Joy. How does one pin down this tiniest of words, this most elusive of concepts? For as small as the word is, joy itself is deep and vast and beautiful. I’ve tasted its sweet effervescence and it delights me. I understand why Robert Louis Stevenson said, “Find out where joy resides and give it a voice far beyond singing. For to miss the joy is to miss all.”

The question then is where does joy reside?

Last week I felt joy stirring inside me again and its sudden presence made me realise that it has been absent from my life for quite some time. I’m not sure exactly when it slipped away as my constant companion. Perhaps it was losing my dad or living through a pandemic or watching the pain and struggle of those close to me. Perhaps joy had never been my constant companion, to begin with.

What I do know is that last week a fresh wave of joy filled me with a sense of abundant life and possibility, with a desire to reach out and bless others, with creativity and energy. For the first time I came to understand Nehemiah’s words, “the joy of the Lord is our strength” (Neh. 8:10).

I know precisely what sparked this fresh wave of joy— a sermon our pastor preached on the Trinity. I wrote in my journal: “Justin’s sermon yesterday made my soul sing a little—the idea that creation is an overflow of the delight within the Trinity. How amazing that I am drawn into community with this Triune God and get a firsthand taste of this overflow of delight.”

And taste the delight I did! The antics of my dogs and cat made me laugh. A glimpse of the setting red sun made me stop in wonder. Bible verses on joy leapt off the page at me, as if God was punctuating Justin’s message: The hillsides blossom with joy (Psalm 65:11). Let the faithful rejoice that he honours them. Let them sing for joy as they lie on their beds (Psalm 149:5).

I’ll be honest—ten days later the joy has waned somewhat and I find myself wrestling with some deep questions. Is it realistic to live in a constant state of joy? If joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, shouldn’t I be seeing more of it in my life? Have I lost some of the joy because I have drifted away from God? Is it possible to retain joy amid life’s difficulties and disappointments?

I don’t have answers to all these questions but here’s what I do know (and suspect) about joy.

I know that I don’t want to live a joyless life because it does not witness to God’s incredible mercy and goodness to me. I know joy is not found in what I have or where I go or what I accomplish but rather—to answer the earlier question—joy resides firmly in my friendship with God. I suspect joy is a journey of discovery, one that takes me deeper into knowing both God and myself better, and in becoming the unique person he has made me to be.

The Catholic priest and writer Henri Nouwen said:

“Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”

As much as I like this quote, it does add another question to my list—how do I keep choosing joy every day?

I’ll hazard a guess at this one. I keep choosing joy by pursuing the One who promised to fill those who believe in him with springs of living water* (sounds like joy to me), the One who said he had come to give us life in abundance** (sounds like joy to me too).

Robert Louis Stevenson almost had it right, but not quite. It’s not joy we must pursue and give a voice to far beyond singing, but rather Jesus, the Joy-Giver. To miss him is to miss all.

*John 4: 10-14 / **John 10:10