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A dear friend of mine who loves Christmas music had it playing in the background a few days ago while he was packing up his house for a move. Over the past few weeks, he’s been driving one hundred miles between his new job and his old one, finishing applications for his kids to enroll at a new school next month, and searching for a new home while showing his current one. My friend has even taken two spills down the stairs while carrying boxes. This has been one of the most stressful seasons ever for him and his wife.

As his stress levels climbed, the Christmas station began an old favorite—“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” Normally, this song would bring cheer, but not this year. The pressures had overwhelmed any delight. Unable to take it, he rose from packing a box, descended the stairs, and shut down the song before it could pummel him with “happ . . . happiest season of all.”

Sometimes Christmas is, and sometimes it isn’t, the happiest season of all. In my years of pastoral ministry, each year several families have anticipated the pain of going through their first Christmas without a loved one who had died in the previous year.

And yet, the story of Christ’s advent, retold every Christmas season, proclaims the “good news of great joy” that the shepherds first heard from the angels. It recounts the wise men, who “rejoiced with great joy” upon seeing the star. We also hear how Mary’s soul rejoiced in God her Savior when she learned she would bear the Christ.

This raises a question for so many: How can we authentically connect with such “joy” when our hearts are aching or our lives are strained to the breaking point?

The Wearying Pursuit of Happiness

If we were aspiring to connect with “happiness,” we would have little chance. The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) defined happiness as “the experience of pleasure and absence of pain.” Since pleasure and pain are responses to conditions, the pursuit of happiness requires controlling our conditions for the increase of pleasure and the reduction of pain.

But here we run into an impasse. There is only so much we can control—eventually, we are confronted with the reality that we are not sovereign. The attempt to control life in the pursuit of happiness has left many “heavy laden” (Matt. 11:28).

The Scriptures have little to say about happiness, but they have much to say about joy. In fact, a search of “happy” and “happiness” in the ESV translation of the Bible finds only ten occurrences (none of them in the New Testament). By contrast, you will find “joy” or its cognates more than four hundred times in the Bible, equally prevalent in the Old and New Testaments. Without question, “joy is a major motif in the Bible.”1

The Riches and Confidence of Biblical Joy

The Hebrew language has a treasure trove of words for joy:

  • Sus: joy, delight, gladness. “I rejoice [sus] at your word like one who finds great spoil” (Ps. 119:162).
  • Simchah: festive joy, mirth, pleasure. “You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy [simchah]; they rejoice [samach] before you as with joy [simchah] at the harvest” (Isa. 9:3; cf. Ps. 4:7).
  • Alaz: to rejoice, to triumph, to exult (“jump for joy”). “The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped; my heart exults [alaz], and with my song I give thanks to him” (Ps. 28:7).
  • Giyl: joy, gladness, exultation. “The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy [giyl]” (Ps. 65:12).
  • Rinnah: joyful song, triumphant shout. “Shout to God with loud songs of joy [rinnah]” (Ps. 47:1).
  • Chedvaw: a rare word that refers to the Lord’s own joy. “Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and joy [chedvaw] are in his place” (1 Chron. 16:27; cf. Neh. 8:10).

In one of the most comforting passages in the Old Testament, the Lord’s joy over His people is described using four of these words in a single verse: “The Lord your God is in your midst. . . . he will rejoice [sus] over you with gladness [simchah]; . . . he will exult [giyl] over you with loud singing [rinnah]” (Zeph. 3:17).

What occasions joy in the Old Testament? We find the people responding with joy to God’s works of grace and signs of His favor toward them. They rejoice when a harvest is gathered in (Deut. 16:13; Isa. 9:3), when Solomon is crowned king (1 Kings 1:39–40), when the Lord indwells His temple (2 Chron. 7:1–10), when the Lord destroys their enemies (2 Chron. 20:24–28), and when the Lord brings them back to Jerusalem after exile (Ezra 6:19–22; Neh. 12:43). They also rejoice in anticipation of the new creation and the new Jerusalem (Ps. 96:11; Isa. 65:18–19). All of these occasions of joy share a common feature: this joy does not celebrate what it has achieved, but what it has received from the Lord as a gift. As one author puts it, “Joy feeds on what it receives.”2

The joy of Christmas is no ordinary joy, but the “mega joy” of redemptive history.

When we come to the New Testament, the Greek provides one central word for joy: chara. It is a cousin to charis, the New Testament word for “grace.” The connection becomes clear: biblical joy responds to the arrival of God’s gracious gifts. In some cases, biblical joy arises before the gift arrives as the believer trusts with certainty that God will come. This explains a passage like Habakkuk 3:17–18:

Though the fig tree should not blossom,

nor fruit be on the vines,

the produce of the olive fail

and the fields yield no food,

the flock be cut off from the fold

and there be no herd in the stalls,

yet I will rejoice [alaz] in the Lord;

I will take joy [giyl] in the God of my salvation.

Habakkuk was the prophet who announced that “the righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:17). And at the end of his prophecies, we see Habakkuk doing just that. When all his eyes survey is loss and deprivation, he nonetheless sees by faith the firm promise of God. Yes, the Lord will come. Habakkuk is so sure of it that, amid heartbreaking circumstances, he rejoices in defiant expectation.

In an act of immeasurable grace, as a gift to His people, a culmination of all the Old Testament promises, God sends forth His Son. He comes to be the firstfruits of a long-awaited harvest (1 Cor. 15:20), He comes to be the everlasting King (Matt. 2:2), He comes to deliver us from our greatest enemies (1 Cor. 15:25–26), He comes to bring us out of exile to an everlasting home (Eph. 2:13), He comes as the presence of God dwelling in our midst (John 1:14) and imparting God’s very own joy to us (15:11; 16:24). Of all the gifts God has ever given, Christ is the greatest. And so, of all the joy we could ever experience in response to God’s gift, this joy is the greatest.

The “Mega Joy” of Christmas

Only three times in the entire Old Testament do we read of “great joy”: at the coronation of Solomon (1 Kings 1:40), at the recovery of the Passover under Hezekiah (2 Chron. 30:26), and at the dedication of the rebuilt wall after the exile (Neh. 12:43). In other words, while joy is prominent in the Old Testament, “great joy” is extremely rare and special.

That is why our eyes should jump as we open our New Testament to wise men from the east rejoicing “with great joy” at a star and angels announcing “good news of great joy” to shepherds (Luke 2:10; Matt. 2:10). A literal rendering of the Greek in each case would be “mega joy” (charan megalen). Those two words stand out even more when we recognize that they will not be paired again until resurrection morning, when we read not of shepherds or wise men, but of the women who “departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples” (Matt. 28:8; cf. Luke 24:52).

The joy of Christmas is no ordinary joy, but the “mega joy” of redemptive history. It discerns, by faith, the unsurpassable gift of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, and it trusts, often in defiance of painful circumstances, that nothing can prevent every last promise in Christ from coming to complete fulfillment.

Popular Christmas songs may add cheer in some seasons and antagonize our hearts in others. But there is another song that plays in the background of the believer’s life, supplying the real soundtrack of history: the great song of God’s triumphant redemption and promised restoration through the King of kings and Lord of lords.

It’s a song not about a happiness we pursue, but about a joy that pursues us. May the Spirit give you ears to hear it, give you faith to believe it, and make your heart full of joy, even as you rest not in your circumstances, but in your Christ.

This post was originally published on December 23, 2017.

 

  1. “Joy”, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, eds. Leland Ryken, James. C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 464–65. ↩︎
  2. David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (2004), 83. ↩︎

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