I often have a reason to call one of our partner churches, and they always answer the phone the same way: “Joy, First African.” The first time I called the church, I thought maybe I had gotten the wrong number. For a while, I wondered if some church growth consultant had recommended this method of answering the phone in a “Phone Etiquette ” class. But the more I got to know the people of First African Baptist Church, I realized that this was not a gimmick but a reality of their daily experience. I have had the privilege of interacting with the members of this church on many occasions now, including during times of stress and challenge, that would not normally result in a person being joyful—and yet they always are.
This joyful church got me thinking about the meaning of joy in the Christmas season, and all year round. In a recent article in Christianity Today magazine, the writer made an astounding statement: “The gospel remains a scandal, indeed, because it announces joy right when everything is falling apart.” A later quote in the same article by G.K. Chesterton really caught me up short: “A person is fully human when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labor by which all things live.”
Though I am an optimist by nature, I am far too often focused on what I am joyful about and not whether joy is the primary trait I am characterized by. It is so easy to get caught up in a list of things that make me happy, that when things get crazy on any given day, I can swing from being in a great mood to being fearful or worried in a heartbeat. The truth of the gospel is that I can be joyful in the midst of the storm as well as in the midst of the evident blessings of God. He is the same yesterday, today and forever, even if I am fickle from one minute to the next.
One of the evidences of maturity in the life of God’s saints is the quality of the joy they experience and then radiate to others around them. My grandmother was one of those people. She experienced great hardship as a missionary wife, having her husband gone for many weeks or months at a time on various expeditions around the world. Yet the reality of her relationship with God was so evident in the joy she expressed that it was her signature personality trait. I long to have that kind of relationship with God and to experience even a small fraction of the joy she knew. The irony is that this can be a reality, as God wants me to live this way as well and has made it possible for me to do it through the gift of His Holy Spirit.
This Christmas as you celebrate with your family and friends, remember that joy is not just an emotion but also a state of being. Do you simply experience joy, or are you in fact a constantly joyful person despite the circumstances?