What kind of man is it, who knowing He is just hours away from being subjected to one of the cruelest, most painful, and shameful deaths imaginable —speaks of His joy? How could He possibly talk to His disciples about His joy being complete in them (John 15:11)? What are we to make of this? A person unfamiliar with Christ could possibly dismiss it all as the ranting of someone too close to death to be thinking clearly, but those of us who know Him, know better.
That all of this says something special about Jesus is not really surprising for we have to come to expect the unexpected from Him, haven’t we? That it also says something about joy is much less familiar territory. What it suggests is that joy has a subversive quality to it. Not only is it not what many think it is, it undermines and overthrows much of our thinking about human fulfillment.
Probably the place to begin is by noting that joy is subversive to happiness. It may be that you equate joy and happiness, but I think you’ll find it is quite useful to distinguish between the two because the concepts behind the words are radically different. If you look up the etymology of the word happiness, you find that it goes back to the word hap and is from the same family as happenings. In short, happiness is what occurs when the happenings of life go our way.
Happiness tends to be superficial—we’re pleased when the sun is shining, the traffic isn’t bad on the way to work and the weekend is near. It is obviously quite transient in nature—there are rainy days when the traffic is terrible and weekends that you have to work! In fact, the whole happiness approach to life is very much a roller coaster ride. That’s why the word originally carried the meaning of lucky and even today good fortune is still given as one of its meanings. It is amazing how many people believe that Jesus came to make us happy. The prosperity gospel advocates have done a good job in catering to our lower/consumer nature and convinced many that life in Christ is supposed to be an unending stream of sugar and syrup. When someone experiences something less than that—a sense of entitlement flares up and prayers are offered like this one posted on a social network in response to a minor injury someone had suffered; “So sorry! We’ll pray for speedy healing and no pain.” Compare that with what Paul says in Philippians 1:20, “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him.” I’m not suggesting that every time we hurt it’s in God’s plans, but I am saying there’s something seriously skewed with prayers that leave no room for God’s will and treat suffering like Christians have been promised immunity from it.
The good news is that there is something much better than happiness and its corresponding Peter Pan approach to discipleship. It is joy. While the Bible (NIV), only mentions “happy” or “happiness,” about 25 times, “joy” and “rejoice” are found about 400 times. All of this tells us we must not think of joy as Happiness 10.0. It is not an upgrade on happiness—it’s a whole new operating system! Joy isn’t based on the right happenings of life. It isn’t superficial. It isn’t arbitrary. Joy is rooted in a relationship with Jesus. It is part of the fruit the Spirit produces in the disciple’s life (Galatians 5:22).
Joy also subverts our pursuit of it. It defies the consumer approach that says we become followers of Jesus so we can have joy and fulfillment. It doesn’t work that way. If joy is our primary goal, then we will never possess it. It’s only when we die to self and pursue Jesus that joy enters our lives. You can’t grow fruit—you can only grow the plant the produces the fruit. In the same way, only when we lose ourselves in following Jesus can we truly experience joy.
One of the biblical books that has a quite a bit to say about joy is Paul’s letter to the Philippians. I counted 14 times the words joy, rejoice, or glad were used. In true subversive style, Paul is in prison as he writes about joy to the disciples at Philippi. They were privileged to live in an imperial colony (Acts 16:12). This meant they were citizens of Rome with all of the privileges—self-government, the protection of Rome, the right of appeal, and freedom from scourging. All of these things could lead to a happy life.
But God had something better in mind. The call of Christ led to become part of a different kingdom with a superior citizenship (3:20). Though Lord Caesar’s name could be found everywhere in Philippi, their allegiance was to a greater lord (Romans 10:9). And through following Him they experienced something much better than happiness (4:4).
Joy is still subversive. It overthrows happiness, refuses to be pursued, and is the product of renouncing our agendas that Christ might reign. If all of that sounds counter intuitive, I think that’s the point.