June 16, 2019

Facets of Faithfulness, II: Joy

Passage: Galatians 5:1–26

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The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
There is no law against such things.
—Galatians 5:22–23


Near the end of his terse powerful missive to the Churches of Galatia, St. Paul gives us a little list in which he describes what life looks like under the sway of Christ’s Holy Spirit. He calls it the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Sometimes to energize my own sometimes slack imagination I like to set up my own metaphors that are parallel to the Bible’s images, so I’m calling this series Facets of Faithfulness. They’re nine facets of a single gemstone, one beautiful thing—the Christian life—with nine gleaming aspects.

But Paul’s original metaphor is powerful because the fruit of the earth is an interesting combination of God’s free gift and humanity’s hard work. God creates the peach tree, then the orchardist plants the seed and prunes the trees and weeds the earth beneath. You remember what Carl Sagan used to say: “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” It took God five billion years to come up with that bag of peaches Li-Young Lee wrote about.

The second aspect of Paul’s fruit of the Spirit, the second facet of faithfulness, is joy. Joy is more gift than accomplishment, right? And not everybody gets it. Either you have it, or you don’t. Either you’re born with it or you’re not. Joy is like blue eyes, or left-handedness, or perfect pitch—an endowment not an achievement.

Some people—many people—were born without the Joy Gene, and don’t we know it!  Do you know someone who is surly and will never be anything but no matter how Christian he coaxes himself into becoming? Some of them live here in town and the rest work at O’Hare or LaGuardia for Homeland Security.

A cartoon in The New Yorker a while back showed a psychiatrist’s office: diplomas on the wall, a man in a white coat standing in front of a very official desk, a grim patient in a chair. The doctor tells the patient: “You tested positive for being negative.”[1] Know anybody like that? Don’t answer that.

But we can’t always be judgmental about sadness, right. Our community has been touched recently by several cases of severe depression. In a couple of cases the sadness was so acute the person took his or her own life. We didn’t see it coming, and now in its wake we don’t know what to do, but one thing we do know is, that we offer compassion, not judgement.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, the French existentialist Albert Camus cautions us to remember that such decisions are inscrutable, forged in the silence of a person’s private heart.[2]

By some accounts, depression is the severest and commonest disease in the world, worse than cancer, AIDS, and malaria. One in four of us will suffer from it at some point in our lifetimes. It costs the economy about $200 billion a year, or about four percent of Gross Domestic Product. It cripples lives and destroys families.

Joy seems to have a biological or chemical origin. It has something to do with the wiring of the brain or the endorphins that race with the blood or don’t. Bobby McFerrin’s song is clever and catchy—“Don’t Worry, Be Happy!”—but also annoying and pointless because you can’t compel an emotion. The phrase “Be happy!” should never be in the imperative mood. Cognitive and kinetic activities are subject to the will but emotions aren’t. You can tell your brain to think something, and you can tell your body to do something, but can you laugh when you’re not happy, or weep when you’re not sad?

You can’t compel an emotion and joy is a gift, not an accomplishment, which doesn’t mean we have nothing to do, right? When we are in the doldrums, we can hoist and set our sails, so that when the Spirit arrives, they will billow with gusts of joy, and we can almost fly across the swells.

Five things we can do: Try. Attend. Share. Repair. Thank.

Try. You can’t compel an emotion, but joy really isn’t an emotion, is it? It’s an attitude and attitudes can shape our dispositions and enrich our lives. I’ve told you before what Friedrich Nietzsche had to say about this. Even 120 years after his death, the old German philosopher might be if not the ablest at least the most famous skeptic Christianity has ever had to confront.

He was a preacher’s kid, but quickly and definitively escaped the influence of the manse to hammer away at Christian truths. Someone once asked him why he didn’t believe in Jesus the Savior, and he replied, “His disciples should look more redeemed.” Yes? Would it kill you to look more redeemed? Could you fake it till you make it? They say FDR had a little sign on his desk that read “Let unconquerable gladness dwell!”[3] Don’t you love that? Let unconquerable gladness dwell. Polio, Great Depression, Pearl Harbor be damned.

