I felt a literal blast of joy the other night, clutching my seatbelt and praying in the spirit, while my 16-year-old drove us around the neighborhood for the first time. Somewhere between the cul-de-sac and my near panic attack, we were astounded by this 20 foot high, illuminated “JOY” sign in the yard of a neighbor clearly determined to let his Christmas fervor shine. Either that or he lost a bet. I loved that moment. Not only because I was able to regain my vital signs after Jack stopped the car, but it made me happy to see the word joy displayed so openly in a spiritually bleak New England, where most “joy” comes in a Starbucks cup.
While it’s wonderful hearing non-Christians sing and talk about joy at Christmas, I’m still always left with a sad feeling, remembering how Christmas felt before I knew the Lord, when joy was just a seasonal form of happiness on steroids that always faded. Joy is so different than happiness, because it’s not based on external circumstances, events, or seasons.
Christian joy is a good feeling in the soul, produced by the Holy Spirit, as he causes us to see the beauty of Christ in the word and in the world—and there’s nothing like it in the world. When we receive God’s spirit, we receive joy because “The fruit of the [Holy] Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23).
For some reason I’ve always felt like I’ve been handed an extra dose of perpetual joy. I’m not sure why, because I definitely don’t deserve it. I’ve felt 100 percent joy despite any circumstance. I felt joy when going through separations and then a divorce. I had it when facing the threat of layoffs after our company was acquired. I had it when fighting the last strain of an eating disorder when I was first saved, and I most definitely felt it when home lonely and bored all day with my toddlers, wondering if I’d make it through one more moment sanitizing plastic and moving sharp objects out of reach. Oh Lord rapture us now.
Clearly, the feeling of joy is much different than happiness. I wasn’t happy when things were so tough on one budget I had to sell my favorite dress on EBay. I sure wasn’t happy going job hunting to no avail, post-babies. Nope, the only way I can feel deep joy is through the Holy Spirit. Having His continual joy reminds me of what it felt like to first be pregnant, filled with hope and excitement, but it’s all internal, like a secret no one knows about. It’s a feeling of inner hope and happiness you carry around, that’s completely unaffected by the outside world. What a profound blessing.
I think as Christians, we forget about the role and gift of the Holy Spirit. The joy He brings is ours for the taking, but sometimes we have to pray for it, or acknowledge the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives in order to tap into the power He brings. Luke 11:13 (KJV) says, “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” He offers endless joy, but sometimes we have to invite Him in and ask.
People living without God in their life will never have joy. I know because I’ve been there, not finding God ‘til about 24. Until then we’ll try to find satisfaction, happiness, and inner peace through relationships, jobs, dreams, ambitions, vacations, environments, food, wine… you name it. Tried ‘em all. There was still always that restless feeling of angst lingering behind every happy experience or moment because our spirits need more. The search will never cease until we encounter his love and allow his Holy Spirit to fill every area of our hearts and minds. Nothing else—not a beach house, a perfect body, a strapping husband with a knack for foot massages, or a stellar 401-K, will do it.
My prayer at Christmas would be for anyone finding themselves saying, “I wish we felt like this all year long,” to realize we can—every day. And eventually, as we grow in faith, every moment. We’re talking the kind of joy we can still feel while in line at the DMV. That’s real. When we have God’s spirit, we see circumstances, people, problems, everything, differently.
So, when we’re on the scale wondering how in the green Earth we didn’t lose a pound yet, or we’re huddling under the covers wondering if watching Netflix alone is our eternal fate, our spirit can still feel joy because we know God is with us, wants the best for us, and is at work when we can’t see it. Not only that, we’ll live forever, in perfected heaven. And that’s something to celebrate, even when driving to certain death on a teenage driving lesson. Merry Christmas.