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The Dark Side of Joy

We Americans are used to associating joy with happiness, an emotional condition brought about by favorable circumstances, but real joy, in the sense that Paul means it, must be something else entirely. I think joy has to be deeper and wider than mere happiness if it can survive in a Roman dungeon.

I think joy, in the sense that Paul meant it, is something that arises from our experience of harmony in the universe. Joy can, and often does, bring a smile to your face. You can feel it surging up inside when you get lost in a sunset or a clear night sky, when you hold your newborn child for the first time and your heart feels like it's about to leap outside your chest, or when some piece of art or literature touches something deep within your soul. In such moments. we experience joy. We marvel at the wonderful and beautiful way in which the universe is put together. Joy.

Joy is easy to recognize in such moments. It really does feel like happiness. We feel the touch of beauty and harmony in the universe and that touch makes us want to smile, laugh, jump, or even weep for joy. 

However, there is another side to joy. This side is not so easily recognized. I believe the shock, sadness, and anger we have all been experiencing since Friday are also, in their essence, expressions of joy. These unhappy feelings come from the same places in our hearts that gave rise to our experience of wonder. Something within our hearts instinctively embraces harmony when it is present and yearns for it when it is absent. Last Friday, the harmony of the universe was violently shattered and our hearts have been screaming inside ever since. That scream is the scream of joy, the dark side of joy to be sure, but joy nevertheless.

I call this pain "the dark side of joy" because it would mean that our hearts were dead if we didn't feel a stinging outrage at what happened. If we anesthetize ourselves to joy's dark side, we will also be numb to joy's light side: the happiness and wonder at the world I mentioned before. The truly cynical people in this world are not those who are mad at the world, but those who have ceased to care altogether. They are the ones who heard the news on Friday, shrugged their shoulders apathetically, and went on with their lives as if nothing had happened. Such people have been so wounded by life that, in order to protect themselves from experiencing more pain, they've had to close themselves off to all emotions whatsoever. If you are angry about this, it means that you care. So long as you are still able to feel the anger, you are still able to experience joy.

Joy, then, in this sense, in the sense that Paul meant it, is an act of defiance. "Rejoice in the Lord always," is a call to action. We, the angry joyful ones, declare ourselves to be in open rebellion against the powers of chaos, hatred, and violence. In the spirit of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, we will resist you nonviolently. In the Spirit of Jesus, we will kill you with kindness. We walk in the shadows of joy's dark side. Victory is ours: for we know that so long as there remains even a single soul that still feels outrage at the murder of children, then joy is still alive.

- J. Barrett Lee, "The Dark Side of Joy," a sermon on Philippians 4:4-7, in response to the Newtown massacre, 12/16/12, published in A Good Word, an e-book edited by Landon Whitsitt, 2012, pp. 146-147.