I am happy these days, because of a command. One is not supposed to be happy about commands. Commands are a superseding of the will. America was founded on the impulse against that. Why then does the Psalmist exclaim, "I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love" (Psalm 119:48)? Imagine loving a commandment.
"Be joyful in hope" (Romans 12:12). The saying comes to resemble, in 21st-century fatigue, the equivalent of that other empty hortatory leave-taking, "Have a nice day." Yeah, right. Sure, sure.
In one sense the last three years of my life have been a search for joy. I don't think this is purely hedonism (although, praise God, John Piper has taken out the stigma with his insistence on "Christian hedonism"): What but my joy can make Jesus delectable and desirable to my neighbor?
Is it not our hard-won birthright? "You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions" (Hebrews 1:9).
I love that. Read around the verse and you will see the man Jesus-strong and sinewy, praying with loud cries and tears-who has made us a band of brothers and is not ashamed of it. He locks arms to praise his Father "in the midst of the congregation." He casts his lot with us forever and will not relinquish his human clothing for all eternity. The Divinity is now and henceforth human-divinity, or divine-humanity. One should be stoned for such a thing if it were not there in Hebrews.
But I stray. The joy. Who has known joy except for those rare "stabs" in childhood, the siren of a distant country that came over you at play, but only for a split second, and not so anyone would notice? Or less yet in adulthood, of that quickening while you're minding your own business: "almost like a heartbreak," "an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction" (C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy).
One grows up, accrues duties like barnacles, and becomes suspicious of the rumor of joy. "Be worthy of your beard," they used to say in the late Middle Ages, that darkness before the dawn.
And yet joy is all over Scripture. A concordance will give you an idea of the importance of joy to God. (Should I not be obsessed by what obsesses God?) Of the fruit of the Spirit it comes second, after only "love," of which stuff God Himself is made.
But the Lord knows this about His child: I need to be commanded to rejoice or I won't. There are personal reasons for that: 1) Superstition-don't let yourself be happy or something bad will happen; jump before you're pushed; 2) You don't deserve to be joyful-it is presumptuous and unseemly. Your proper posture is to be abject in your utter sinfulness.
I lived so long in a pit that I thought it was my God-assigned home and I should be content. I was hanging draperies and inviting people in-mostly women. Some of them lived in the same kind of house, and we discussed our living quarters together over tea, and how many years we had lived there. We said how grateful we were that God loved us, anyway-in spite of the fact that we were living totally defeated lives.
But what can I do if you command joy, Lord? If you give me permission, if you tell me I must-as if insisting I take this festive package with the bow on top-and that if I refuse, I am not being humble but disobedient and ungrateful? In that case, I say: "Aye-aye, Lord, I rejoice!" And, "not my feet only but also my hands and my head" (John 13:9).
Joy is no stranger anymore but comes to stay. It has as its content the "yes and amen" promises. It rooms with sorrow but I understand that's the deal, for now. And comes anon the "breakthrough" joy, the promissory of a distant land where joy is unalloyed with pain. The servant is not better than his master, after all-who offered supplications "with loud cries and tears," and thus received the "oil of gladness," rolling off His beard and unto us. c
-Andrée Seu is the author of Normal Kingdom Business and Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, essay collections available at worldmag.com