Jesus Chose a Writer: Implications of the Identity of the Author of John's Gospel

Out of the four gospels, only one makes the claim within its text to have been written by a direct eyewitness to Jesus: the gospel of John (21:24). This eyewitness, the author of this gospel, was not John of the Twelve Apostles, as we tend to believe, but instead a different disciple of Jesus with the name John. This latter point is one of the more difficult claims offered by Richard Bauckham in his book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, which I have just read.

At least, this was a difficult point for me. I have always assumed the John who kept himself anonymous throughout the gospel, the one who referred to himself as the “the disciple Jesus loved” within the text, was in fact John the apostle. This is not the case. John 21:1-7 makes as much clear.

That passage lists seven people present when Jesus appeared by the Sea of Tiberias. Those present were Peter, Thomas, Nathaniel, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples the author does not name. The sons of Zebedee are the apostles John and James. Then, in 21:7, we learn that the author of the gospel—the disciple Jesus loved—is one of these seven. Which one? If he is the son of Zebedee, then his efforts to keep himself anonymous throughout the text are pointless—he has just given his name. Instead, it can be seen that leaving two disciples unnamed in his list is consistent with the aim for anonymity. John is saying he is one of the ones unnamed. In this scene, therefore, two men named John are present. One is an apostle and the other would go on to author a gospel.

How do we even know this anonymous author was named John? Strictly from the text, we do not. Bauckham explains how we do know. First, history shows the gospel acquired its label “according to John” soon after it began to circulate. The ones attaching this label must have known why they were describing the book this way. Second, writing surviving from the early second century by Papias, a bishop near Colossae, refers by name to two different Johns. In the piece, Papias describes a first-century time when certain named apostles had already died, including the apostle John, but when another John, also a witness to the Lord, was still alive and speaking. This Papias passage refers to the latter John as “the elder.” The reference is striking, because in the Bible, in two of the letters attributed to John, “the elder” is how the writer refers to himself (2 John 1 and 3 John 1). None of this is conclusive, but the evidence taken together strongly supports the view that the fourth gospel was written by someone named John. And again, John 21 makes clear this was not John the apostle.

The other three gospels, the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), all derive their information and authority in large part from the Twelve Apostles. Implying this point is the reason why all three of these books include lists of the Twelve by name. By contrast, John’s gospel offers a perspective informed by a different set of witnesses. In John, says Bauckham, we hear from apostles who do not have speaking parts in other gospels (Thomas, Philip, and Judas not Iscariot), while “John’s gospel also gives significant roles to named disciples, not members of the Twelve, who do not appear at all in the Synoptics (Nathanial, Nicodemus, Lazarus, Mary the wife of Clopas) or who appear only once in one of the Synoptics (Mary and Martha of Bethany),” he says. In drawing close the beloved disciple, in keeping him close essentially as a biographer, Jesus seems to have ensured that a writer would offer an otherwise unheard perspective, bearing ultimate, truthful, lasting witness to who Jesus was and what he did.

Pause to let that sink in. We thus have in our possession a complete, detailed text written by a direct witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a text that is as credible and substantiated as any text we possess out of the ancient world, a text written by the writer Jesus himself chose.

And consider what that document says. In a continuation of that scene by the Sea of Tiberias, after the death of Jesus, after the risen Jesus had begun to appear to his disciples, the author of the gospel reports how he himself recognized the man on the shore. John wrote, “Therefore the disciple, the one Jesus loved, said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’” (John 21:7).

This is the same author who had seen Jesus hanging on the cross, who had been given care over Jesus’ mother with Jesus’ dying words (19:26-27), who had seen the tomb empty without yet knowing what this meant (20:8-9), now personally documenting seeing Jesus alive after death. And as the gospel further reports, he would go on from here to eat with Jesus and hear him converse (21:15-22), one of various post-resurrection encounters John the writer carefully described.

