All my life I’ve grown up under the evangelical auspice that joy is one of two things: 1) Jesus-Others-You, or 2) A sensation deeper and more lasting than happiness. Joy is a serious Christian business. Apparently it takes a lot of spiritual concentration. You have to really think about Jesus and be quiet. You should probably be still, too — like 18th century still. Then, maybe then, you’ll have a fleeting moment of true spiritual joy. But only as long as you can keep your priorities straight so it’s always Jesus first, then others, then finally you can do something nice for yourself. Like laugh at how dumb the devil is.
So, basically, joy isn’t really a thing in my life. I’m guessing if you’re a Bible-toting evangelical, too, that it isn’t really a thing in your life, either. We’re supposed to be serious about our faith, right?
But maybe we’ve missed the boat on this joy thing.
Let’s go back to the definition of the word. In English, ‘joy’ is defined as: "the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying; keen pleasure; elation” (1).
When was the last time you felt “the emotion of great delight”?
Seriously, I’m asking. Beyond something religious. It was probably something small, like a baby laughing or your favorite song or eating that meal you just love.
Go back to that moment. Lock in it your brain. We’ll come back to that in a minute.
The Aesthetics of Joy
One of my favorite podcasts is the TED Radio Hour with Guy Raz. Recently he featured Ingrid Fetell Lee, who wrote the book “The Aesthetics of Joy.” You can also watch her TED talk here (highly recommended).
In her talk, she highlights her definitions of ‘joy’ and ‘happiness.’ ‘Happiness’ she views more like a long-lasting state of contentment about how your life is going. ‘Joy,’ on the other hand, is that momentary feeling of delight.
The summary is this: After researching the idea of joy across the world and across a decade, Ms. Lee discovered certain similarities when people answered the question, “When was the last time you felt joy? What was it that made you feel that?”
Themes she discovered were around things like abundance, a pop of bright color, things that convey a sense of lightness (i.e., floating, bubbles, balloons), curved lines instead of sharp corners.
Does that resonate with what came to your mind?
This Ms. Lee called the aesthetics of joy, to discuss these very clear visual cues that can lead us to that “emotion of great delight.” Once she identified these themes, she began to see it in the world all around her. She welcomed it into her life. She looked for others who were intentionally employing these aesthetics into designing joyful experiences and environments for others.
The Mission of Mary Poppins
Shortly on the heels of this, my family went to see “Mary Poppins Returns.”
Here’s the premise: Michael and Jane are all grown up. Michael has three kids of his own and is still living in the Banks’ family residence. Cherry Lane hasn’t changed, but Michael is a somewhat recent widower with lingering grief. Add to that, the First Fiduciary Bank has come to repossess the house unless Michael can repay the loan he pulled a little while ago.
Into this context, Mary Poppins returns. The next 60+ minutes are filled with the expected display of color, songs, and general non-sensical magic that made us all love Mary Poppins to begin with.
As the story is ending, Michael and his kids, along with Jane and their housekeeper, decide to go to the fair at the park nearby. The balloon lady (Angela Lansbury reprising her presence in Disney since Mrs. Pots) offers Michael a balloon. When he takes it, he floats into the air singing. The rest of the cast of characters grabs a balloon, and we see a host of Londoners floating in the air. Bright reds, yellows, and greens fill the blue sky.
Michael and family float lightly back to Cherry Lane right in front of the Banks’ house. The gusting wind blows open their front door. Michael utters his fated comment: “I never thought that door would open again!”
Mary catches the wind, and off she goes into the horizon. Her job was done: The door to Michael’s joy was once again open.
Did you see all the aesthetics of joy that filled the scene at the park?
After this, the mission of Mary Poppins exploded in my mind. I was like, “Whoa.”
Erin was like, “Duh. That’s why she’s so amazing.”
Jesus and Joy
Ok, truth be told, Jesus does have some pretty important things to say about joy. But it’s NOT about our priorities in life. It’s about where our hearts live.
"As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:9-11)
Could Jesus and Mary Poppins have similar missions?
Jesus invites his followers into the loving fellowship of the Father. The divine love that Jesus enjoys from his heavenly Father he offers freely and abundantly to his people. The delight the Father has in the Son is made accessible to us through the offering of the Son. Let that sit on you a bit. Or, as The Message translates it, “make yourselves at home in my love.”
The result of residing here is joy. And not just a little joy eked out when you’re repose and contemplative. The word used to modify ‘joy’ here speaks of fullness. NIV translates it as “complete,” but it can also be translated as "fulfilled," or "filled full." The Greek dictionary defines the word for joy (xara) as "the experience of gladness," and points out that "The Johannine literature places emphasis on joy as brought to the highest degree"(BDAG).
The joy Jesus offers speaks to deeper places in our souls. But what if the experience is akin to what you felt the last time you experienced “the emotion of great delight”?
What if the joy Jesus offers starts with being able to fully receive the Father’s delight in you in that given moment but then leads us to an “emotion of great delight”?
What if that delight leads us to see the ways our Father has architected his world to show us his joy all around?
If we embrace this, we open a door.
What follows is wonder.
As we take that serious step of faith to believe that our heavenly Father really and truly delights in who each one of us is deep down inside, we open ourselves up to his joy. And it’s not a small joy; it is a joy that has the potential to fill us full.
What would it look like in your life to open that door?
Of course, we can’t live there always — life hits hard, and sometimes the bank calls on us to repay our loan and threatens to repossess our house. Sometimes people fail us or leave us. And we don’t need to be goofy optimists who ignore everything but the silver lining.
But maybe, just maybe, the joy Jesus offers as he shares with us the delight of the Father has the power to move in and bring a sense of lightness amidst it all, knowing that our Father sees us and is taking care of us still.