I was hammering the throttle of my John Deere across our second acre field when I spotted my six-year old, Brielle, waving her hands wildly at me. I stopped, idled down, and waved her over to the mower.
“Can I ride with you?”
“Sure. Hold on.”
We took off. I let her drive down the hill. And then, there it was. A huge doe leaped across our neighbors garden and right into our path. Like a slow-motion scene in a movie, I released the throttle and stopped. We gaped at the bounding deer as it took off through our natural area and over to the hedgerow.
Bri immediately turned, her eyes the size of UFOs, her smile latched on each ear, and she shouted over the mower growl, “Did you see that! That was A M A Z I N G!”
We laughed and shouted our jubilation to each other, and then finished the second acre.
More Than A Noun
As a father, I love moments like that. But as finished the yard, and returned the mower to the shed I asked myself: What was it about that moment that made it sizzle with so much life?
It was joy.
The Christian conception of joy often finds itself limited to comparative discussions between happiness and real joy. Margaret Feinberg tackles this a bit. She says, “Many Christians argue that being joyful is better than being happy—and they’re dead wrong.”
I’m not too concerned with this comparison. Rather, I want to look at the “moment” when Bri turned to me. To me, there is something mysterious and otherworldly about that moment of joy.
In the bible, life, or vitality, connects to beauty profoundly. For example, the writer of the Pentateuch begins the book of Genesis with the story of creation. On day three God commanded the waters to gather together in one place so that the dry land could appear. The waters he called Seas. The dry land he called Earth.
God saw what he created and called it, tov, or “good.” Unfortunately, “good” poorly conveys the nuance of the Hebrew tov, which can mean pleasant, agreeable, or good to the senses; “to the sight, fair, of daughters of men; of a son, young men … to the taste, good, sweet, agreeable for eating pleasant to the higher nature, giving pleasure, happiness, prosperity, and so agreeable, pleasing, well.”
The aesthetic intention of the adjective, tov, seems clear, carrying the idea of enjoyment and satisfaction in an object or person.
The Septuagint, perhaps more accurately, uses the term kalos. (Genesis 1:10) Kalos can also mean “good,” but in this case that is not the intended use. In Greek two terms convey the idea of good:
Agathos is the more common word associated with good: good, profitable, generous, upright, virtuous.
Kalos is most often associated with beautiful: “… pertaining to having acceptable characteristics or functioning in an agreeable manner, often with the focus on outward form or appearance.” Also, “… beautiful; good, of good quality or disposition; fertile, rich … it is pleasant, delightful.”
So, try this.
When you substitute the English “beautiful” for “good” throughout the Genesis 1 account of creation, you can see how beauty and vitality, or life, are so closely associated.
“God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was beautiful.” (Genesis 1:10) And God made man and woman, and he called them “very beautiful.”
The creative act, which God called “beautiful,” possesses an intrinsic quality of vitality and joy.
Joy in Gesture
Think about how our bodies communicate joy, like Bri’s did.
A smiling face, upright shoulders, gleaming eyes—all are physical, bodily actions (or symbols) that convey Joy. In the bible the gesture of a smile and the image of light, when given from a king, communicate a life-sustaining sunshine (Prov. 16:15; Ps. 89:15; Num. 6:25; Is. 60:1-15).
The Old Testament describes joyful worship with images of animals, such as an ox flinging its head back and forth in wild jubilation.
It is suggested that the “the zest of life is stored in the eyes.” In 1 Samuel 14:27,29 Jonathan eats wild honey and his “eyes brighten” (NIV). The prophet Ezra records: “Our God has brightened our eyes and granted us some relief from our slavery” (9:8, NLT).
The Old and New Testaments convey vitality as well as an emotional response to an object (i.e., God). The Hebrew root simcha (used as noun and verb), for example, conveys “the state of joyful well-being, but also its expression, rejoicing.”
Other, less-used terms convey exultation and sounds of joy, like cheering or shouting after seeing a deer.
The New Testament words for “intense joy” (chara and agalliasis) denote a personal reaction from the individual to the object of jubilation.
Joy in Hope
Think about how joy prompts deep feelings of hope within you.
Israel’s hope in future joy serves as a prelude and anticipates Messianic salvation.
The poetry of the Psalms and the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah, for example, look toward a new fullness from heaven in the form of messianic deliverance that will end suffering and provide a solution to sin (Ps. 19:4-5; 89:5-18; Is. 35:1-10; Jer. 33:9).
This new object of joy affects not only the human condition but that of nature, such as the mountains, rivers, and animals, and the cosmos, such as the stars and planets, as well.
The anticipatory prophecies in the Old Testament, therefore, determine the New Testament conception of the term, which is completely identified with the person of Jesus Christ. The New Testament mirrors the Old Testament usage of joy in that there is a personal and ecclesial (community) response to the object of joy.
Joy marks the birth of Christ and highlights his ministry (Luke 2:10; Luke 12:19; 16:19). Joy as response to the person of Christ manifests itself in personal rejoicing for salvation in addition to a secondary joy, that which comes from the power to expel demons and heal the sick (Luke 10:17; 20).The advent of the church is founded upon a response of joy (Acts 2:26; 46).
