Joy to the World, the World Is Come

My son learned his first Christmas song when he was four years old–“Joy to the World,” but he sang it wrong. Instead of “Joy to the world, the Lord has come” he sang “Joy to the world, the world has come.”  

When he was six, I decided to try to correct him. “You’re missing the point of the song,” I told him. And he replied, as only a six-year-old can, “no daddy, YOU’RE missing the point of the song.” It has taken me 15 years to realize that he was right and I was wrong. Joy, in its most essential form, is precisely the profound comfort that we take in the goodness of the world. 

This, at least, appears to be the consensus of the philosophers, theologians, and scriptural exegetes who constitute what might be called “Big Joy.” Miroslov Volf assembles a good cross section of contemporary joyology in his 2015 collection Joy and Human Flourishing. In this collection, Marianne Meye Thompson defines joy as “the human response to God’s establishing . . . a good world” (35).

This strikes me as exactly right. The emotion of joy is different than the emotion of hope. Hope points to the good things that we will experience in the future. Joy points us to the good things that we enjoy in the present because God is good and has made a good world for us to live in. True joy is the endpoint of a single, two-part argument: the claim that God is good, and the existence of the world as a proof of the claim.

In this sense, joy is also distinct from its closest relatives, pleasure and happiness. Pleasure is not an emotion, but a physiological sensation that may or may not have an emotional dimension. Happiness, on the other hand, is an emotion tied directly to fortune, or luck. The Middle English word hap–the root of both “happiness” and “happenstance”–means “luck” or “chance.” Happiness is an accidental emotion–the feeling that we get when we win the coin toss or when we draw the high card.

Joy, on the other hand, does not depend on luck. The whole point of joy is that the world is good and God loves us, no matter what may be happening in a given moment. This is not the same as complacency or tolerance for injustice, as Mary Clark Moschella explains that the joy we experience in God’s world should move us to compassion and a profound desire to ensure that everybody experiences its fullness:

Experiences of joy, when explored more fully, offer avenues for a deeper understanding of God’s goodness and love. When we are attentive and aware of God’s presence in us and all creation, when we feel the joy of this firsthand, we are freed from the paralysis of fear or despair, if only temporarily. We can experience . . .  the “ordinary goodness of life.” Moments like this, when they accumulate over time, strengthen and steady us, and teach us what is good, help us know what well-being looks and feels like. Such experiences free us to do our best creative work, and thereby enlarge the possibilities for proactive ministries that contribute to human flourishing. (p. 107)

The experience of joy is not at all incompatible with the thirst for justice. It is, however, fundamentally incompatible with the religious perspective that sees the world as a fallen hell-hole and this life as a prison that we must try to endure as we wait for heaven, where all the good stuff is waiting. It is also incompatible with the fashionable theology that sees “the world” as the opposite of “God” and everything good. The goodness of the world is the only real evidence we have for the goodness of God.

But enough of the egghead stuff. I know of know better explanation of joy than the classic hymn “Morning Has Broken,” first written in 1931 by Eleanor Farjeon and made immortal by Cat Stevens on his 1971 album Teaser and the Firecat.

Mine is the sunlight
Mine is the morning
Born of the one light Eden saw play
Praise with elation, praise ev’ry morning
God’s recreation of the new day

As I contemplate the theme of Joy this third week of Advent, I find that this hymn expresses almost everything that I find joyful: that the world is beautiful and good, that it is so because God is beautiful and good, and that somehow, miraculously, and for no reason that I can think of, I exist. For however short a time, I have been allowed to think and feel and wonder and love–and to participate in the goodness and beauty of the world.

Joy to the world, the world has come!



Comments

  1. Praise every morning!

  2. Good stuff Michael. And I have to agree about that song. I played it once for prelude in primary and got scolded by one of the counselors. Then she heard the tab choir sing it the next Sunday morning and apologized to me. :-)

  3. Bro. B. Yeah, it was a sacred hymn for years before it was a Cat Stevens song. Now, if you had played “Peace Train” or “Moonshadow” that could have been a problem.

  4. >[Joy] is also incompatible with the fashionable theology that sees “the world” as the opposite of “God” and everything good.

    It is not “fashionable theology” that sees the world as the opposite of God and everything good. Scripture often describes the world as hostile to God’s will, His gospel, and His people. In such instances scripture is referring to the fallen state of man and the unholy systems that govern our non-celestial planet.

