Reflections on the Advent Candle: Joy
Plato believed that the ultimate goal of human thought should be “happiness.” Aristotle believed similarly, claiming that happiness is “…the complete and sufficient good for a human being.” But “happiness,” as the “ultimate goal of human thought,” is not found in the Bible. Indeed, the one time the word “happy” is used in the NASB95 translation, the Greek word used is μακάριος which is usually translated as “blessedness” or “fortunate.” In the Old Testament, the word “happy” is used only fourteen times, and the Hebrew word being translated is אֶשֶׁר – ‘esher – meaning again, “happy” or “blessed.”
On the other hand, the word “joy” is used one hundred eighty-two times! The words used most often in the Old Testament are שִׂמְחָה – simcah, or תְרוּעָה – teruw’ah — and in the New Testament it is translated from χαρὰ – chara – and is understood as “gladness,” “cheerfulness,” or “delight.” Happiness (eudaimonia), for the earlier Greek philosophers, was about welfare, flourishing, or prosperity. It was not a feeling, but rather contentedness over a state of being. For Israel, and later for Christianity, the word chosen to express an ecstatic, inner-rapture in which the soul finds completion in God is “joy.”
Biblical Grounds for Joy
There are two New Testament passages in Paul’s writings that underscore this sentiment: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23). And, “But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all” (Philippians 2:17).
In the Old Testament, I will give one example from Psalm 27:6: “And now my head will be lifted up above my enemies around me, and I will offer in His tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing, yes, I will sing praises to the LORD.”
I draw three important aspects of how the Bible understands “joy” based on these passages. First, joy is not something we accrue, it is something manifest within us by God. Second, it is an aspect of our being-in-Christ that does not dull or escape us in times of trial. Third, it is most prominent when we yield ourselves to God in worship, discipleship, and service. Ultimately, joy within us is a sign of God’s presence in spite of the temporary situation that confronts us. Satan can’t steal our joy.
Joy Is God with Us
On this third week of Advent, we reflect on joy. The Christ-Child in the manger is a reason for unreserved joy. God has done the unthinkable, impossible, and unreasonable by becoming flesh for our sake. Indeed, this act is made manifest—made real—to us through our faith-grounded imaginations. God is for us; God is with us. Having joy and expressing joy (rejoicing) is one of the greatest testimonies you will ever have as a follower of Christ. It’s you letting God be God in you!
My prayer for each of you is that you don’t simply settle for being “happy,” “prosperous,” or even “good.” My prayer is that you will draw close to God and experience the joy of His love.