Do I Choose Joy?
Its lyrics challenge dull acceptance of bad news when one could, or should, choose joy. “I choose joy” is so positive and catchy I had to wonder how such an arresting and upbeat song could chafe me and I could not initially put my finger on just why. This review is my attempt to smooth out the wrinkles in my thoughts as I ponder whether Joy’s lyrics in fact venture far enough.
I soon realized there may have been something of a family creed surfacing here when I checked out an interview given by brothers Luke and Joel Smallbone. “You really do have nothing but a choice,” they said, and they should know because shortly after the family relocation to Tennessee (from Australia in 1991), their father David’s job fell through and this plunged the whole family into survival mode. The phrase “I choose joy,” which occurs repeatedly throughout their recent hit song, testifies that life ought to be done this way. Statements like “gotta get that fire,” or “this is do or die,” and “the time has come to make a choice,” rehearse the song’s point of view that something is missing and only decisive action will retrieve it.
The Smallbone family history is motivating insofar as it reminds us of the fallible and forgetful champions we are and that we must draw on inner fire in spite of our own situations. Their creedal approach to Joy is essentially healthy. Now as champions themselves, they release hit upon hit onto the Christian music scene.
So somebody please pass the megaphone
I'll shout it on the count of three…
Formation of joy, on the other hand, does not receive such clear articulation here. Joy as the result of a process is seen more clearly in the words of Paul the Apostle who uses the metaphor of fruit (Gal 5:22-23). Such a metaphor conveys process, the result of living by the power of the Holy Spirit, much more than the exercise of willpower – something I believe noteworthy. For Paul’s choice clearly contrasts a life lived satisfying the desires of the flesh with the life of the Spirit which results in love, peace, and joy.
To be fair, lyrics are fashioned on the anvils of space and meter. Just as “sound bites” do in politics and journalism, modern lyrics work at providing something rhythmically memorable, and while K&C do seem to reduce joy to binary choice, there is ample evidence of serious effort in their song-writing.
Choice is also indispensable for daily living but, where the fictitious character Forrest Gump once claimed life’s choices are “like a box of chocolates,” he reflected a contemporary Zeitgeist wherein everything is about choice; my life, my choice - from cellphones to spirituality. To unquestioningly absorb such a cultural belief risks making joy an option among several, rather than it emerging from relationship with God.
Thus, the terse pragmatism of Joy’s lyrics ironically threaten the best appreciation of joy by being better than many others. If instead we recalibrate the framework around joy to include grief and suffering, we might agree with Rowan Williams that “What we can contribute by our will or effort is not a system for making ourselves happy but a habit of readiness to receive… moments of gift and surprise.”
Gift and surprise are found in the words of Psalm 126:
It seemed like a dream, too good to be true, when God returned Zion’s exiles.
We laughed, we sang, we couldn’t believe our good fortune (Psalm 126:1–2, The Message)
Following in the great Psalms tradition of supplication, remonstrance, and testimony, lines taken from Joy shout out: “Oh, hear my prayer tonight, I'm singing to the sky.” Psalm 126 recalls that those who “reap with shouts of joy” had already “sow[n] in tears” (v. 5 NRSV). Not that we “sing the blues” in error, or else assert them to balance out our lives, but out of recognition that joy may also be wrapped up in grief.
Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann advises us to let our experience touch the psalter such that its (sometimes overly-familiar) words “bring power, shape, and authority to what we know about ourselves.” This ought to ward us off rushing to sterile dictionary definitions that differentiate joy from its synonyms. For if joy becomes our complete focus, we might miss other important features of Israel’s dialogue with God, resulting in abstractions. No dialogue at all.
Expressing this element of surprise, C. S. Lewis describes his personal journey from atheism to Christian faith in Surprised by Joy, an autobiography of his early life. William Wordsworth’s poem “Surprised by Joy” voices his own disappointment, being unable to share joy with a loved one in absentia. By means of a nuanced reflection, David Whyte describes a “natural vulnerability that accompanies joy.” Far from contradictions to joy these writers/poets qualify joy. They also point to a larger body of literature on the subject.
Christians have much to celebrate, and they should sing and dance like Israel whose circumstances changed for the better; at times dramatically so. Although Whyte’s musings lean towards Eastern philosophy, he exposes a rich Christian tradition too, rooted in the ancient psalms, which embraces joy as well as sorrow. Further, there are occasions when “like the disciples at Easter, it takes something of a shock to open us up to joy.” The joy of Easter, does not guarantee freedom from pain or disappointment, but affirms “a deeper level of reality.” This enables honest and courageous living.
I bought my own copy of K&C’s song which exudes positivity, vigour, and well … joy. From its syncopated marimba notes to its sharp vocal stabs this song wants “to move you.” You simply can’t help feeling its rhythm in your bones. The official YouTube video appears to modernise scriptural imagery; where streams in the desert become a television monitor bleeding colour onto the ‘oh so seventies’ news set, transforming it into an energetic ‘dance bomb.’ Joy positively glows in the dark with the band’s energy.
But what am I going to do with Jesus’ disconcerting sermon, and specifically Matt 5:11-12, where those who are unjustly persecuted for his sake actually discover joy? This seems to be where this discussion should now turn, and a catchy song like this should be our prompt.
Peter Jelleyman graduated from Laidlaw College in 2012 with a Bachelor of Theology. Music has always attracted Peter and he especially enjoys electronic music. He now works as a broadcast technician, but whenever possible likes to ponder the messages musicians are presenting through their art.
 “JOY.LYRICS”, accessed Mar 08, 2019, https://genius.com/For-king-and-country-joy-lyrics
 Cindy Watts, “For King & Country gives thanks for family, early trials” Tennessean, published Nov. 27, 2014, https://www.tennessean.com/story/entertainment/music/2014/11/27/king-country-rebecca-st-james/70106770/
 Rowan Williams, Choose Life: Christmas and Easter Sermons in Canterbury Cathedral (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013), 195.
 Joy occurs in what the ESV Study Bible calls “a community lament that recalls a previous time of God’s mercy on his people (v. 1) and asks for a fresh show of that mercy (v. 4).” Whether joy is recalled or anticipated the psalm communicates gift as well as surprise. Crossway Bibles. The ESV Study Bible. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008), 1106.
 Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms (Eugene OR: Cascade Books, 2007), 2.
 Though strictly speaking about his early life, in hindsight Surprised by Joy seems prescient of Lewis’ later romance and marriage to one, Joy Davidman; a story told in Brian Sibley, Shadowlands: the True Story of C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1994). Upon Joy’s death to cancer, Lewis wrestled with the practicality of ideas he developed earlier in The Problem of Pain thereconcluding that pain and hell are not in themselves reason enough to reject a good and omnipotent god. Joy, and especially its loss, rings with ambiguity. It is likely that Lewis borrowed his title from Wordsworth’s poem (of the same name) in which the poet grieves the inability to share a joyous moment with a departed friend.
 “Surprised by Joy by William Wordsworth,” accessed Mar 3, 2019. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50285/surprised-by-joy
 David Whyte, The Heart Aroused (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2002), 104.
 Williams, Choose Life, 195-99. Describes joy refreshingly as “being rooted in the moment, in a way that doesn’t at all blur your honesty about what’s there in front of your eyes but gives you what you need to sit in the presence of horror and grief, and live.” Perhaps this pinpoints what the lyrics have missed.