The Subversive Power of Joy | Nations


12th June 2024

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The Subversive Power of Joy

“Joy doesn’t obliterate grief. . . . Instead, joy has a mysterious capacity to be felt alongside sorrow and even—sometimes most especially—in the midst of suffering.”
 -Angella Williams Gorrell, The Gravity of Joy

Haunted by Joy

True joy leaves a lasting impression. True joy is a rebuke. True joy is a profound invitation. True joy begs a host of questions.

May 14th, 2011 saw 15,000 people fill the Tacoma Dome stadium in Washington state for an event called “Be the Spark”, featuring the retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The evening was filled with music and dance, culminating in his impassioned speech. It was all aimed at catalyzing a movement of young people to awaken to their power to commit to building communities of compassion and hope in a complex world rife with begging needs.

The details of Tutu’s speech that evening have long been lost to my memory, available now for reference only in the archives of local papers or the pages of some forgotten journal. Yet, even now, I can vividly recall the power of his joyous presence. The way his speech was interrupted by cackles of his own laughter. How his exhortations kept having to content with a mischievous mirth constantly threatening to bubble over from within, as if a deeper part of him wanted to throw aside his prepared remarks and regale us with a joke, or stories, or the presence within that was the source of such joy. As he spoke, the atmosphere became charged with a particular energy; a contagious optimism that posed a dire threat to the forces of cynicism and despair that stood waiting outside the arena in all of the shadows and dark crevices of the world. Even now, after his death, his insatiable joy haunts me like a friendly ghost, whispering a quiet, yet persistent truth: joy can be our grounding. Joy can be chosen.

Joy’s Provocation

Joy seems so elusive. Ephemeral. Capricious perhaps. We cannot deny its reality, because we have each been gripped or touched by it. Yet, it feels foolish to rely upon it. Naive even. In a world marked by enormous suffering, battered by all the ills and evils that man can conceive and nature can conjure, it is tempting to believe that it is much safer and wiser to ground reality in pain and the inevitability of disappointment and death. And yet…

True joy leaves an indelible mark. If we bring it into focus and inquire of it deeply we soon discover that it is more than a moment of fleeting happiness, a rush of adrenaline, or the high of a dopamine hit. It is not wild ecstasy, though it may be infused with it at times. It is both more powerful and more subtle than these things. Deep joy is an encounter with something much more profound, primordial, and awakening. Awakening, because an encounter with joy is much more like coming into contact with a cistern of meaning, a source of enduring life, like encountering a crystal mountain spring bubbling up from a fissure in the granite, emanating from cavernous depths below and alerting us to the wild reality that the ground we walk is not just stone and earth, iron and ore. There are rivers and lakes unknown and unmapped that course beneath the crust of the earth, sustaining life in countless unseen ways. This is much closer to the true nature of joy.

What if we could sink a well and tap into the deep reservoir of joy? Who might we become and what might we be capable of in the world if we became people of joy? Each of us has encountered such a person. A member in the tribe of joy. 

For those whose taproot has found this living water, they carry a presence to them that radiates at all times in ways large and small. We’ve all met some version of this person. It’s the old man with a twinkle in his eye, and a laugh always about to bubble over. It’s the bright young woman who shimmers with a subversive kindness that is far deeper than innocence, who demonstrates an utter disregard for the petty social tyrannies of adolescence. If you’ve traveled to economically poor parts of the world, you’ve encountered people of joy amidst vavella’s, townships, and ghettos of appalling squalor. If you’ve worked in humanitarian crisis settings or war-zones you’ve doubtless borne witness to people of joy who remain undaunted in the face of devastating loss and the evidence everywhere of the evil and malevolence lurking in the heart of man. 

These people seem to have a spacious interiority and freedom. A simplicity of being that speaks of wisdom. A capacity to subsume the pain of the world and transform it. Encounters with these people encourage us at the very least, and often have the power to mark and confound us, inviting deeper questions. How could joy be what bubbles to the surface in these people in the face of the profound suffering seemingly all around us? What life-force, or power-source, have they tapped into that we, who are so easily daunted, seemed to have missed out on?

Tapping The Well of Joy

A crucial step towards inhabiting joy is the necessity of exposing the controlling narrative of our life. We are storied creatures. Creating and sharing stories is an irreducible part of what it means to be human. The stories we value, tell and retell, have a profound capacity to shape how we fundamentally relate to ourselves, God, and the world. So, what is the fundamental story that grounds our worldview? Is it one of fear and scarcity? Or, is it one of generosity and abundance? Is the story one of unfettered self-centeredness and radical individualism? Of a zero-sum game and the survival of the fittest? Or, is it one that esteems a higher set of virtues that recognizes our profound interdependence, longing for moral beauty, and the deep meaning that is possible only when we have committed to something larger than ourselves?

In his excellent book, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, NYT bestselling author David Brooks offers the helpful image of two mountains, symbolizing two distinct phases of development, or visions of the good life. The story of the first mountain is largely the animating story of our culture. It promises a meaningful, happy life for those who pursue achievement, individual freedom, and all sorts of self-improvement projects. It lauds accruing influence, education, power, wealth, security. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these things. Within reason they have utility and are often the by-product of healthy and natural development. Yet, a clear-eyed look at those who have reached the summit of this mountain, who have trusted in these things to be a source of joy, reveals a stark reality: they are often some of the most joyless people, who in private confess to a deep cynicism about the meaning of life and the burden of sustaining success.

In contrast to this stands the story of the second mountain. Brooks argues that the second mountain is the path of commitment, and that it is these commitments that are the source and grounding of joy. They are a commitment to a calling or vocation, to a spouse and a family, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community. Importantly, each of these commitments requires allegiance to, and participation in, a story larger than ourselves. Stories that orient the small self to a grander, wider purpose, and a vision of life that locates deep meaning and a resilient joy in the act of sacrifice.

This comes as no surprise for those steeped in the story of Jesus. The author of Hebrews reveals the animating logic of Jesus and his story plainly when he writes, “for the joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:3). What was that shining joy, that was so enrapturing that wading through suffering, shame and death, was worth it? What deeper, experiential truth could so grip a person, community, and movement that decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection followers would gladly receive the exhortation of the author of James:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

True joy, of the moral and spiritual sort that is ever present, and possible to unite with at all times, is experienced not in the absence of cost, sacrifice, hardship and suffering. Rather, the subversive logic of Brook’s second mountain, the story of Jesus, and the life of Desmond Tutu all bear witness to the truth that the source of this joy is found in the midst of life’s challenges. In the countless decisions we have the power to make each day to align our lives with a commitment to participating in the long, arching story of God’s joy. A joy that created, sustains, and is renewing the world.





Header image by Brett Hillyard.

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Joseph Carlson

Joseph Carlson

Husband to Kelly, Joseph Carlson was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest and has called Southern California home for nearly ten years. A writer, musician, poet, photographer, fly-fishing enthusiast, and theologian Joseph serves full time as the Director of Production & Communications at North Coast Calvary Chapel in Carlsbad California. He earned his MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the Editorial Director at Nations Media.