So joy, conveys personal and even communal vitality. Joy can describe a person’s countenance, nature’s mood, and denotes a responsive vitality toward its object, namely God. Joy is also a response to its object, such as joyful praise at the birth of Jesus Christ.
Joy As Gushing Vitality
The Romantics had a special bead on joy. It is one of their central themes.
For them, joy consists of pure vitality. It is the artist speaking through his art so much so that his life soars through the medium and into the viewer. It carries “a specialized meaning.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, defined joy as:
“reconciliation of subject and object in the act of perception, ‘joy’ signifies the conscious accompaniment of the activity of a fully living and integrative mind.”
For Coleridge, joy is “the state of abounding vitality” that allows a person to relate to the outside world and to one another. Something effusive accompanies Romantic joy; it is the bursting of life along with the relational element that creates a beautiful sense of humanness to joy.
Similar to the biblical use, it is both feeling and action.
Coleridge considered joy to be the shaping spirit of the imagination; it is the “inner power that unites the living self to a living outer world.”
The Romantics viewed joy as that to which all art, and even philosophy, is dedicated. It is a high ideal, which transcends mere pleasure. It signifies a gushing vitality. Blake’s wrote:
“Everything that lives is holy, life delights in life …”
Friedrich Schlegel used joy to indicate hope and eternal becoming.
Wordsworth’s poem “Ode: Intimation of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood” emphasizes the Romantic view of gushing vitality the term Joy captures.
The joyous song of the birds, along with the bounding vitality of the young lambs juxtaposes the poet’s sorrowful thoughts on the limits of life. Yet sullen thoughts fail to overcome the joyous moment of springtime.
“Thou child of Joy,
Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts,
Thou happy Shepherd-boy!”
With joy the poet hears the sounds of life within nature, as well as the poetically expressed maternal relationship between babe and mother.
As Wordsworth reflects on the boundless vitality of nature, he also acknowledges the utter frailty and cycle of death and life. His refrain, however, lifts in jubilation at the thought that even in our mortal diminishing something of our lives remains.
Wordsworth concludes his reflections with further rejoicing. Though nature’s cycle shows no mercy, there is cause for joy in the vitality of the moment, and that joy, that bursting of life through the countryside and, indeed, in humankind, cannot fall dark beneath the current of death.
Joy is Beautiful-Lovely
Finally, take a step with me into an old favorite, C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, and recall this very magical scene.
At the close of Chapter Eight of The Magician’s Nephew, Digory hears a song coming from “all directions at once.”
The tuneless wordless song sounded as if it rose from the earth itself. Despite its mysterious origin Lewis describes the song as incomparably beautiful,
“… the most beautiful noise he [Digory] had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it.”
The invigorating magic of the song is felt by the horse who, upon hearing the sound, experiences a “lovely” memory from its past as a foal. The song brings newness—a life-giving change—to the horse that had labored for years as a cab-horse.
We find here an echo from Prince Caspian and the victory romp of Aslan and Bacchus; the song, like Aslan’s physical presence, brings newness and life to the listless people of Beruna.
Next, the song produces two wonders.
First, it harmonizes with a choir of high-pitched voices. The ensemble of voices then produces the second wonder: the starry heavens. The “beautiful” “lovely” song possesses the power to create.
Digory believes he can differentiate between the voice of the stars and the “First Voice,” suggesting a Creator. The beauty of the creative moment prompts the Cabby into a moment of moral reflection:
Th“I’d ha’ been a better man my whole life if I’d known there were things like this.”
As the song continues Lewis frames the creation moment with movement: a light wind stirs, colors turn from dark to light, the approaching light reveals faraway forms in the landscape.
Polly, Digory, and the Cabby stand pierced with arrows of delight (Joy) as they witness the moment with “open mouths and eyes shining… drinking in the sound.”
The posture of the children (and the Cabby) communicates a state of Joy in response to the moment of beauty. Movement continues as the song rises, seemingly without limit.
The sky changed, the air shook with the song, which produced the sun: “… it laughed for joy as it came up.”
Lewis punctuates the scene with an economic explanation of his philosophy of beauty:
“The earth was of many colors: they were fresh, hot, and vivid. They made you feel excited; until you saw the Singer himself, and then you forgot everything else.”
The mixture of the visual movement of the creation process with the response of Joy on the part of Digory, Polly, and the Cabby communicates the quintessential Romantic motif of “abounding vitality.”
Joy is Wildness
There is something utterly wild, yet life-giving, about joy. I have spent long moments remembering Bri’s eyes and smile when the deer passed us. When we stopped she shouted to her sister, Lyric, who was standing on a log raising her hands in jubilation.
“Did you see that?” she shouted.
“Yeah, A M A Z I N G!” Lyric shouted back with arms raised to the sky.
That moment contained the essence, the whatness of life. Pure joy. It touched more than pleasure. The moment resonated with wildness.
I look for moments of wildness, moments of aliveness. Those moments don’t regard the state of my happiness or sadness. They simply touch me with their sizzling beauty and remind me. I’m alive. What joy.