Experiencing Joy, Part one

There was once a human who was walking through a forest. This forest happened to be one of those forests which sits on no particular continent. It was the type where elephants freely mingle with kangaroos. You know the type.

Now humans are not particularly happy creatures, as we all well know. This human was no exception. As he walked along, he felt particularly miserable. Life seemed pointless, his wife was a nag, his job was boring, he never had money. So the man walked through the forest with a big frown on his face.

By and by, the man happened upon an otter who sat on a rock overlooking a large pond. The otter was enjoying his breakfast, and between bites of crayfish, he'd look out over the pond and laugh. "What are you so happy about?" asked the man.
"I'm thinking about all of the happy things I'm going to do today." said the otter.

Later, on the edge of a clearing, he came upon a dik-dik who was leaping for joy. "Why are you so joyful? asked the man.
The dik-dik was startled, but only for a moment. "I am joyful because no one has eaten me today!" he replied.

Later still, he came upon a weasel who was dancing. "And why are you so joyous?" asked the man.
"Why?" responded the weasel as she stopped to ponder the question. After a moment of thought, she answered "Because I'm a weasel!"

Feeling even worse for the means of comparison, the man trudged on until he came to a tree sloth. The sloth frowned to himself as he shifted his weight and hung mopily. "You don't look happy." said the man, feeling just a little gratified to meet someone in the same state as himself.
"I'm not happy." said the sloth. "My back itches from the fungus growing on it, I haven't gone to the bathroom all week, and this morning, I fell into the water and it took me two hours to swim to shore."
"At last." said the man. A creature as joyless as myself."
"I didn't say I was joyless." said the sloth.
"I have lots of joy." said the sloth. "If I didn't, I'd never be able to handle being so unhappy."

What is joy?
Encarta defines joy thusly:
1. great happiness: feelings of great happiness or pleasure, especially of an elevated or spiritual kind

Let's see what the bible says about Joy. Just a few sample verses here...
1 Cor 7:4 I have great confidence in you; I take great pride in you. I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds.
2 Cor 8:2 Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.
Luke 6: 22 Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.
23 "Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets.

These verses talk about having joy in times of trouble, sorrow and suffering. If God expects us to happy in the face of persecution, he must think the lot of us to be completely nutso. While that view may be subject to debate, I think this indicates that joy is not the same thing as happiness.

Those of you who have known me a long time may remember that I used to be hopelessly naiive with computers. I used to refer to any sort of data as a "program". My father was constantly for not differentiating between programs and files. I think this is the mistake which Encarta is making. Happiness is like a file. Joy is like an application. Joy is a permanently installed thing which generates happiness. Not only happiness, but an entire family of emotions.

At last count, neurobiologists had counted sixty-four different emotions which a human is capable of feeling. (If I remember correctly) Happiness is only one of an array of positive emotions which joy is capable of producing. It can also produce giddiness, contentment, wonder, even affection. But joy is more than simply an emotion producer. It is also a defensive weapon. Joy can be used to combat depression, to stave off discouragement, and to ease feelings of sorrow, fear and disappointment.

While it seems almost oxymoronic to talk about emotions in clinical terms, joy is a very important tool for us to have. This not only for ourselves, but for those around us. The more we display joy, the greater we build up joy in others.

Joy is also important because it is a reflection of the nature of God. Schiller, in the poem "An de Freud" (whose words were incorporated into Beethoven's 9th symphony) called joy the "Bright Spark of Divinity". In the infrequently heard bridge of the poem/song, Schiller and Beethoven tell us that because joy exists, a loving Father must exist in Heaven. Joy is one of the greatest witnesses for God that exists in all of nature. When we demonstrate joy, we show others that God exists, and that He is good.

So how do we get joy?
As I was doing my research for this message, I came across a sermon by a Presbyterian minister named John Schmidt. By pure coincidence, Schmidt's message revolves around the same scripture which appeared in our reading today. Observing this passage, he notes that it begins in past tense, then moves to the present, then lastly, to the future.

The first step to obtaining and holding onto joy is to look at what God has done for you in the past. Remember His blessings and mercies. As the song goes, count your blessings one by one. Let the memory of what God has done for you give you encouragement, just as the israelites in Psalm 126 remembered what God has done for them, returning them to Zion.

The second step is to concentrate on what God is doing for you now. Think about all the things he has given you, both big and little. Your salvation, your home, your friends, the food on your plate... and that's just for starters. There are a thousand reasons to rejoice if we just think of them.

The third part is to look ahead in anticipation of what God will do.

This message has been a little short because there's a bit of an assignment that goes along with it. I'd like each of you to make a list of all of the blessings and mercies that God has given you. Write them down and bring them with you next week. We're going to be discussing God's goodness and how dwelling on God can help us to have and to maintain joy.

Pastor Oren Otter
October 1, 2005