I had hoped that the heart of reality will be such a kind that we can best symbolize it as a place; instead, I found it to be a Person.C. S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy, 1986.
From where does joy come and how may one get it? Is joy merely a feeling, unavoidably attached to given events (happenings), like happiness is? Is it found in some particular places, specific experiences, or is it a state of being, quite detached from happenings and more an encounter with a Person?
Let me venture to speak of joy in its proper place as a spiritual reality. I am not refuting that joy is something one feels, but I must testify it is more than just feelings. I felt I have betrayed the real source of joy in my previous reflection by not speaking directly on how I have experienced joy.
I tried to avoid this particular dimension for two reasons. One, it wouldn’t sync with everything else I wanted to say without presenting a seeming contradiction or overstretching the article, making it impossible to read.
The second reason is, even though the spiritual realm is much bigger (or the primary reality there is) more than our material realm, spiritual experiences themselves are highly subjective. God meets us differently. Yet, to experience God as joy or the source thereof is at the heart of every genuine experience of an encounter with him.
The Christian tradition within which I grew up emphasized God’s transcendence in such a way that relating with him seemed strictly on the basis of obedience and reward or disobedience and punishment. I still remember how exhausting and uninspiring such a religion was for me.
But when I first encountered God (at the point that my faith became personal), he revealed himself as Love, and the bubbling joy that washed over me (and has washed over me many times since) made the very concept of joy deeply connected to him. Take away this connection and I’d be completely at my wit’s end. This reminds me of the song by Jesus Culture “Love has a Name.” Indeed, Joy has a name, Jesus!
Although there are many pleasures in this life that can induce a sense of joy, deep misfortunes can render these pleasures unenjoyable. This is the point at which life becomes unbearable and many either end it or deteriorate into meaningless existence.
Ordinarily, it would be impossible for me to experience joy in my present situation if joy were to be merely a feeling based on happenings. Let me illustrate by speaking of my situation beyond the obvious. Sorry; it might get a bit too personal.
What is obvious is the fact that I have lost a beloved daughter at a time when the world seems to be caving in, with nothing exciting happening or having the possibility of happening in the near future to divert me or produce hope for the foreseeable future.
What is not so obvious is the struggle that has characterized my life for a long time to this point. The past eight years were gruesome, dotted by occasional joys from God’s abundant blessing in the broadening of my mind and invaluable friendships. But last year appeared to be my worst yet. I had come to the end of my endurance and was hoping God will bless me with peace and rest.
I was drowned in fear and anxiety, typical with a major transition, especially over my children who are caught between two worlds at war with each other. How was I not to feel guilty for taking them away for so long and creating in them strangers who may never fit in their home country?
Anya, in particular, kept me in constant anxiety over how poorly she fared healthwise. My own sense of calling was drowned in this struggle. I wondered how God’s will in leading us first to a foreign country and then back home at this time will play out in my children’s lives.
I have been in this place many times before, a place where it seems impossible to move a single muscle of faith in the attempt to do anything. I have felt like the character Much-Afraid in Hannah Hurnard’s Hinds Feet On High Places, abandoned by the Shepherd. But in spite of the excruciating pain, I cannot deny the Shephard’s good intent.
I remember praying the Jabez prayer (1 Chronicles 4:9-10) at the beginning of the year 2020 (this past January), asking God to show me mercy and take my pain away. I asked him for relief in specific areas of my life.
Little did I know he was going to answer my desperate prayers by crushing me with a kind of pain I was yet to experience. For me, losing a child at this time of great anxiety and much prayer for their safety is like being hit on a tender wound. A mockery of my faith.
I have long learned the futility of placing faith in some random religious promises that I do not sense God giving to me directly. My faith and that of my husband seem bizarre at times. While many good Christians exercise their faith in the freedom to make convenient choices for themselves and their families and requesting God to bless it, we seem reduced to doing “God’s specific will,” which sounds at times like empty super-spirituality.
Does a relationship with this Supreme Being necessarily one of such reliance as though we have no commonsense to make informed decisions? What right have we now to claim he led us since the road has ended in such calamity? How can we be confident that this will not cause a shipwreck of faith for our children? Can we trust that God cares enough to shield them?
But God’s word says he leads through the valley of the shadow of death (Psalms 23:4)! We knew what we bargained for when we believed. As C. S. Lewis will say:
“I had been warned—I had warned myself—not to reckon on worldly happiness. We were even promised sufferings. They were part of the programme. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accepted it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for.”Lewis 2004, p.36
It is not the first time God has seemed to betray us; not the first time he allowed things to go wrong at the very moment we expected him to prove our case. He has vindicated those who disagreed with our decision!
But we have no doubt he led us home at this time, and Anya’s death, as painful as it is, may only prove that the devil is enraged by our obedience. Now, that sounds cocky. Why would God allow satan to strike such a blow? What would Anya’s death accomplish for God? I do not know.
What I do know (which it took me a long time to accept) is that her assignment in our family is done, it was time she returned to the One who sent her—whether she died of preventable natural causes, or the devil has something to do with it is not what is at issue.
Am I happy now that I know this truth? No. Not at all. And I don’t know when I shall find happiness again. But I am joyful in God’s overarching plan, no matter how painful the present moment is. This brings me back to the subject of joy.
A Christian finds joy in God because of who God is and in the fact that life is not altogether bad because God’s goodness still remains even in a fallen world. S/he also knows that life does not end here. There is a bigger reality and God, who is all-loving and caring in spite of what he allows us to go through, is the heart and soul of that reality. No situation catches him unawares or can thwart his purpose.
I may have lost a child now, but I shall see her again. I may be bone-weary at present, but the day of perfect rest is coming. I may be hungry, sad, sick, discouraged now, but the day is coming when all of these will be set right. In short, I have hope; hope in an eternal future of bliss with the God who is Joy.
Sincerely, I don’t know how those who have no such hope cope in this world of pain. Suicide does not surprise me; it is the ability of the human being to carry on without God and without hope in this mean world that I do not understand.
Although this experience of God as Joy is very personal to me, I believe it is a genuine Christian experience because it has been the experiences of many before and after me, both in the Bible and in history. The Psalmist captures this for me very well when he says:
I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
apart from you I have no good thing.”…
You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.
– Psalm 16:2, 11.
The whole Christian life is Testimony. We begin by placing our faith in the work of Christ for our sake; this is where the relationship begins. But from thence we begin to have experiences of divine presence and divine work in our lives which confirm to us that what we read about God in the Bible is true, that it didn’t just happen to Abraham, Peter, and Paul but to me also. When I look at life through this lens, I can have true joy in the midst of sorrow.