Reclaiming Joy at Christmas
This is the time of year when “joy” is emphasized. We sing “Joy to the World,” and people just expect everyone to display Christmas cheer in their interactions with others. But you know it isn’t as simple as that. Chronic pain doesn’t take a break for the holidays. Chronic illnesses don’t go on Christmas vacation. In fact, a lot of people experience increased inflammation due to holiday stress, not to mention greater financial strain due to the expectations of buying gifts and giving to other charitable causes.
How do we experience joy when we are in pain when so many around us seem to have that holiday stamina, and we are barely getting through our regular days let alone the holidays? What does joy look like for chronically ill Christians? Is there a path to recovering joy that does not require us to pretend we are fine when we are not?
Professor John Mark Hicks gave this answer when asked to explain joy in simple terms:
“The deep peace and contentment rooted in communion with God–a blessedness. Otherwise, you are just happy due to circumstances and unhappy in other circumstances. Happiness/Sadness shifts with circumstances (and appropriately so). Joy, however, is a constant that means happiness does not puff us up and sadness does not send us into despair.”
I love his answer because it reminds me that the joy the Bible points to is rooted in something outside the circumstances of life. It is a joy that doesn’t require me to pretend differently than I am feeling or ignore pain in my life or others. You can experience joy while standing over the grave of a loved one because you know death does not get the final say. Joy allows a Christian in constant pain to give thanks to God for a hope that surpasses one’s pain.
Joy cannot be taken captive by any dreadful circumstance in life because it is rooted in the historic faithfulness of the incarnate God, the abiding presence of God’s Spirit, and the promised return of God’s Son. Joy is connected to the announcement of good news, which we experience as good news all the more when we are suffering. So, the angels announced the birth of Christ with great joy to the shepherds in the field. Luke 2:8-11 ( all passages cited from the CSB):
8 In the same region, shepherds were staying out in the fields and keeping watch at night over their flock. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: 11 Today in the city of David a Savior was born for you, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
“I proclaim to you good news of great joy!” It is good news of great joy not because everything in your life is going well but rather because “a Savior was born for you.” It is receiving this proclamation as good news that produces joy that is a steadying force fed by praise and thanksgiving.
Though we receive the proclamation of a Savior as good news, the joy that is produced as a result is not achieved even with the best of human intentions. It is the work of the Holy Spirit, who indwells the individual Christian and the Church. Gal. 5:22-23:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control (emphasis added).
The fruit of the Spirit must be present for us to do what Paul emphatically commands the Philippians in Phil. 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” He’s not telling them to ignore their reality but to recall the good news of Jesus Christ to their hearts in any circumstance. After all, when Paul wrote that command, he wrote it from a jail cell!
So, look deeper this Christmas season, whatever is going on. In fact, the deeper the crisis or sadness, the more trivial matters of Christmas lose their allure and the more we remember our deepest need for good news, which will always be great joy!
Encouraging articles and podcast episodes in your inbox, once per week.