Joy, the Overlooked Aspect of the Cross

Even in the midst of the sorrow, pain, and shame of the cross, Good Friday is still very good.
Joy, the Overlooked Aspect of the Cross
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source image: Lightstock

I do not look forward to Good Friday. I’m an upbeat kind of guy. A negative situation is always an opportunity, not a problem. The glass is always half full, and more is probably on the way.

But all that changes on Good Friday. Sure I feel down and out other days of the year. The waves of life will do that to you. But Good Friday plunges me into a much darker place. Waves of sadness, emptiness, and hopelessness come crashing in on Good Friday.

For many years, I took part a Tenebrae service on Good Friday (from a Latin word meaning “darkness”). During the service, a candle is extinguished after each reading of the last seven words of Jesus on his way to the cross. The sanctuary gets progressively darker and darker. After Jesus’ last words from the cross are read, the last candle is put out, plunging the sanctuary into darkness. The last words hanging in the air are the question, “What is to become of the light of the world?”

We left in silence contemplating a world where God never came to save, where the light never shined into darkness, where all was death and silence forever. We left still burdened with our sin and lost in our brokenness. The reality of it all was devastating.

The Abyss

After a Good Friday service like this, even the most affable of people cannot resist the pull toward the abyss. Alcoholism, addictions, anger, violence, or any kind of struggle to overcome a world made meaningless all make sense to me on Good Friday. I can understand why people respond to the darkness of the world with more darkness, more destruction, more death. Why not? What else is there to do?

And yet for Jesus, for the one who died that Good Friday death, Hebrews 12:2 tells us that it was “for the joy set before him” that he endured the cross.

How can that be?

How could such a thing prompt joy, something that rightly prompts not just sorrow and anxiety but horror and fear, not just at the execution of a person but at the very death of God?

And why connect joy to the cross at all? Isn’t love enough already? Sacrificial love we can understand. But sacrificial joy?

The Bible already tells us that God is motivated by love. Isn’t this enough?

  • “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16).
  • “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
  • “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16).
  • The apostle Paul prays that we would “grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (Eph. 3:18–19).

What, then, does joy add when love is already present?

A suspicion of joy can spring from the view that something is not quite right about joy. Wary of too much joy, we view it as a naive response to a painful world, wishful thinking within a wasting world, or a distraction amid the devastation. Only children are full of joy. But the world eventually breaks their spirits and installs a more sober mindset. Good Friday, for the sober minded, is “good” exactly because it looks straight into the horrors of life without flinching, revealing a God who is honest about it all.

Love can work in the midst of all this. But joy seems ill equipped for such travails as the cross.

The Pursuit of Happiness?

Our discomfort with joy comes from confusing joy and happiness.

These days, pursuit of happiness is the law of the land, the way of the world. We are told to do what makes us happy—in our work, our relationships, our free time, our hobbies, our sex lives. Do whatever makes you happy—as long as it doesn’t make someone else unhappy. Everything is permissible, desirable, and legal, as long as you are pursuing happiness. From an early age, we are trained to do what makes us happy, even if we are told to do what is right and good.

But this demand to be happy fails us because happiness is so vague and so fleeting. Happiness is too often connected to fading circumstances, emotions, or experiences. Unfortunately, these quickly fade into the past. So we look to the future for another happiness fix—something to distract us from the disappointments of life, our painful relationships, and our miserable mistakes. From memories of the past to hopes for the future, happiness always seems to be just beyond our grasp.

Joy, however, is not happiness.

While happiness pines for something in the past or longs for something in the future, joy is rooted in the present. Joy is focused more on relationships rather than circumstances. As psychologist and theologian Jim Wilder says, joy is a “dynamic relational experience” in which you are in the presence of someone who is glad to be with you. Joy is the experience of your presence bringing delight to others, and you delighting in the presence of others.

We see joy at work in small children when a parent comes home from work or comes back into the room after a brief absence. The child explodes with gladness at the sight of the one who is glad to see them. Writing on the intersection of neuroscience and clinical therapy in Affect Regulation and the Repair of the Self, Allan Schore notes that infants naturally seek out the eyes of others, looking for signs that they are welcomed, noticed, and loved. From the very beginning of our developmental process, God created us to seek out joy in and through others, to seek out connection and communion. And joy results when this connection is found.

