In defence of joy

Ahh, Christmas! ‘Tis the season to be jolly, ’tis the season of festive cheer. It’s the happiest time of the year, after all.

Bah! Humbug.

What is it about Christmas that seems to draw out the very opposite experience? Despite all our singing about joy to the world, why is it that we struggle in the joy department?

Forced merriment and cheap tinsel can grate against the reality of life like nails on a chalkboard. Many of us are wearily dragging ourselves into the Christmas season, exhausted or burdened by cares and sorrows.

So we gravitate towards Christmas messages that seem to “get” these harsh realities. Jesus came because kings were corrupt and soldiers were murdering baby boys, and unmarried pregnant women were shamed – such joylessness mirrors our own and we find comfort in that. Any mention of joy is quickly accompanied by an array of caveats so as not to appear insensitive. “Joy to the world – but life is very hard and full of suffering.”

These caveats have their place. Jesus did come because the world isn’t joyful and yes, life is very hard and full of suffering.

Life since the Fall has always been that way, and yet Scripture seems unembarrassed by joy. If anything, Scripture is unapologetically bursting with joy from beginning to end. To push the envelope even further, at times it even commands joy (Phil. 4:4).

How can that be, with the world the way it is?

John Piper comments, “The Bible is filled with commands that we do things that are immediately outside our control to do — commands to rejoice, to fear, to be grateful, to be tender-hearted.[…] I know the Bible requires of me things that I cannot myself immediately produce by my own power.”

I think he’s on to something. Perhaps joy is not so much a feeling we need to summon up from within as something to receive from outside of ourselves.

Consider Isaiah’s prophecy in chapter 61:

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.”

Who are the people Isaiah is describing? They are poor, brokenhearted, held captive, prisoners in darkness, mourning, despairing and covered in ashes. Theirs is a bleak portrait – perhaps it is yours too.

What is the Sovereign Lord’s response to these people? He promises a person. An anointed person – someone to bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom for the captive, rescue the prisoners from darkness, comfort those who mourn, bestow beauty in place of ashes, joy instead of mourning, praise in place of despair. Salvation is coming!

Years later, an angel of the Lord declares more good news to shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem: “I bring you good news that causes great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10). But this good news is better than Isaiah’s because it announces that the promised Anointed One has now come. “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord”.

This same Saviour would later stand in his hometown’s synagogue and read Isaiah’s words to the listening people, only he included a line that Isaiah could not: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21) Jesus’ mission of binding up the brokenhearted and setting the oppressed free had begun.

Where do you feel brokenhearted? Your Saviour says he will bind up your bruised and battered heart.

Where do you feel captive? Your Saviour says he’s come to free you.

Where do you feel worn down by the ashes of grief? Your Saviour says he’s bringing the beauty of joy.

Our pain tells us that there’s still plenty of brokenness around, but our Anointed One has already come. The exhaustion and sorrow and sin we face will not have the last word. Our rescue has begun and its completion is guaranteed.

That is good news. It is even reason for joy!

Whatever condition your heart is in this Christmas, prepare room in it for the joy of Christ to enter in.