“Behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
Joy is often one of the first words that we think of when thinking about the holidays. The joy of being with our families, the joy warm drinks in cold weather, the joy of listening to our favorite Christmas songs—the season is full of things that stir our affections and bring us joy. And just as joy is central to the holiday season, it's also central to the human experience itself. The drive of every human heart is to find joy. We want to experience happiness, pleasure, and delight. We may search for it in various ways and pursue different avenues to find it, but we all crave it.
The Westminster Catechism says that the chief end of man is to "glorify God and enjoy him forever." Even in our relationship with God, joy—enjoyment—is central. Joy is not something that God wants us to give up for him, but rather something he wants us to find in him. When man rebelled against God, we essentially said to him, "I want to find my joy in things other than you," only to find that nothing in all of creation can provide what only the Creator himself can.
The person of Jesus is God's way of bringing us back into relationship with him, back into the fullness of joy that we can only experience in him. Through the work of Jesus, God grants us a new birth—new eyes to see—so that we can see him as the source of joy that he truly is and find total fulfillment in him. That's why the news of the angels to the shepherds was "news of great joy." In Christ, we can now experience the joy that God so desperately wants for his children to experience!
Oftentimes, it is assumed that the Christian life is about "self-denial"—that we're meant to give up delight and pleasure for the sake of following God. This is an incomplete picture, though. In reality, the Christian experience is not the denial of happiness; it’s the temporary denial of things that only pretend to offer happiness, so that we may receive what eternally offers true happiness. The Christ-follower is not one who gives up joy; he is one who finds true joy in the only thing that can provide it: God himself.
C.S. Lewis talks about this in The Weight of Glory:
The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
There are many things that will attempt to provide us with joy, but it will be a joy that is empty and has an expiration date. Let's not trade in unceasing, limitless happiness found in God for mere shadows of that happiness found in other things. Like Lewis points out, if we follow Christ, we have "unblushing promises of reward" of a "staggering nature." And we have these promises because we have a gracious and loving Father who wants us to live in the fulness of joy, and not for merely one lifetime, but for eternity.
This Advent season, let's ask ourselves: "What is my joy found in?" "What brings me joy?" Do we find our delight in our Creator God who has rescued us and granted to us unimaginable reward? Or are we chasing the empty promises of the world, hoping to find what can only be glimpses of the true joy we crave? Anything outside of God himself is a "mud pie in the slum." Let us find in Christ the "great joy" that the angels sang about at his birth.