“Joy is not a flag Jesus plants in us; it is a fruit he grows in us”
I received a copy of a new book while I was at the monastery this week. I planned to read it when I got home, but as soon as I glanced at the first page, I knew I’d been given something special. I ended up spending hours poring over its pages, soaking up its insights and nodding and just about saying out loud, “Finally, someone is explaining this in a way I understand!”
That book is Choosing Joy by Dan Lord, and you just have to read it.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Dan, he was once the lead singer of a popular punk band and is now a devout Catholic. He’s the husband of Hallie Lord, a friend of ours, and the editor of Catholic Exchange. He’s also one of the most talented writers I’ve encountered.
To give you a feel for his writing, here is the beginning of Chapter 1 of his book:
Joy is not something you would expect to find in someone like my dad. His father abandoned him and his younger brother when they were both infants. His mother stayed, but she was hard-shelled and aloof. The three of them blew through the slums of 1940’s Atlanta like fallen leaves, moving to and from squalid apartments with gaping holes in the walls and broken plumbing. Everyone around them endured the same dreary poverty; one family they knew literally lived in a chicken coop. The males of this world were almost all like my dad’s father: human driftwood, coming and going as they pleased, pathetically lazy or darkly savage. My dad once described for me a fight he witnessed between two men which culminated in one of them slicing open the other’s stomach with a straight razor.
Would you believe that Dan’s father went on to experience profound joy in his life, thanks to his relationship with God? Using his father’s story as a launching point, Dan spends the rest of the book pondering that most pressing of human questions:
How do we find joy when our earthly circumstances are miserable?
And — here’s what I loved — he first takes a hard look at what joy is. This is an important question for those of us whose default state is a spiritual dry spell, who don’t often have emotionally powerful experiences of God. For a long time I thought that that meant that I just wouldn’t get to experience the whole “Christian joy” thing, but I’ve slowly come to understand something that Dan hits home in his book: that joy is not the same thing as a surface-level emotion; that it’s possible to have all sorts of mental or physical tribulations on the surface, yet still have true joy deep within your heart.
It seems like a lot of folks I know are struggling right now. Some are having financial problems, others family problems; some are dealing with physical or mental health issues; others are just bummed out about the state of the world. Many of them report that the worst of it is the impact it’s had on their spiritual lives. “It’s one thing to face this endless stream of one problem after another,” someone I know said recently, “but by far the hardest part is that all of this has made my spiritual life like a barren wasteland.” She seemed to feel guilty as she lowered her voice and added, “My relationship with God doesn’t bring me happiness anymore.”
If you feel like this, or even close to it, read this book. It doesn’t offer quick-fix solutions (Dan points out that Christian joy isn’t an instantaneous thing that happens the moment we believe: “Joy is not a flag Jesus plants in us; it is a fruit Jesus grows in us”). There are no promises that it will make all your problems go away and leave you in a peppy mood for the rest of your life. It’s better than that. It’s a field guide for wading through the thorny trails of earthly life, and finding the only thing that is real and true underneath it all. It’s a detailed instruction manual for making your soul fertile soil for the seeds of the Holy Spirit, from whom all true joy springs.
This is one of the most needed books to have come along in years. It answers just the right questions, in just the right way, at just the right time. You won’t be sorry you read it.