When I say I am a “Christian,” my awareness of these events is what I am referring to. The label is fraught—so much that I am guarded about using it. I don’t want to take up its presumed claims. For example, I don’t claim I am a more moral person than you (I am not) or that my life is less confused or conflicted than yours (it isn’t). I don’t claim you need to adopt my beliefs (not my business) or that you are in danger of damnation (you’re not). What I do believe is that God set us free by pulling back the veil on the reality that seems to contain us. He did this by entering into that reality, dying in it, and rising from the dead. He explained what he was doing as he did it, and among the evidence is a historical document that records it all.

Recognizing the author of this document as a disciple who was called to write, and perhaps was called only for this, has various implications. For me, certain points of understanding are changed or clarified, including these:

1. The final exchange with Jesus recorded in John’s gospel now makes more sense. After Peter had learned his call to evangelism would cost him his life, he looked to the beloved disciple and asked, “What about him?” (21:21). If Peter had been referring to John the apostle, then the question would come off as strange. John the apostle was seemingly called into the same risky life as Peter, so why would Peter think the way ahead for him was any different? But no, Peter was referring to Jesus’ chosen biographer, the one who had been as close as any of the apostles, but who would be called to remain behind, reflect on what he had seen, and write.

2. Every painting I have ever seen of the Last Supper gets it wrong, because every painting shows precisely 13 people: Jesus plus the Twelve. There must have been more present than this. The Twelve were all present; the gospels state they were present to make clear the betrayer was there and one of the Twelve (Matthew 26:20-21, Mark 14:17-18, Luke 22:14, 21). But nowhere does it say the Twelve were the only disciples present. It must have been a bigger supper than this, because the beloved disciple was there as well, reclining beside Jesus (13:23).

3. The ordering of the books of the Bible now seems more poetic to me. Luke wrote both the gospel named after him and the book of Acts, intending them to be a two-part series (Acts 1:1), yet the ordering of the Bible sticks the gospel of John between them. This has always seemed awkward and arbitrary to me, an unfortunate consequence of clustering the four gospels together. But now I see this ordering making an important implication. Luke’s gospel describes the call of the apostles, and Acts goes on to describe the acts of those apostles. Yet not all are called to witness and evangelize as the apostles were. Back in Jerusalem were disciples called to remember and understand what they had been given to know, the beloved disciple among them. The insertion of John’s gospel as an alternate view between Luke and Acts serves to illustrate how different disciples are called to live their faith in different ways. “What about him?” The very ordering of the books arrays this question and its answer.

In Prayer, I Have Been Composing My Prayer

I have been typing into my phone as I pray. I’ve been recording the lines out of this time of stillness that I find myself moved to lift up. Some of these lines I record are fleeting. They relate to surface concerns, momentary matters over which my mind is churning now and in the next moment will not be. Then there are lines that are deeper and truer, giving words to the hopes upon my heart to which I feel led to give attention throughout this year, this season, or this era. In deleting the fleeting lines and keeping the truer ones, I am slowing composing a prayer that will last.

In prayer, the Spirit intercedes for us, says Romans 8:26. We do not know what to pray, but he does. And in Luke 11:1, an unnamed disciple speaking for all of us asked the Lord, “Teach us to pray.” The disciple addressed his plea to Jesus, but if we believe Son and Spirit are one, then we can make this same plea to the Lord residing within us. Feeling our way, perhaps by typing, we can begin to learn words for the prayer that the God of intercession is already praying on our behalf.

Is Predestination Anti-American?

In the last post, I wrote about how predestination—the idea that God chooses who believes, not us—is a “hard teaching,” per John chapter 6. It was hard when Jesus taught it and remains hard today, though perhaps the reason for rejecting it has changed.

Jeff Robinson, pastor and seminary professor, gets at this in his article, “Predestination is Biblical, Beautiful, and Practical.” Dr. Robinson writes, “In some churches ... let the pastor breathe [the word ‘predestination’] in the presence of the deacon board and he risks firing, fisticuffs, or worse. A God who chooses is anti-American, anti-democracy....”