But, unlike happiness, joy is even available in the midst of pain. Wilder notes the experience of someone “who is glad to be with us when we are hurting. When we settle into the arms of a friend who rushed to the emergency room while we waited to see if a loved one would survive.” While we might weep with grief instead of excited euphoria, “it is joy all the same. Someone is with us and we are not alone.” Instead of disappearing because of pain, joy helps us live through our pain in a meaningful way. A joyful connection, felt in gladness or sorrow, grounds us in the present and draws us into deeper relational bonds.

This joy, even in the midst of pain, is why so many flocked to Jesus. Especially the poor, the sick, and the outcast.

Joie de Vivre

We might not usually think of it this way, but I think it’s safe to say Jesus was the life of the party. He was so often in the midst of a celebration that he got in trouble with the religious authorities. They thought he and his disciples did too much feasting and not enough fasting (Luke 5:33–35; 7:34).

Why did people love to be with Jesus? If joy is the experience of being in the presence of someone who is glad to be with us, and if we like being around people who fill us with joy, then people loved being around Jesus because he brought them joy. Jesus was glad to be in the presence of all kinds of people: the sick, the poor, the rejected, and the outcast. And they responded with joy.

In Luke 15, Jesus tells three parables about the joy of heaven that flowed through him—the joy of finding the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. This joy of heaven flowed through Jesus to all who had lost hope of being accepted, welcomed, or delighted in. When people come into the presence of Jesus—the presence of his joy—they are transformed by it.

Indeed, a main motivator for Jesus was to place his joy in us (John 15:11), a joy that will never be taken away (John 16:22). The joy Jesus gives is the knowledge that God delights in us and longs for us to dwell in his presence.

As theologian Jürgen Moltmann reminds us, “If we really think about it, we arrive at a surprising conclusion: Christianity is a unique religion of joy. Faith is living in the Christian feasts,” just as Jesus and his disciples feasted and celebrated.

And yet, Moltmann continues, “the universal symbol of Christianity is the cross, a symbol of pain, suffering, and cruel death. How do these things go together?”

How is the cross connected to joy?

Joy Through Death

Let’s answer this by asking again, Why did Jesus have to die?

Certainly, there is a myriad of reasons. To forgive us. To take our penalty. To free us from death. To defeat the powers and principalities. All these ways of explaining Jesus’ death begin with overcoming the consequences of sin.

But what if we started with Jesus’ joy?

What if we started with God’s joy and delight in us? That God is for us because God longs to be with us.

What if Jesus longed to extend to us the delight and joy he experiences eternally as the Son in the presence of the Father through the Spirit? What if Jesus’ joy was to bring us into the joy he knew in his baptism, when the Spirit rested on him and the Father’s words of delight and approval washed over him?

Offering this joy was the “joy set before him.” Offering this joy to us was the reason Jesus “endured the cross,” bringing us into the joyful presence of the Father through the Spirit.

The apostle Paul declared this very thing:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Gal. 4:4–6)

It is our joy to call out to the Father through the Spirit of the Son. And it is the Father’s joy to say over all who live in the Son, “You are my Child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

The celebration of heaven that Jesus told parables about (Luke 15) comes down to earth because of Jesus’ death, because through his body, through his death, we all have “access to the Father by one Spirit” (Eph. 2:18). As biblical scholar N. T. Wright says, in Jesus there has “come about a new union between heaven and earth, with the celebrations of one spilling over necessarily into the celebration of the other.”

This celebration between heaven and earth offers us joy here and now. This joy is no mere happiness receding into the past or pining for the future. It is a joy that remains in the present as we rest in the presence of the one who delights in us, even in the midst of sorrows, pain, and suffering. It is a joy that remains even as we carry our cross daily.

As we contemplate the passion of Christ, as we enter into Good Friday this week, let us remember the joy of the one who is present even in the midst of our pain.

Let us remember Immanuel, God with us, the source of our joy.

Geoff Holsclaw is a theology professor at Northern Seminary and pastor at Vineyard North in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His mini-course, The Forgotten Reasons for Jesus’ Death, explores how Jesus offers us not only forgiveness, but freedom, and a new family.

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