattered throughout Scripture, but the one I like to point to is Hannah’s prayer for a son in 1 Samuel 1:1-2:11. Her request is so real and so raw, and it is no wonder. Her request obviously had enormous social significance in a culture where social standing was everything. But it was also deeply psychological, as her grief attests. It even had economic implications. Her husband seeks to comfort her by reminding her of his love. “Am I not better to you than ten sons?” he asks in anguish (1 Samuel 1:8, NASB). The answer is so obvious that Hannah does not even have to express it. If he dies, she will have nothing. He is only good to her as long as he is alive.
God hears Hannah’s prayer. Hannah gets her son (and many more children besides), and she offers God her joyful praise in return. Moreover, she reciprocates God’s faithfulness by being faithful herself. She offers her firstborn son in service to God, just as she promised that she would do.
Instances like these are easy to spot (at least they ought to be). We ask God for something we know that we need, and He gives it to us. But the second category of God’s activity is not so easy to recognize, and it rarely results in expressions of spontaneous and exuberant joy. God often works by giving us things that we did not know we needed, and sometimes these are things that we did not want.
A personal example may illustrate the point. A few years ago, I experienced a professional setback. It was an emotionally difficult experience for both my wife and for me, and it continues to harm my career to this day. Nevertheless, I understand now that it was God’s doing. God knew that I needed an extended period of time to heal personally and develop professionally. Moreover, God knew that, with some of the trials that I would face in the future, I needed to be in as healthy an environment as possible. Moving me out of that situation made it possible for God to do some very important things in my life. It is not the path that I would have chosen, and sometimes it still makes me angry when I think about it. But it was the right path, and, with time and God’s patient attention, I have learned to find joy in it.
Third, there are times that God takes something in our lives that is not good and uses it for His good purposes. Not everything that happens to us is God’s will (cf. Matthew 6:10). But the hope that all who know God have is that He is always at work, redeeming what goes wrong and using it for His good purposes (Romans 8:28).
The quintessential example of God using evil for good is the cross, and the fact that Christ came into the world to die on that cross does not change that fact. What we humans did in crucifying Jesus was the definition of evil, and it exemplifies the evil that we perpetrate against one another on a daily basis. And yet, in that barbaric act of injustice, the sins of the world were paid for, and people saw an undeniable expression of God’s love.
Coming to Terms with God’s Goodness
As we sift through our lives using these three categories of God’s activity, we begin to see the breadth and the depth of God’s involvement in our world. He has not left us alone. He is with us, actively working to set us free from all that would keep us in bondage to evil and to transform us into the faithful image-bearers that He always wanted us to be. If we concede that these aims are good, then we must concede that God’s work is good. And when we concede that God’s work is good, we are in a better place to discern God’s work in the details of our lives—and to rejoice over that work.
It is difficult for me to overstate how important I think that this process is for building both joy and resilience. The times in my life when I have been the most unhappy have also been the times when I felt that God was absent from my life, that God did not care about me, and that God might even be against me. That can sound trite and unfeeling to someone who is really hurting, and I do not in any way want to minimize the suffering that any of you are experiencing. I just know that the more I am able to see that God really does have my best interests at heart, the more that I am able to rest in the knowledge of His goodness. And the more that I rest in that knowledge, the more that I am able to reach out to God with love and trust. It becomes a spiral of joy, for the more that I reach out to God, the more that He reveals himself to me and the more that I am able to properly understand my experiences.
Joy is an experiential reality. It comes from a deep acquaintance with the person and work of our Creator. Moreover, joy touches the deepest parts of us, and it calls forth from us the best of who we are. The key to cultivating joy in our relationship with God is to properly interpret our experiences, not to deny their importance or to strip them of their emotional currency. And to do that, we need to see our experiences in the light of God’s unmingled goodness and undying love.