I assume “fisticuffs or worse” is an exaggeration. But “anti-American” is not. Our tendency to conflate the healthy ideas of our civics with the biblical doctrines of our faith is part of the reason why predestination can be so difficult to accept in our particular place and time.

Institutional churches internalize the values of the culture around them. They can’t help it, because churches are made of people, and people come in from out of the local culture and track that culture in with them. This is either harmless or dangerous, depending on the value in question. Yet one important aspect of that internalization is this: Institutional churches that succeed do so by modeling themselves after other successful organizations.

For example, up to and including five hundred years ago, the leading institutions were courtly. Kings, lords, and their courts of aristocrats governed society and its resources. Accordingly, the institutional church at that time organized itself as another court.

Contrast that with today. Monarchy gave way to democracy and the leading institutions have become commercial. Today, businesses govern society and its resources. Institutional churches have taken heed, learning to market and compete as businesses, appealing to potential churchgoers as consumers.

There is no criticism intended in this. But framing the matter this way highlights why predestination might be a problematic doctrine for those charged with leading an institutional church today, as Dr. Robinson describes. To say the gospel message is only able to transform those who have been chosen, rather than potentially transforming all, is to inherently limit the number of potential congregants in the church. Predestination is, in a sense, bad for business. If churches do indeed compete for attendees much like businesses compete for customers, then it’s not too blunt to state the matter this way.

But what is far more profound is the sense Dr. Robinson identifies in which predestination seems anti-democracy or anti-American. Democracy and America are two things widely regarded as good (I regard them as good), so the charge that the doctrine of predestination stands against them is serious. Is the charge valid?

The answer is that American democracy makes a claim in one realm, predestination makes a claim in another, and the two do not overlap.

In America, we rightly value the “self-evident” truth (according to the Declaration of Independence) that “all men [and women] are created equal”—a truth that America to its shame has long and often disavowed. When that truth is held high and the ideal it conveys is realized, the result is that the people of this country share equally in the rights and privileges of their citizenship.

The country is the context. Indeed, the country and its laws represent a realm so large that we still are prone to fail in this democratic ideal, so the vigilant among us rightly cultivate the civic reflex to uphold that ideal and push it as far as it can go.

But what God is doing across the context of the created cosmos is playing out in a different way. And this point, too, is every bit as self-evident. The phrase “all men are created equal” clearly means only “equal in the eyes of the law,” because in terms of various sorts of ability and in terms of the opportunities of a given life, it is readily apparent that all people are not initially equal. They have each been made individuals and launched into different lives.

And according to scripture, now that Christ has come, some of these people in the courses of their lives are “predestined to be adopted through Jesus Christ for himself,” for a role in his kingdom in this world and beyond, “according to his favor and will.” (The quoted parts come from Ephesians 1:5.)

Just one part of the challenge of this—maybe the hugest part, and what makes it seem undemocratic—is the sense of different rewards. It is hardly fair for one person to be predestined for heaven and another to be predestined for hell, with neither of them getting a say. If that were the truth of the matter, I would agree. It is not. I offer my book about predestination, along with this long companion essay refuting what we think we know about hell, for a response in depth. Or suffice it to say this much here: Those chosen for belief are in a sense chosen for calling and burden in this world, and God does not love less those he does not choose for this burden and call. Instead, chosen and unchosen simply have different destinies, one to eternal life and one to eternal peace. If that sounds wrong to you but you’re open to the argument, I will send you the book for free.

Jesus, in his preaching, often made clear that his message was for “those who have ears to hear.” Not everyone has those ears, has been chosen to hear, has been called to understand. In his article, Dr. Robinson cites Acts 13:48 as the verse that “threw the knockout punch” for him, persuading him that predestination is not only consistent with scripture but conveyed there unambiguously. This verse describes the effect of the preaching of Paul and Barnabas and, more significant for our purposes, it describes precisely who was and was not affected.