So try. And attend. Attend to the unmerited, irresistible allure of the given world. I know. I know. The people who run the world just now are grim, humorless, unkind, and untruthful. This is true from Pyongyang to Hong Kong to Tehran to Riyadh to Washington. But that’s just the thing: they don’t run the world. This is God’s world and it’s so easy to know that just now.

Our town is so fecund with burgeoning life just now from landscape to canopy it’s like living inside an emerald splendor. If you didn’t see that shade of verdant green with your own eyes, you could never even think it up.

When I walk out the front door of my house, I am engulfed in a redolent, purple perfume that comes out of nowhere. I wonder what expensive bottle it comes from, but it’s just the lilacs at my front porch. I drive to church and walk into the courtyard, it’s the same thing. It seems as if God just wants to make me happy.

John Updike says, “Ancient religion and modern science agree: we are here to give praise, or, to slightly tip the expression, to pay attention, to cultivate our delight and wonder at existence itself, and an occasional surge of sheer, blind gratitude just for being here.”[4]

So Try. Attend. Also, Share. I may have told you before about a new member in my last church who quickly became a good friend. Early in our acquaintance he said to me, “Your wife has the loudest laugh of any woman I’ve ever met.” I said, “Joe, you haven’t met her sister.” I said, “Joe, I don’t know if you meant that observation to be a compliment but that’s how I’ll choose to take it.”

But it’s not enough for her to enjoy her world; she has to share the joy. This compulsion in her is native, inexorable, and precognitive. All the rest of us must join her delight or it didn’t happen at all.

We’ll take a walk through the neighborhood: to the hockey rink in Glencoe or the soccer field in Hubbard Woods or to Andrew Cheney’s old Manse on Hamptondale where we lived for a year. Two or three miles, 45 minutes. When we get home she says, “That was so fun. Thank you for walking with me.”  And we don’t even have a dog! When she finishes a meal that she prepared all by herself, she says “That was so delicious.” Share the good news. Be an evangelist for joy. Make it viral.

Try. Attend. Share. Also, Repair. Life can be a series of papercuts, right? None of them will kill you, but by the end of the day, they add up. On your way out the door for school or work in the morning, one of your precious offspring has a meltdown and won’t budge. You get stuck in traffic or someone cuts you off. At work a colleague makes a snide remark that isn’t unkind exactly but uncaring. Someone fails to complete a task they promised would meet your deadline. Someone else skips a meeting without telling you and three other people are late. Back home at the end of the day your husband brushes past you as if you weren’t there.

These papercuts are all enemies of joy, so at the end of the day, you need to repair your slight injuries. You need a wee dram. You need a poem by Mary Oliver or Emily Dickinson. You need a happy painting; maybe it’s “Sunday in the Park with George,” or maybe it’s “Dogs Playing Poker.” You need Veep or Parks and Rec or The Office. You need Mozart’s Second Clarinet Concerto, or “Coney Island” by Van Morrison or “Summer of ‘69" by Bryan Adams. You need 30 minutes of silence and aloneness to put yourself back together. I don’t know what your therapies are, but you have to have a toolbox full of multiple gadgets that will repair the joy.

So Try. Attend. Share. Repair. Finally, Thank. The shortest path to joy by far is gratitude. The world is so beautiful and so wonderful, and it all comes from the grace of our Glad God, and we’ve been living in the middle of this cosmic tour de force since the first of all our days, so we begin to take it for granted, but it’s not to be taken for granted. Life is gift, and birth windfall, and just to be here at all is sheer, unmerited privilege.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background, from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.[5]


[1]The New Yorker, January 25, 2010, p. 58.

[2]Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, tr. Justin O’Brien, quoted in The Oxford Book of Death, ed. D. J. Enright, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 85.

[3]According to Gregory Boyle in Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, (New York: Free Press, 2010), p. 148.

[4]John Updike in The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here, eds. David Friend and Life Magazine (Boston: Little, Brown, 1991).

[5]Lee Young-Li, “From Blossoms,” in Good Poems, ed. Garrison Keillor (New York: Viking, 2002), p. 427.