There are so many ways to talk about “joy” as I’ve reflected on it for Advent this week. But since this is Advent-reflection, I should probably stick to Jesus.
I have been reading and re-reading the first half of Luke 2 this week since it contains the lines: 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
The question I want to ask is: what does Jesus have to do with my happiness (joy)?*
I ask this question because there are two contradicting answers in Christianity right now (similar to the stories of guilt that I wrote about before).
The first story is found in overly-used sayings like “No one can make you unhappy” and “happiness is a choice.” In this story, happiness is simply a choice of the will. We can be happy no matter what our circumstances, it’s a choice. But if that’s true, why do we need Jesus or Christmas? What was the point of the Incarnation?
In this story, Christmas is about Jesus coming to give us information about how to be happy. He came to tell us that “happiness is within” and that “it is up to us” to be happy. So there is nothing really special about Jesus, it’s the information we’re after.** In reality, this story sounds a lot more like certain types of Buddhism and American pop psychology than the story we find in the Bible. In fact, I would argue that Buddhism does a much better job at creating “content people” than this version of the Christian story.
The second story, and I would argue the truer story, is the one I read in Luke 2 (or most of the rest of the Bible). In Luke 2, the entrance of Jesus into the world is what causes great joy for all the people. The biggest difference between these two stories of Christmas is that this one is about redemption from without and not redemption from within. The story no longer takes place in my head but in history.
It took someone’s redeeming presence in the life of the people to bring joy. It was not a “you have everything you need, just work hard” pep talk from on high, it was not an inerrant book full of “how-to-live-your-life” dropped from heaven, it was the actual redeeming presence of God in the midst of the unredeemed. That is what brought joy to the people.
What I take from this is not an answer to how Jesus makes me happy. Perhaps the point is that it’s a bad question. But what I do take is that if the Incarnation means anything it means I better stop giving people information and expecting them to change. If I am going to make “bringing people joy” a priority, I need to start showing up. Literally. I need to physically be there for people who need me and asking them to show up for me.
In light of the Incarnation and all it represents, my “I’m praying for you email” is a cowardly imitation. It is my way of saying that I believe Jesus wasn’t necessary and God should have just thrown down a “I’m thinking about you” shout out from heaven. It’s the redemptive presence of God that gives meaning to Christmas, not the redemptive information of God.
*Now, in order not to be confusing, I have to confess that I reject the common statement that the Bible makes a distinction between “happiness” as a fleeting emotion and “joy” as a state of being. Why do I reject it? Because it’s made up. In our language the terms are synonymous (though most of our culture uses “happy” way more than “joyful” except at holiday time) and either can mean “a belief that our lives are in a good place overall” or “the emotion I am feeling right now.” So, sometimes when I say “I am happy” I mean “Yes, this thing that just happened caused my emotions to react positively” or I might mean “Yes, overall, I am pleased with where my life is right now.” My son telling me he loves me makes me happy and joyful. I also like where I am in life and therefore “am happy” and “full of joy.” We don’t need to make up stuff about the Bible to make that distinction, it’s obvious enough.
**One more ironic thing about this is that often those who espouse this idea of “happiness” are the same who say that you can only truly be happy if you’re a Christian. All those “happy” atheists out there are deceiving themselves. Deep down, they are in despair. But why couldn’t they have just gleaned the wisdom of Jesus and rejected everything else about the Christian story?