Not everyone believed upon hearing the message. Instead, the verse says:

When the Gentiles heard this, they rejoiced and glorified the message of the Lord, and all who had been appointed to eternal life believed. —Acts 13:48

“This is a Hard Teaching”: Signs, Choice, and the Sufficiency of Christ (John 6)

None of us ever chose for Jesus Christ to come into the world. He lived about two thousand years ago. It happened without us.

And none of us ever chose for Christ to come into our lives, into our awareness, into our sense of self. It happened one day. He changed our hearts suddenly or slowly, leaving us with a new and different awareness that he is Lord and we find life in him.

Responding to these ideas, to the notion that Christ comes and we do not choose, Jesus’ disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

They said this in John 6:60. I have been thinking about John chapter 6, a passage of scripture that puts together the two ideas in the first two paragraphs above. It is a passage particularly blunt in conveying how little autonomy people have when it comes to believing in Christ or receiving the rewards of doing so. In my book about predestination, You Did Not Choose Me, But I Chose You, I could have said much more about John 6. Blogger Grayson Gilbert has written eloquently on how, in John 6, Jesus was rejected for teaching predestination. This post builds on and borrows from ideas in his piece.

Here are some of the hard points out of John chapter 6:

1. Signs will never be sufficient (John 6:30)

The crowd at Capernaum asked Jesus in 6:30, “What sign are you going to do so we may see and believe you?” Yet as John 6:1-25 makes clear, these same people had just seen Jesus miraculously feed five thousand, and these same people also saw enough to at least infer that Jesus had walked on water. Accordingly, Jesus said, “You have seen me and yet you do not believe” (6:37).

It is a false plea that says, “Show me just one more sign” or “I need just a little more evidence to believe.” Another sign will never be sufficient, because this is not where belief comes from. The fact that people remained unpersuaded after seeing Jesus himself perform his own miracles should show us how powerless we are to win converts with our arguments or testimony. Signs, arguments, and testimony are an aid to belief, but belief does not originate with these things.

2. No transaction occurs (John 6:31)

The particular sign the crowd wanted was provision. In John 6:31, they referred to the bread that had poured down out of heaven in the Old Testament. The crowd said to Jesus, essentially, “If we believe, tell us what our reward will be.”

Jesus’ shocking response is still shocking when stated forthrightly today. He responded that there is no promised reward in terms of gifts in this world. Since our human effort is irrelevant to whether we believe—“the flesh doesn’t help at all,” he said (6:63)—getting rewarded for our effort is irrelevant as well. Jesus is the reward both in this world and beyond.

Upon hearing this, the members of the crowd complained (6:41). They wanted to be the judges of whether God had come. They wanted to size up the Messiah by their own desires and choose accordingly. So they went ahead and judged anyway, and they found Jesus lacking (6:42).

3. No one comes unless drawn (John 6:44)

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him,” Jesus said (6:44). This is the verse I do discuss in my book, one of the various direct statements in scripture to the effect that God chooses us before we can choose God. My book describes how this idea, the idea that faith in Christ is predestined, clarifies our role as believers. I hope you’ll consider reading it if this idea intrigues you.

Jesus lays out the matter in even more detail in John 6:38-40: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my will, but the will of him who sent me. This is the will of him who sent me: that I should lose none of those he has given me but should raise them up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father: that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

4. Jesus gives Jesus and this is sufficient (John 6:51)

Now comes the hardest part of the hard teaching: Jesus Christ is enough. In 6:51, to the crowd that was looking for bread, Jesus offered himself as bread in its place.

Jesus is enough: If we know he is Lord of creation, nothing happening in creation can overcome him or the salvation he gives. If we know he will raise us (6:40), nothing that befalls us is final. In 6:53-58, Jesus gives a disturbing speech about eating his flesh and drinking his blood that sounds a lot like cannibalism, but his point is that no earthly reward, benefit, or provision is needed or even germane. We can live, and live more freely, by more fully taking him in.