    The Lord described the world in this way:
    “If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.”
    “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”
    “Ye are from beneath; I am from above: ye are of this world; I am not of this world.”
    “And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.”
    “Behold, I, the Lord, who was crucified for the sins of the world, give unto you a commandment that you shall forsake the world.”
    “the whole world groaneth under sin and darkness even now.”
    “Behold, I send you out to reprove the world of all their unrighteous deeds, and to teach them of a judgment which is to come.”

    >The goodness of the world is the only real evidence we have for the goodness of God.

    I am not sure what you mean by “real” evidence. Are the words of prophets testifying of God’s goodness not real evidence of God’s goodness? Is the Holy Ghost confirming God’s goodness to your soul not real evidence of God’s goodness? Is the plan of salvation not real evidence of God’s goodness? Is the establishment of a Church through which we can make covenants with God not real evidence of God’s goodness? Is the Savior’s atoning sacrifice not real evidence of God’s goodness? Please explain.

    Regardless, “the goodness of the world”, if we can agree to use “the world” in the way the Savior used it, is a nonsensical phrase. Goodness IN the world can testify of God and His goodness, perhaps that is what you meant?

    All that said, there is much about our current situation that is not awful. We are blessed with a beautiful planet where we can make progress toward exaltation. We can accept the influence of righteous institutions and individuals. We have the light of Christ and gift of the holy ghost to help us discover God’s will in complicated situations. We have the ability to repent of our sins and return to God’s glory in purity. Feeling joy for these and all our other blessings is good and right and something I sometimes forget to do. Thanks for the reminder.

  5. Michael Austin says:

    “Are the words of prophets testifying of God’s goodness not real evidence of God’s goodness? Is the Holy Ghost confirming God’s goodness to your soul not real evidence of God’s goodness? Is the plan of salvation not real evidence of God’s goodness? Is the establishment of a Church through which we can make covenants with God not real evidence of God’s goodness? Is the Savior’s atoning sacrifice not real evidence of God’s goodness? Please explain.”

    DD, No, I do not consider any of these things to be “evidence,” because they only prove things to people who already believe them. They cannot prove the proposition that “God is good” because anybody who accepts them to the level that would be required for “proof” already accepts both the existence and the goodness of God. In other words, they are part of the thing that is proved, which means that they cannot be part of the proof.

  6. Deseret Defender, God so loved the world and so should we.

  7. Michael,
    Can you address how you define “the world” in your post and how your definition differs from how scripture refers to the world? Thanks.

    >They cannot prove the proposition that “God is good” because anybody who accepts them to the level that would be required for “proof” already accepts both the existence and the goodness of God.

    1. The question of whether God is good presupposes the existence of God, so there is no need to define “real evidence” of God’s goodness in a way that excludes evidence that doesn’t also convince atheists of God’s existence. (It seems to me that doing so also excludes your “goodness of the world” evidence).
    2. Belief in a god does not necessitate belief that god is good. Many religions throughout history believed in gods who were not good. However, since you are an LDS man writing on an LDS blog for an LDS audience, I find it safe to assume you are referring specifically to the LDS conception of God.
    3. Since we are discussing evidence for the goodness of the LDS conception of God, and since the question presupposes the existence of the LDS conception of God, there is no reason to exclude evidence merely on the basis that it falls outside the framework of LDS belief. Within LDS belief, God willingly went through immeasurable suffering for the benefit of mankind. Should LDS individuals not view this as evidence that God is good?
    4. We come to the conclusion that God is good (ie: worthy of worship) as individuals. I see no reason why an individual should not consider spiritual witness of God’s goodness as evidence of God’s goodness merely because that spiritual witness confirms their already-held belief, or because that spiritual witness is intangible and cannot be shared with a 3rd party. Our job is not to convince others of God’s goodness, but to show others how they can receive spiritual witness of God’s goodness for themselves.

  8. David Z,
    Amen. We must love the world as God loves the world, which is to say we must be the light of the world through discipleship, encouraging faith and repentance so that all may find joy in the gospel.

  9. Michael, this post is beautiful and true. Thank you.

    DD, your comments provide stark contrast to the light of this post. You are missing the forest for the trees.

  10. If we go back to the original languages of the Bible, does the term ‘world’ as used in the scriptures DD cited actually mean the same thing as the God-created-joyful-world that Michael is talking about? If I had more time, I’d look it up.

    For me, I see both sides. I find deep joy and peace in the world that I live in. I don’t relate to the world as a dangerous, threatening thing to be avoided and disparaged (as often happens in RS lessons). At the same time, I don’t want to be blind to some very ugly principles that exist within the world, especially greed. Even the natural world (talking herd dynamics in animals) function under the idea of greed and survival of (sometimes) the (only) fittest.

