You’ve probably sung these famous words penned by Isaac Watts countless times:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King.
This beloved carol begins on a D note and seven words later, descends a full octave before the music begins to rise again. But what about when your spirit will not, cannot rise with it? Does the elusive emotion of joy seem so beyond reach you can’t imagine feeling it again anytime soon?
Perhaps you’re grieving the winking out of a loved one’s life or the loss of a longtime relationship. Or you’re forever doing for everyone else but seldom are done for. Maybe your smile assures the rest of us I’m fine, thanks for asking!, but the shadows in your eyes say otherwise.
Joy is a product of the Spirit, the Apostle Paul says. Sweet and succulent, like fruit. But joy, like fruit, doesn’t sprout from spent ground. When we feel stretched to our emotional and spiritual limits, we feel more like dry husks than sweet fruit.
Henri Nouwen once wrote, “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.” (Henri J. M. Nouwen, You Are the Beloved: Daily Meditations for Spiritual Living [New York: Convergent, 2017], 169.) It comforts me that a deep thinker like Nouwen can put matters so easily for people like me who are wading in the shallows. And I’m reminded of what Jesus said, that fruit emerges when we’re connected to the Vine. We can produce nothing fruitful, including joy, apart from him. It all makes sense.
But still I doubt.
I know how it feels to try to wrestle feelings of depression, anxiety, and discouragement to the ground, only to find them lunging at me from another direction. When I talk to those who are struggling, I’m long on empathy but short on answers. Joy is a central theme in Jesus’ teachings, but how do we grasp it when his Father and ours sometimes seems so far away?
So instead, I go to him with my concerns and try to make it a conversation. And that’s a consternation because most times, I talk too much and listen too little. But on this chilly mountain morning, I stand outside on the porch, hugging myself to keep warm, and once again, I’m wondering how those who are suffering can find joy.
It’s pondering more than prayer, accompanied by a Smokies soundtrack: the music of the stream rushing down the eastern slope of our land into the pond. Clear and swollen with mountain snow runoff, it tilts into our property from the neighbors’ pond above ours, fed by streams farther up Lickstone Mountain. I wish I could climb high enough to locate the source.
I’m thinking about something the brilliant missionary and author Amy Carmichael once said. Amy graduated to glory before I was born but left so much of herself behind—words steeped in the Word. So I pay attention when Amy speaks because her life was hard, really hard, full of dying children and social ostracism. When the courts weren’t hauling her in for challenging the system, her own colleagues were turning on her.
But despite it all—or maybe because of it?—Amy once said
“The joy of the Lord is an unquenchable thing. It does not depend upon circumstances, or upon place, or upon health… or upon our being able to do what we want to do. It is like our river. It has its source high up among the mountains, and the little happenings down in the river-bed below do not affect it.” (Amy Carmichael, Thou Givest…They Gather: Truths Gleaned from the Word of God (Fort Washington, PA: CLC Publications, 2013, chap.5.)
Below is where we live, friends—you and I. The happenings don’t seem so little, though, do they? They tumble us over sharp edges and sharper words, grinding us like sea glass, rushing us over slippery situations until we don’t know whether we can keep our heads above water, much less choose joy.
But this is what I’ve learned after all these years with God: The fruit of my life is not grown on the mountaintops but in the valleys. Those riverbeds full of rocks and unpredictable currents? The soil is the most fertile right alongside them, my farmer-father used to say. And that’s powerful, that truth. We may have no choice but to stand in the stream and go with the flow, but nothing can pollute joy when it finds its provenance in the heart of our loving, giving God.
I can’t see the origin of the stream that feeds our pond here at Peace Ridge. I expect I never will. We can buttress its banks, manage the flow, stave off erosion. But the source is high above us somewhere in these mountains, “in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”
And the promise I heard today in my conversation out on the porch?
“When I see you again, you’ll be full of joy, and it will be a joy no one can rob from you. You’ll no longer be so full of questions.
This is what I want you to do: Ask the Father for whatever is in keeping with the things I’ve revealed to you. Ask in my name, according to my will, and he’ll most certainly give it to you. Your joy will be a river overflowing its banks!” John 16:22-24 The Message.
This world is crazily beautiful and absurdly awful. It can rob you of your stuff and your people and sometimes your wits.
But the One whose birth we celebrate each December said it true: Joy is on its way, and nothing can stop it.
He comes to make His blessings flow
far as the curse is found…
And wonders of His love,
and wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders of His love!
Adapted from This Life We Share by Maggie Wallem Rowe. Copyright © 2020. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. www.MaggieRowe.com.