By Anthony Casperson
Usually, around this time of the year, the word “joy” begins to populate the visual and auditory senses. We see great big red signs reading JOY. Various Christmas-themed movies, TV shows, and commercials filled with smiling people talk of joy. The song “Joy to the World” plays on repeat.
And it makes some sense that we’d talk about the topic considering that Luke writes, in the second chapter of the gospel bearing his name, about an angel from among the heavenly army reporting to the shepherds that it brought good news of great joy. It is part of the season.
But this year, I haven’t been inundated with the “happy police” as much as I’ve expected. (Maybe not being able to go out to many places this year does have some advantage.) I can’t help but wonder if part of this lessening of emphasis on joy has to do with the fact that many who believe God exists don’t know what he’s doing. They ask how they can be happy when God seems so distant and unmoving.
When people equate joy with happiness, I always have to start with the statement that happiness is not joy. You can be joyful and happy, but they are not perfectly aligned in their definitions. Joy, at least biblically, is finding the work of God regardless of our present circumstances. We can have moments of sadness, depression, sorrow, and even doubt while still discovering joy. As long as we find it in the work of God.
But this brings us to the second part of my theory about people’s thoughts on joy this year. With all of the pain and heartache and death brought about because of nearly a year of pandemic life, what does God think he’s doing? If joy is finding the work of God, and we don’t understand what he’s doing, can there be joy?
When we pray for an answer, for relief, for God to move, and it seems to fall on deaf ears, can we really have joy?
A prophet from the Southern Kingdom of Judah in the Old Testament had similar questions. Habakkuk saw many things wrong with his world. At the end of the third verse in the first chapter of his book, he writes about destruction, violence, and strife rising up all around him. He even, in the next verse, speaks of justice having been perverted and the law being paralyzed.
These words come just after the prophet literally accuses God of being idle while the world falls apart. And though some circumstances are different between our difficulties and his, the question of “What are you even doing, God?” finds common ground between us.
However, God does give an answer for the prophet. In verse 5, God tells the prophet that he is actually doing something. A work in the days of Habakkuk that the prophet wouldn’t believe if God gave him every little detail. And what was it? God is bringing a foreign nation to conquer the people of Judah just as he had done with the Northern Kingdom of Israel about a century previous.
Yeah, I wouldn’t want to believe that work either. And Habakkuk continues to complain in prayer about God’s work throughout the short book.
As the prophet draws to the end of the third and final chapter in the book, he’s come to witness God’s righteous action in bringing about more pain and suffering through another nation. And though he’d prefer for it not to happen, he still bows to the wisdom of God in knowing better than the prophet does.
Habakkuk 3:17 reads, “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 in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.”
The prophet might not like what God is doing, or really understand how God can still be faithful while working as he described, but that won’t keep him from seeing that God is working. Though the world falls apart and nothing seems to be for good, still there is reason to shout praise to God. Still a reason to circle around our God and Savior.
God is still at work even when we don’t understand what it is, or find it to be to our liking. And the fact that God is indeed at work should fill us with joy because that means that, though by all human accounts there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the troubles, there is a purpose. A means for us to grow in him.
Finding the work of God doesn’t mean knowing every detail, but rather trusting that whatever he’s busy doing will work for his glory and our growth. And with the good, glorious, and mighty God at work, we can experience joy no matter the circumstances.