  11. So, yeah, Michael, it’s a nice post, but it just won’t do to dismiss as “fashionable theology” a view of the world that’s plastered all over the New Testament. You’ll certainly find other perspectives in scripture, including the one of your post, but what you’re calling “fashionable theology” is at least as well attested in the NT and elsewhere, and likely even more so.

    Likewise with “the only real evidence we have”; who is this “we” you speak of? Most members of the church won’t limit their sources of knowledge to the observable natural world. Your point that the Plan of Salvation, or the witness of the Spirit, or things of that nature don’t count as evidence because they are “part of the thing that is proved, which means that they cannot be part of the proof” won’t hold water, I suspect. Think of a proof in geometry, where you start with axioms and wander through numerous intervening steps and end up at a conclusion. The corollaries and other intervening steps are not entirely separate from the thing to be proved, as they are necessary logical precursors for it. You can’t just exclude them and declare a proof invalid because it has intervening steps.

  12. Beautiful post; I found this perspective very refreshing. Thank you.

    Count me in the camp that sees beauty in the world. The more I explore it, the more I fall in love with its geography and it’s people. My personal experience exploring our world humbles me by the genuine kindness and generosity of my fellow travelers.

  13. I love this post, Michael, and I love your son’s rendition of “Joy to the World, the World is Come.” This world IS a gift, and there are miraculous and wonderful aspects to it, both natural and human-made. This post has lifted my heart and reminded me that there is so much goodness and light to celebrate around me, especially since it has been easy these past few years to get caught up with what is frustrating and cynical and unkind.

    I also love that Bro. B. played Cat Stevens as Primary prelude music. In my ideal ward, “Peace Train” and “Moonshadow” and maybe even “Oh, Very Young” would also make appropriate prelude music—nay, even special musical numbers. I am a heretic who feels the Spirit from interacting with all kinds of non-canonical sources, though.

  14. Geoff - Aus says:

    My wife had a lesson based on Pres Oaks talk to the women in the last conference, for her RS lesson. She came home wondering why she associates with these people. The lesson included that nothing good comes out of the world, which she objected to vocally.
    We agree strongly that there is joy to be had for the taking, and that the beautiful world is evidence of Gods love.
    I hope that some of those who see little to praise in the world we now live in, will be called to repent of their lack of gratitude, before they are allowed past the judgement bar.
    That we quibble over details of a message of joy says a lot.

  15. I think Deseret Defender would find “Wild World” the most church appropriate song from the Cat Stevens catalog.

  16. DD,
    I refer you to Alma 30:44. Also, Good day, sir!

  17. John C,
    Nothing I have said contradicts Alma 30:44. Good day to you too.

  18. The goodness of the world is a testimony of God’s goodness, DD. Don’t forget it. Also, I said Good day!

  19. John C.
    Scripture usually uses “the earth” to refer to the beautiful, resource-rich planet God has created for us, and “the world” to refer to the fallen state of man and the unholy systems that govern our non-celestial planet. Alma 30:44 is no exception in this regard. I suggest you reread it with that in mind.

  20. Mr. Schmidt says:

    I was wondering how long until Alma 30:44 would come out. It seems that we are falling into semantics here. I think the purpose of the OP is wholly reconcilable with the other uses of “the world” that are being pointed out.

  21. I am in the Louis Armstrong camp- 🎶 what a wonderful world 🎶
    OP is beautiful and I think pretty straightforward and not controversial I thought. The extent to which the world is not beautiful has to do with primarily how we treat each other, a variable over which we have considerable influence. Here’s a lil sumpin’

    How to unwrap God’s Gifts on Christmas Morning
    …………………..
    Heal wounds.
    Soak Earth with sunshine.
    Breathe hope into sorrows
    And pace the
    Long and gentle
    Unwinding of the clocks.
    Don’t point and counter
    Or fence the tides of
    Wild creation into doctrine.
    Care for each other,
    Instead of playing endlessly
    With the box.
    ∗∗∗ Lona Gynt, August 2018 ∗∗∗

  22. Michael Austin says:

    Lona, this is a beautiful sumpin’. Thank you.

  23. DD,
    It also states “and all things on it” which happens to include the world so neener, neener. And seriously dude, Good day!

  24. Thank you Michael

  25. S. Henneman says:

    This reminds me of one of my favorite scriptures:

    And Jesus sayeth, inasmuch as English is the holy language and the language I speaketh always, when I talk of the “world,” I mean that same meaning spoken of in the hymn “Joy to the World,” which shall be written some one thousand seven hundred years after my birth.

  26. Belated thanks for your joyful words, Mike.

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