Joy is a gift.
It took me a while to reach that conclusion. It took a lot of reasoning and arguing in my head, weighing all the stuff I believed versus my experience, pushing back and forth and all over the place with what I wanted, what I assumed, and what actually was. It took the process of elimination, some extrapolation, and throwing light into unfinished corners of my theology.
Of course, the answer was sitting in Ecclesiastes all the time. The story is that God offered Solomon wealth, or peace, or wisdom, and Solomon chose wisdom. I’d have to say he must’ve been pretty wise in the first place: wealth isn’t much fun if you’re constantly at war, and it’s hard to enjoy peace when you’re destitute. With wisdom, you have some chance of surviving what life throws at you. (At any rate, God gave Solomon all three.)
In Ecclesiastes, Solomon wrote that wisdom, wealth, power, peace, and all other good things aren’t much good in themselves; we all die in the end. Enjoying life, though, isn’t something we can earn. It’s a gift. It comes from God. It comes or goes at His command.
So does everything. I understood that. I understood that God is sovereign, that He is omnipotent, that there is nothing he can’t give or take away from us. The concept that hadn’t quite got through my head is that joy is a gift. It’s not earned. It’s not a reward. It’s nothing to boast about.
Joy withheld is not a punishment.
That right there is a concept worth chewing on.
I have felt blind. Under ordinary circumstances, what I see can have a profound effect on my mood. Anything beautiful can lift me. For most of my life, I have breathed joy, welcoming it open-armed in sunsets and new leaves and stars. I have, on occasion, tried to refuse this gift. I have gotten busy and anxious and turned it down. That’s the trouble with gifts: they’re not forced on us. We can deny them. All of us do, more than we want to admit. And that’s our own fault.
I have felt blind, meditating on flowers and rivers and artists’ imaginations and feeling nothing. The sky is still blue, but somehow it’s lost its blueness. I tried to keep beauty around anyway, in the same way that someone who can’t taste still eats. When moments come now where that essence returns, I’m startled. Like a shaft of sunlight in a windowless cavern, it’s too bright and I’m blinking, and at the same time wishing it would stick around.
I didn’t do anything to earn the glimpses. There’s not some horrible sin of mine that stole the beauty, and not some atonement of mine that’s won it back. All my sins are paid. The atonement was not mine to make. Erase those factors and this remains: God may remove joy at any time and may return it at any time. There are lessons best learned when joy is gone.
For one thing, I am convinced beyond doubt that the reason I’m a Christian is not because it makes me happy or gives me good feelings. Take all my joy away and I know now that the everlasting arms will still be there, keeping me. The cleft of the rock is cold and comfortless, but it’s safe. It’s secure. It’s not going anywhere. Part of me pleads for joy to return, part of me laughs in defiance at the storm, shouting, “Bring it on!”
Joy is a gift. It’s a blessing and a delight. If it’s offered, it’s stupid to turn it down. Welcome it, revel in it, and give thanks. If it’s not offered, it’s useless to try to get it for ourselves, and there’s a purpose for its absence. If God has chosen not to tell us that purpose, then we can’t consider ourselves punished. Something else is at stake.
“The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” – Job 1:21b (ESV)