5. The hard teaching drives would-be disciples away (John 6:66)

“From that moment [the moment of Jesus teaching all the hard truths above], many of his disciples turned back and no longer accompanied him,” says John 6:66. That verse connects to the post I will share next, about how predestination and the complete sufficiency of Christ still turn many away. By contrast, the ones given belief do not turn away, because the teaching gives life even though it is hard, and because the ones given belief do not really have the option of turning. They have been changed.

“You don’t want to go away, too, do you?” Jesus asked his Twelve.

“Lord, who will we go to?” Peter responded. “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God!” (6:67-69).

“It Is a Pleasant Story”: Ambiguities in the Life of Henry Ossawa Tanner

I am beginning to understand the conceit built into biography, particularly the biography of an artist. As though the life itself is a painting, we look for a frame to hold it—a tidy square. We look for the context of a single aim, tension, or motive to explain the artist’s work. But if the ideas of the artist really could be expressed this squarely, then the art would have been superfluous and the artist never would have come to our attention as someone worthy of a biography.

The Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898
I’ve come to this as I search for the life, purpose, and heart of the artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937). I search for these things, but I don’t think I’ll get to have them. He spoke little of himself that was recorded; he left scant autobiographical matter behind. He left only his paintings, one of which—the rich, midnight-hued impression of Jesus receiving Nicodemus—I found to be perfect for the cover of my latest book. In gratitude for this painting, in gratitude for his work, I wanted to be able to introduce Tanner to you. I wanted to be able to know him so I might let you know him also. But I do not know him. After a bit of reading and searching, I know only what I do not know.

What follows, then, is some of that—the spaces I find in which a definite knowledge of the man is missing. In the life of Henry Tanner, here are some of the ambiguities, the absences framed by opposing facts or unprovable speculation:

Study for Nicodemus Visiting Jesus,
Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1899
1. He was a remembrance of slavery; he wished to forget slavery

Tanner’s mother, Sarah Miller Tanner, was a former slave. His middle name honored an event in the fight against slavery, the raid by the abolitionist John Brown on Osawatomie, Kansas. Tanner’s father, Benjamin Tucker Tanner, was a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church who advocated for the elimination of segregation. But Tanner the painter left this context behind. He went to Paris to live and work, beyond the reach of American slavery’s memory and legacy.

2. He was opposed in his art; he was encouraged in his art

The move to Paris was useful because of the obstacles to artistic acceptance Tanner would have faced at home. France’s climate was more racially tolerant than that of America. Yet his way wasn’t all obstacles; Tanner had tailwinds to his career that many an artist today would welcome. His parents recognized and encouraged his artistic promise. They enrolled him in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and honored his choice to pursue painting as his life’s work.

The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water,
Henry Ossawa Tanner, ca. 1907
3. He was an African American artist; he refused this label

Tanner was widely known as an African American artist, and by the end of the Harlem Renaissance period of the 1920s, he was held in such high regard that younger African American artists would travel to Paris for an audience with him. However, in a letter to art critic Eunice Tietjens, he took exception to her congratulating him as a “negro” artist, rejecting racial categorization by citing the known or likely mixed ancestry of his parents. Tanner wrote, “Now am I a Negro? Does not the 3/4 of English blood in my veins, which when it flowed in ‘pure’ Anglo-Saxon men and which has done in the past effective and distinguished work in the U.S.—does this not count for anything? Does the 1/4 or 1/8 of ‘pure’ Negro blood in my veins count for all?”

