I remember those summer evenings riding around my hometown of Muskogee, Oklahoma, in my older brother’s very old car. A ’39 Oldsmobile, complete with running boards, was an inheritance from our grandmother Marshall. Thankfully our parents did not know how many times I rode on the outside of the car, precariously perched on those running boards. We careened around neighborhoods and various haunts visiting friends and seeing who else was out on the town. It was a joy ride, indeed.
This past week the Center for Faith and Culture at Yale University convened about 150 persons from all over the world to talk about joy as an expression of faith and work. Willie James Jennings, Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale Divinity School, stressed that joy is a work, not a sentiment. It is a work of resistance against fear and death. He said he learned this from his ancestors who were sharecropping “people of the earth.” His family decided to “work hard at joy” as a way of renouncing despair, expressing their faith by “dancing just above the line of surviving.”
Other scholars shared their reflection on joy as virtue, as fruit of the spirit, as journey rather than destiny, as something one receives rather than achieves. Joy is not isolated from suffering, and it is far from giddy. Joy has proximity to sorrow, and grace allows the two to co-exist. Hebrews describes the life of Jesus as having the telosof joy: “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame . . .” (12:2b). Joy was the fruit of faithfulness, not the focus of his pursuit.
Gratitude—even in the exigencies of life–becomes the fuel for joy. When we stop focusing on our own performance and relinquish control, joy may surprise us. Gratitude, like other virtues, is a habit acquired across time through intentional practices. Set in a transcendent narrative, giving thanks is a constructive way to find coordinates to navigate life toward the joy God grants each of us.
The work of joy is communal, as Jesus taught us. What he had learned from his Abba, he shared. His own life became the demonstration plot for how they were to live. His chief desire was for his joy to be in them “and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). This would only happen through the thick ties of relationship.
Joy is available in the good gifts of God’s creation and, as Mary Oliver writes, “joy is not made to be a crumb.” Rather it is a lavish gift that draws us toward our true home in God. Joy makes us more human and more holy, a “response to what should be, offering an alternative vision,” in the words of Pam Ebstyne King of Fuller Seminary. Not surprising, joy and justice are closely related.
A joyful life opens up the human imagination to what God desires for the world. No wonder it is a wellspring for human flourishing. Joy occurs as we seek to follow the pathway of Jesus, one who embraced the ultimate joy ride.
Molly T. Marshall
Central prepares leaders who seek God, shape churches, and serve humanity.