I don’t think that 2020 is a contender for the absolute worst year ever. You’d have to stack it up against some pretty tough competition—years like 1348, the height of the Black Plague that killed over 200 million; or 1944, with its competing horrors of world-wide war and the systemic genocide of the Holocaust; or—just in the US—the year 1862, the darkest year of the Civil War. Disease and destruction have haunted humanity for centuries, and some years are worse than others. As bad as the last months have seemed, though, they may seem particularly troublesome just because the frustration is still fresh. Give it a few decades, and we may have a different perspective.
That’s not to say that the last months have not had more than their fair share of trouble. The number of people adversely impacted by the pandemic—both physically and socially—has been staggering. It’s seemed like some sort of chronic pain, aching and never really going away. We’ve just tried to grit our teeth and bear it. But the constant vigilance seemingly demanded by the situation has burdened us, we’ve struggled to know exactly how to respond in a way that honors our faith in God and expresses love for our community. Whether we acknowledge it or not, it’s been a tough year, and we’re feeling it.
Which is why the subject of joy might seem a little off-center. How can we talk about joy when there seems so little to be joyful about? Is conversation about joy even appropriate when we’re in the midst of suffering? I believe it is when we really understand what we are talking about when we talk about joy—true Christian joy. Joy may feel to many like some sort of “supercharged” happiness, and if that’s the perception, then it would be irresponsible to sweep aside all the suffering of the world just so we could feel “super-happy.” True joy, though—the joy revealed to us in Scripture—doesn’t deny suffering. It is joy in suffering, it is something that recognizes and acknowledges suffering but reminds us that there is more to life than just pain.
In Luke 15, Jesus tells three stories about joy. These three parables offer us a glimpse into the character of God, and we see most clearly that God rejoices. In the final of the three, Jesus relates the account of a father with two sons, one of whom faithfully serves the father, while the other demands his inheritance then rushes off and squanders it all. The title of the parable in most Bibles is “The Prodigal.” The term prodigal means “characterized by profuse or wasteful expenditure, lavish”—which certainly describes the son who went off and was “prodigal” with the inheritance he’d received. But the theologian Timothy Keller rightly points out that the father in the story is just as prodigal—he was extravagant in granting the wish of the son to receive his inheritance, and he was lavish in welcoming him home. Since our Heavenly Father is the model of the father in the story, Jesus is saying something about God with this parable.
Reading these three parables together—the parable of the Prodigal along with the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin—we begin to see a pattern. It is the celebration that restoration brings about. Joy is the natural response of the Father, when we return to Him. Not to be flippant, but Heaven is party central—rejoicing is the order of the day, as long as the lost are being found. Joy is part of God’s essential nature, right along with love. The pathos of God, the love that is willing to give all for the sake of the beloved, that comes at the beginning of the story. But the joy is there, too, ready to burst forth at any moment. The joy of God waits at the window for us to return to our senses and come home. And it is joy that meets us on the road, puts a fine robe on our back, and a ring on our hand. God is ready to celebrate.
But consider the response of the two sons. The first, the one that stuck around, didn’t take the homecoming very well. He was upset that his father was so joyful that the wastrel son had come back. “Aren’t their consequences to bad behavior?” he said, “Dad doesn’t seem to be taking this betrayal seriously enough.” The older son thought that joy was an improper response to the situation. And what about the younger son—the one who returned? The story doesn’t tell us about his response to the father’s joy. There’s an implication that he joined in the party, but we don’t know what he was feeling. Perhaps some residual guilt, some lingering shame—a sense of “I really don’t deserve all this celebration.” We don’t know, and it’s not crucial to our understanding of the story, because this story really isn’t about the sons as much as it is about the father.
See, the father felt that joy was the proper response. And the father could afford to be generous with his joy. He could even be prodigal with it—wantonly wasteful and extravagant. Because the son was home. Remember, Jesus is talking about the Heavenly Father, here. God can afford to be joyful when we come home, because being home is the most important thing. God does not want us to be apathetic to the suffering and difficulties that surround us; there are situations that should cause us to weep, that should break our hearts. But if we come to believe that life is only difficulty, if we see the course of human events as Walter Benjamin’s “Angel of History” did—as “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet”—then we might lose sight of that supporting ground of divine joy that God experiences and desires for us.
See, when we are home, then we are eternally secure. We are ever enfolded in God’s love and grace. We can allow our thoughts to remain in the pigsty, wallowing in the muck and the slop, or we can feel the comfort of the robe and the celebration feast and most of all the embrace of our Father. Knowing where we are, where we stand in relation to the difficulties and suffering of the world, knowing that while we still have trials to endure our eternal fate rests securely in God’s loving hands, that should be a source of unassailable joy. This is Christian joy. And it is available to all who believe in Jesus. So a believer—one who has turned from their own prodigality and come home—has a reason to be joyful, one that is not dependent on the circumstances they find themselves in. It doesn’t matter if it’s a good year or a bad one, because we know how the whole thing turns out. For the child of God who comes home, it ends in joy.