4. His motive in painting scenes from the Bible is unknown

Tanner devoted much of the full maturity of his artistic career to painting scenes from the Bible. The largest share of his finished works fits this category. Why? In his time, paintings portraying the Bible were in higher demand than paintings of contemporary scenes. With his upbringing, with the knowledge of the content of the Bible he would have learned from his father, Tanner was well-equipped to answer this demand. Yet the indications seem to be that Tanner himself was a man of Christian humility, reverence, and faith. Did he experience his own work primarily as serving a market or primarily as his worshipful act of advancing the kingdom? He left no definite statement on this question. On one notable occasion he was asked whether he painted from the Bible in answer to his father’s hope that he would have been a minister. Tanner replied, “It is a pleasant story and I will not destroy it.”

Daniel in the Lions’ Den, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1907-1918
The artist is a truth-finder. The painter who presents a finished work is saying, essentially, “This representation aligns with the truth as I experience it.” The introduction of photography set the painter even more free to depart from visual accuracy toward greater fidelity to this felt truth, and Tanner lived and worked in the age when photography was first providing this freedom.

Meanwhile, biography—even autobiography—is inherent construction. Or reduction. It is a shorthanding, a search for the most inclusive story that makes the largest number of exterior details fit. In contrast, the artist searches the interior, finding the current of truth there and hoping to ride this current past the context of any exterior details so as to convey meaning into other contexts, other lives. Tanner left us his work because it’s what he wanted to leave us. And he left few autobiographical statements because, I suspect, he would have considered these extraneous or incomplete by comparison.

[PS. One more fact worth sharing, though it didn’t fit into the piece above: Henry Tanner might not have been the most accomplished member of his family. His sister, Halle Tanner Johnson, was the first female doctor in Alabama.]

How To Be Older

Time rolls on, we grow older, and the pleasures become quieter and deeper. I am, for what it’s worth, in my late forties, so age fifty is in sight. I was going to title this post something like “How to Be Fifty,” describing a few things I think I’ve figured out about how to live free, with no attention to the time. But I realized there is nothing age-specific about what I have to say. These are some of the points we learn, forget, and learn again within every decade, the points we might be able to know for a while and hold onto within any season of life. Rather than “How to Be Fifty,” this post would make just as much sense titled “How to Be Thirty.” To live a life of joy, to experience the days in a way that is not just smart but also unconcerned, to follow more fully after that pleasure that is increasingly to be found in the quiet and the depth, here are a few things I have come to believe are valuable to learn how to do:

1. Waste Time

We lose the trick of wasting time. We lose this trick every time we take the next step or advance to the next level of whatever roles we fill. Time gets recruited after our aims and obligations, toward getting things taken care of or getting work done. Even the kind of time-wasting we kick ourselves for—procrastination—is still beholden to aims and obligations, because the stark fact of those things not being addressed is the very reason for the kick, the reason we view the time as misspent. The “wasting time” I mean here is something different: lost time spent well, purposeless time spent on time itself, the moment spent on fully considering the experience it offers that would otherwise be missed.

For example, none of us ever loses our interest in the weather, but practically all of us relegate it to a background detail. A life of joy opens room for the weather, offering the freedom to experience time sometimes by feeling the warmth of the sun and giving consideration to how the light plays, or listening to the rain’s sound to appreciate the strange lovely way that every rain sounds a little different. Other ways of wasting time include reading for its own sake, thinking just to see where thoughts go, or doing a simple chore that feels appealing rather than pressing. The time-wasting is deliberate and actively attentive“attention-wasting” might be what I really meanso recreations of passive consuming (food, media) likely do not fit the bill.

In an early outline of this essay, I had “waste time” lower down on the list. I moved it to number one because of its power as an act of defiance. If advancing age brings with it the fear that time is short, reclaiming time by deliberately wasting it is the way to push back against this lie.

2. Recognize Your Circumstances As Meaningful

As time passes, as things happen, as we find ourselves in particular places, the destiny that was once invisible becomes partially revealed. The veil gets drawn back on the events and developments that shape us and outline the story of who we are to be.

