Perhaps more than any other time of year, Christmas is the time when we think about joy. Whether it is while we sing "Joy to the World", or hear the scriptures declare that the coming of Jesus is "good news of great joy", the possibility and expectation of joy during this time of year is frequently before us. Many of us also expect to experience joy from extra time with friends and family. Why is it that these expectations are so often unmet?
In their book, "Joy Starts Here,” Dr. James Wilder and several co-authors explore what produces joy; they encourage us with the potential of what could happen if all of the world's Christians lived in the joy in which God intended for them to live. Here is their conclusion: "Joy is relational. Joy is the twinkle in someone's eye that makes their face light up when they see us." For example, joy is produced when we understand and believe that God is glad to be with us in spite of our shortcomings. However, joy is also produced when we have people in our lives who are glad to be with us in spite of our shortcomings. The authors state that "both the Bible and neuroscience affirm that joy is a relational experience that someone is glad to be with me.” In other words, “experiencing this kind of relational joy actually shapes the structure, chemistry and function of the brain.”
So of great importance is the question: how many of us believe that God is really glad to be with us and also have a small community of friends around us who sincerely express, with both words and body language, that they are glad to be with us? I would dare say that if these two conditions exist, it is likely that we are joyful. Of course, the opposite is also true. If our impression of God is that he is constantly disappointed with us and the people around us are judgmental or uninterested, then we are likely not experiencing joy.
In my personal experience, most Christians over-spiritualize joy. We tend to think that joy comes almost exclusively from our relationship with God and minimize the essential component of human relationships. Could it be that we have almost given up on the fact that people will be extremely happy to be with us? Have our expectations for those around us become so low that we no longer anticipate seeing a "twinkle in their eye" upon seeing us? Have many of us have settled for one-sided relationships where we do most of the giving and plan not to receive much in return? Many believe that joy mainly comes from the giving of ourselves to others. We were trained with the acrostic JOY (Jesus first, Others second, and Yourself last). The aforementioned book states that "this might be a good way to teach about service, but joy is not service. Not only does this acrostic fail to make sense of joy, it is a formula for misery. A commitment to service in the absence of strong empowerment of joy is a recipe for
disillusionment and burnout."
Isn't it interesting that God states that loving Him and loving each other are the most important commands. He says that all the law and the prophets hang on these two commands; he says that this sums up the law and fulfills the law. Diminishing the importance of the second commandment greatly inhibits our ability to be joyful. I believe that God is so clear in HIs emphasis of these commands because He knows that we will not experience the joy that he intends for us and will not attract a lost world to Him without tangible joy. God is also vulnerable in his expectation that we love Him and are glad to be with Him. He goes to great lengths and writes whole books of the Bible that describe how He feels when we aren't "glad to be with Him.” If Almighty God is vulnerable in His expression of His feelings and expectations, it seems that this would be a good course of action for us as well.
Do we have a small community of friends who are extremely glad to be with us? Most of us believe we should be this for others - but do we actually seek to understand how to be a joy to others? And, are we vulnerable enough to humbly and gently expect this in return? Will we be courageous enough to do whatever we need to do to experience this, choosing joy-producing relationships over mediocre, low-joy environments?
I can’t overemphasize the need we have for joy-producing relationships. For me, church is, more than anything, relational, where love for God is expressed through genuine gladness to be together. Church is a community of friends who are genuinely glad to be together as brothers and sisters in Christ. Church is an exchange of "twinkles in the eye" that attracts a joy-starved world. May God in His grace help us to be a "Joy to the World.”