The Problem of Joy

I’m a processor.

... Photo Credit: Garrette


Photo Credit: Garrette

…no, not a computer. I mean a mental processor. Meaning that when people tell me “why don’t you think about it for a while?” or “why don’t you pray about it and get back to me?” I scoff at them.

“Ha!” I say, “I’ve already thought about this topic even before it was on your radar!…but yes, I will take several more days to dwell, to stress and to think about every minute detail once more.”

I can on occasion be fun to be around. I can help people think out loud about their big problems. I’ve had people call me logical and reasonable because I can think out long solutions to complex problems. But this only happens occasionally.

Most of the time, I over process. I like to dwell on things that don’t always seem to matter (right away) or things that don’t always seem to be on the average person’s radar. How did someone think to take a chicken, kill it, de-feather and skin it, dip its meat in milk, eggs, and flour, drop it in hot oil (extracted from peanuts), let it crisp up, and then eat it?

Seriously, bro?

Like, how is that even a thing, really?

So, not only do people think I’m logical and reasonable but they simultaneously say that I think too much and should just let go and have fun.

I do have fun! Our definitions are just a bit different... Photo Credit: bark

I do have fun! This is fun for me!
Photo Credit: bark

This over-thinking, however, occasionally leads to wonderful, eloquent spiels speaking on something like the rising tides of secularism and how we could be sacrificing robust orthodoxy in our churches for superficial fluff or something else super risque and avant-garde… but today it’s leading to this:

The Problem of Joy

Apologists, atheists and skeptics all like to talk about the problem of pain or as Dr. Ravi Zacharias calls it, the mystery of pain. It’s the age old question of “if God exists, why is there evil and suffering in the world?” Now, apologists, atheists and skeptics all have come up with several answers throughout the centuries and while I would encourage you to listen to and read some of those arguments (even the one I just linked to), I’m not going to talk about it right now. For now, I want to talk about the problem of joy.

“Problem of joy?!” you say, ever so defiantly, “how could there be such a thing as joy that’s problematic?!”

I tell you to be quiet because this is my blog and I get to write about what I want. So…nah.

I mean to write about not necessarily the existence of joy and good fortune in our lives but how we process it.

One of the things that makes us unique as Christians is that while we experience almost the same events in life as those around us, how we process those events should vary vastly from our non-believing neighbors. How we experience different losses, griefs, anxieties, fears, victories and joys might be similar to the unbeliever at first, but should differ in the end result.

But what’s the proper way to process joy and how might processing joy poorly lead to future problems?

Poor Processing

The other day I was scrolling through my news feed on Facebook and saw this:

1533871_464919136948034_933314992_nI understand why this person posted this picture. The message behind it is that when everyday annoyances happen (such as a blister, accident, or waking up late) we shouldn’t be overly frustrated by them, but rather should view them in light of a bigger picture.

Unfortunately, the message is very deterministic in nature and advocates for a theology that says that God is the orchestrator of all events and limits the free agency of man. It’s also a very privileged post. It seems to imply that we are special because God has protected us from death, but God did not do that for the other hundreds of other people.

While this post might seem comforting on the surface, when analyzed further, it implies an awful lot about who we are and who God is that leads to a very broken and poor theology. When we process the events in this text in this way, we end up dishonoring the character of God (God chooses favorites, God is the author of evil, God has really superficial purposes and motives) and elevating our own status far above those around us. We don’t view ourselves as just another person susceptible to a common mortality, but rather as special and uniquely distinguished from others. We couldn’t possibly die soon (and in such a ghastly or unimportant way). God needs us and will keep us around for a long time. As we continue to believe this, we move further and further away from our identities as Christians and worship vanity and glory as our new gods.

Can you see how processing something poorly could lead to problems?

Some of you say, “But Taylor, surely you can’t expect everyone to jump to those conclusions like you did. Surely this is just a harmless Facebook meme that has won’t be taken that far. Maybe you’re just overthinking it?”

The problem with that is that little stuff like this matters. Dr. Rebecca DeYoung in her book Glittering Vices compares moral development to a sledding.

“By way of an analogy, think of a winter sledding party, in which a group of people head out to smooth a path through freshly fallen snow. The first sled goes down slowly, carving out a rut. Other sleds follow, over and over, down the same path, smoothing and packing down the snow. After many trips, a well-worn groove develops, a path out of which it is hard to steer. The groove enables sleds to stay aligned and on course, gliding rapidly, smoothly, and easily on their way. Character traits are like that: the first run down, which required some effort and tough going, gradually becomes a smooth track that one glides down without further intentional steering…In general, habits incline us swiftly, smoothly, and reliably toward certain types of action.”

As we make the first groove by processing a certain way, we continue to make the same mistake moving further and further away from our destination. For now, our thoughts about certain events have little impact. Over time, however, we shift further and further away from God.

This brings me to the topic of joy. When good things happen in our lives, how do we process them? How does our theology influence us and bear weight on the recent joys we experience? How do we process good things in a God-honoring way?

Put a Little Gratitude in Your Attitude

In the past several weeks, I’ve receive a lot of good news. Not only did I get accepted into the seminaries that I wanted to but I was also offered the maximum amount of scholarships to both – with one being a full ride scholarship. I remember getting the phone call telling me that I was one of seven selected out of the entire incoming class to receive a full ride scholarship to this seminary. I remember feeling the waves of joy rush over me as I told my family, friends and church community. And I remember feeling accomplished, confident and valued.

And that last part worried me.

In DeYoung’s book on the vices, she talks about the vice of vainglory where we tie our worth to the opinions of others and how they feel about our accomplishments. I find the description she gave to be very accurate to how I live my life and how I bind my worth to my accomplishments and the opinions of those around me.

If I’m honest with myself, when I do well, I attribute my success to my own abilities and my own skills. I viewed this scholarship as something to be fought for and won. I wanted to know who was more worthy of receiving the scholarship and who wasn’t. If I were going to win the scholarship, someone else had to lose, right? If good things happen to me, something bad (or at least, not as good) has to happen to someone else right?

How do I justify another person not getting something good? That God didn’t want them to have it? That they weren’t equally (if not more) qualified? Do I then conclude that somehow it was a hoax and that I didn’t deserve it? No. That would be the same bad processing.

Securing Your Identity

First, when processing joy, we must secure our identities. All are made in the imago dei, the image of God. We have inherent worth regardless of whether where we went to school, how much money we have, how intelligent, kind, loving, holy, or wealthy we are. We have value just because God loves us.

Second, we have nothing apart from God. God is the creator and sustainer of all things. God alone has ultimate power and authority, and God alone gives gifts. The gifts we have including our personalities, skills, wealth, connections, and successes are God’s alone. We must be gracious for all that God has given us because we are only stewards of his resources.

Lastly, we can celebrate our good fortune! It’s not wrong to be happy. We don’t have to assuage our happiness with thoughts of starving children or the orphans. We recognize the gift God has given us, show gratitude and thanksgiving for it, and move forward.

We tie our identity to God and push forward knowing the greatest joy is yet to come.

Banner Photo Credit: __MaRiNa__

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