Joy and Identity

Joy and Identity

Joy—three simple letters to represent an experience that so many have found elusive and hard to define. What is “joy”?


Some have attempted to frame joy as a kind of grounded spiritual contentment, contrasting it with happiness that is dependent on ideal circumstances. It is an inspiring notion, though neither biblical exegesis nor neuroscience have yet to support it. In fact, the sciences have struggled for some time to “capture and dissect” joy in their customary ways.


Ironically, some of our culture’s greatest experts on joy may be children. What we learn from watching these experts is that the greatest joy is to be found in “delight with another.” Many adults long to reclaim the pure delight they witness as a child plays with a parent, shows off a new accomplishment, or melts into an embrace. Joy is at its fullest when the child, for a few glorious moments, has captured the attention and affection of the other—when their faces become an echo chamber of mutual delight.


What happens to us as we grow older? How is it that over the years so many of us become so inept at partaking in this “delight with another”? For this, we do turn to both theologians and scientists. Theologians direct us to the reality of shame. As our moral conscience develops, we begin to grasp just how inadequate and broken we are. With God’s gracious help we come to recognize that sin stands in the way of the uninhibited mutual delight we long for. Psychologists direct us to the reality of attachment wounds—the breakdowns in early relationships that taught many of us the risks and rules of eliciting others’ approval. We learn to adapt and protect ourselves by shutting down our desire for connection or learning to anticipate what others want from us (knowing deep down that it is no longer the true “me” they are pleased with).


In short, our sense of self—our identity—gets cobbled together along a broken road, in broken relationships, in a very broken world. A person’s sense of identity can be conceptualized as a three-legged stool, consisting of worth, significance and belonging. Worth, here, refers to a person’s inherent value, apart from what they do. Significance refers to what a person accomplishes—the difference they make in the world around them. Juxtaposing just these two aspects of identity, many of us will quickly recognize that a great deal more emphasis was placed on behavior, performance, and achievement during our formative years. The underlying message was, “If you want to be somebody, work hard and do good.” An emphasis on significance also finds its way into the aspect of belonging for many people. Every group, clique, and community has spoken and unspoken expectations about what it takes to earn and maintain acceptance.


In many Western cultures, these dynamics still hold true. What continues to be in short supply is affirmation of a person’s inherent value, regardless of what they do or what circles they belong to. This begs the question, “Who is worthy of being unconditionally delighted in as they are?”


As believers who are aware of our depravity and of God’s righteousness, it is hard to arrive at any conclusion other than “Christ alone is worthy of being unconditionally delighted in as he is.” This conclusion, I believe, resonates with the testimony of Scripture—that God’s standard of righteousness is out of human reach. And rather than seeking to lower that standard or earn our way into God’s favor, we are called to humbly confess our sin and receive Christ’s righteousness as our own. In Christ, we are delightful to God as we are because Christ is delightful as he is. We can then embrace the mantle of worth that God has prepared for us since the beginning of time.


And what of significance and belonging? God has made provision for those as well, though we may have to look to our persecuted brothers and sisters to grasp it. In many places, a decision for Christ results in expulsion from both family and the marketplace. Belonging and significance are stripped away. In such contexts, the “Family of God” is far more than a cozy metaphor or aspiration—it is the invasion of God’s reality into a hostile society. Adoption into God’s family bestows belonging and honor that will last eternally. And there will always be good works of great significance prepared beforehand for each member to perform with their God-given gifts.


May we embrace our identity as gifted children in God’s family, and delight in our Savior as he unconditionally delights in us. And let us join in carrying this reality of eternal worth, significance, and belonging to the near and far reaches of his domain.

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