Seeing the circumstances of our lives as meaningful is the first step to living out that meaning, and also a way toward freedom because of the clarity of purpose this brings. The questions, “Where would you have me go, Lord?” and “What would you have me do?” each receive a response. Answer: He has delivered you there! He has equipped you to do it!

Youth lacks this window into meaning. We are surrounded by others similar to us who have similar stories. But as more time passes, each of us acquires a history increasingly different from anyone else’s, leaving us fitted to filling a place or performing a service no one else could quite do the same way. Time is the means by which one is sculpted, and there come points in time—maybe you are at such a point now—for saying yes to where time has placed you and whom it has made you to be.

3. Forgive Yourself

To be fifty or nearly so is to have made a mess of things. To be thirty might be much the same. The past leaves room for missteps and failure. The bigger the past is, the more likely it contains some wreckage that still gives shape to your story and informs your thoughts. Perhaps it consists of plans that should have been left alone, or perhaps mistakes that someone else would have been smart enough not to make. If the wreckage is fully and entirely in the past, count this as a great blessing.

Count it also a blessing to have the life that is now poignantly softened and informed by the touch of this failure or folly, or even sorrow. Forgive yourself—recognize your brokenness—in part for the sake of peace, which joy requires, and in part because owning the wreckage, claiming it and taking it, is the start of the greater capacity for forgiveness and understanding you might be able to bring to the people and situations you’ll find next.

4. Welcome Weariness as a Liberator

As time passes, what once seemed novel comes to seem wearying. Attainments, adventures, achievements—item after item falls off the list of what seems exhilarating to pursue. However, what once might have been inhibiting can lose its power and place the same way. The voices of self-criticism and self-limitation are discovered to have said much the same thing over and over again for years upon years, producing the same tired outcome again and again. Just last year there came a moment for me when I crossed a line of weariness in my thoughts and questioned an inner voice of self-criticism I had been hearing since I was fifteen or sixteen. The voice wasn’t me, and its rages had long grown repetitive and dull. Not listening was more interesting than continuing to be cowed as I had for so long. The boredom of weariness can enable freedoms that our courage can’t quite reach.

5. Feel Sad

Another way of talking about the pleasures becoming quieter and deeper is the transition away from happiness as a thing pursued and occasionally won toward joy as the thing held and known. A life of joy can have sadness in it. It must allow sadness, because the passing years eventually bring us far enough that the way ahead contains loss as much as gain. Children leave, seasons end, elders pass, doors close. The poignancy of the experience of these things is itself a treasure, so long as we trust in joy’s returning presence sufficiently that we are safe to experience the sadness honestly and fully.

All four of my points preceding this one have to do with accepting and receiving what is—being in and experiencing the world, including the world we have helped to make—as both a complement and an alternative to our efforts to resist, alter, or pull more from the world. Learning this acceptance is valuable partly because the passages are coming that we cannot resist or alter, that leave us with less instead of more.

In the life of joy, these passages too are life. Sadness too is life. While standing on the expectation of joy’s safe return, sadness can be explored and known. The sorrow passes but the softening it produces hopefully remains. Well into the years past thirty and, I expect, well into the years past fifty as well, we discover we are still being remade. We discover the losses might even be gains. Time is still sculpting, and the sadness softens us so deeply that we can more fully accommodate the shape that joy would have us take.

What is Joy? The Same Sentence Appears in Two of My Books—Here are Excerpts

I just noticed that the same sentence, asking the same big question, identically appears in two of my books. That question: “What is joy?”

Happiness and joy are different. This theme speaks to me, apparently. It has appeared in various posts to this blog. And as I’ve now noticed, the theme is a thread of continuity running from one of my books into the latest one.

Relevant passages out of the two books actually somewhat fit together in exploring this question. What follows, then, is an essay built out of excerpts from different books.

From The Ten Commandments, chapter 5:
What is joy? Joy and happiness are actually two different things, and the distinction is profound. [...] In this life, happiness is the fleeting substitute we pursue when joy is lacking. Indeed, happiness must be pursued. (The U.S. Constitution’s phrase, “the pursuit of happiness,” seems to appreciate this point.) We race after happiness as quickly as it fades. By contrast, joy is something we have. It is a fruit of the Spirit, a possession of the heart. Rather than trying to get happiness out of life, obtain joy from its source—the love of God—and channel that joy out into life. This reversal reorients the believer’s very understanding of the nature of fulfillment and personal freedom.

From You Did Not Choose Me, But I Chose You, chapter 17:
To begin to confront the personal struggle inherent in Christian faith, start here: The way of the Spirit is not a way of happiness. 
Christians are rarely told this fact bluntly. They should be. The way of the Spirit is a way of joy, but happiness and joy are different. 
Jesus shows us this. Jesus surely was a man of joy, because joy is a fruit of the Spirit of God (Galatians 5:22). Yet nothing about the portrayal we have of Jesus in any of the four gospels suggests a man who was happy. Nothing we see of him in the gospels suggests a man who kept himself carefree, who delighted in accolades, who filled his time with pleasures. Nothing about him suggests an irrepressible grin. Such a grin is an expression of satisfaction with this world, whereas Jesus was a man of the other world. His thoughts were elsewhere; his understanding was elsewhere. He knew more. 
His knowledge gave him eyes to see, an awareness that was not averted. Jesus knew what death had done in the world and what it was still doing. Far from laughing, scripture tells us that Jesus wept.

From You Did Not Choose Me, But I Chose You, chapter 20:
What is joy?
An easier starting point is this: What is happiness? If the two are different, then it helps to explore this question.
We can be happy. Start there. Happiness and joy are different, but they are not opposed. Happiness and joy can exist together. It is just that the one is fleeting. Happiness is the enjoyment of an attainment, pleasure, or prize—a feeling that always ends. A life of joy might include much happiness, and in fact, joy makes happiness easier. With joy, we can watch happiness pass away without desperation in seeing it go.
Because happiness always does pass away. This is its nature. The nature of happiness is that it is hostage to the futility that rules the world. Happiness must be pursued to be kept, must be chased to be held, because another attainment or pleasure is always needed to restore happiness or keep it aloft. Much energy is wasted on the seduction that life can be found through this chasing. 
Joy, by contrast, is not pursued, but instead is trusted. Joy is not a feeling to ride, but a foundation on which to stand. Thus, joy leaves room for any feeling within the experience of it. The person who knows joy can be sad. Sadness might even facilitate joy, because a sadness that is sufficiently draining can break us from burning up energy on happiness’s pursuit. A great portion of one’s life can be spent on running away from hurt or fear by seeking happiness after happiness so we can feel, for scant moments at a time, that we live in a world where the fear or hurt is absent. Joy is a different answer. Joy says the fear and hurt are present, but it is they that are momentary. They are fleeting. The fear and hurt are real, but we know something bigger than these feelings, something eternal. We know the Spirit of God, the Spirit that even now blows where it will. And joy is part of the fruit of this Spirit moving through us, moving through you, the fruit of being in the place or doing the thing that the Spirit would join you in doing. 

What to Say to Someone Who is Hurting or Has Suffered a Loss

People in pain add to their pain by fearing that what they are experiencing is a burden or bother to others.

And people who have suffered a loss fear that this loss is the beginning and that other things will be lost to them as well.

I have heard, “No one ever knows what to say” to those who are feeling these things. Once when I was feeling bad, I jotted some lines I thought would be meaningful to hear. I recently was reminded of those lines and looked them up again.

I think maybe you say this:

“I know you’re sad. Just know that if you need to go ahead and be sad—if you’re sullen, or withdrawn, or not quite there—that’s OK. I’ll still be around, and I’ll even be here if you need anything from me.”

Or maybe you say:

“I’m your friend, and no clock is running on what you’re dealing with. I know you need to go through this. I am not going anywhere.”