Imagine this scene. It’s Christmas Eve. Dad and mom are driving with their kids along snow-covered roads. Everyone is excited for the holiday. Someone starts singing a Christmas carol and they all join in. The camera zooms in to show the joy on each face as they laugh and clap and point our Christmas lights to each other. The car turns right and begins to slow for an upcoming intersection… What happens next?
Foreboding joy. I first heard the term while listening to a Brené Brown talk on CD. To explain the term, the social worker/researcher/author gave an example like the one above. How did you answer? Did you say they drove smoothly through the intersection and continued having a great time? Or was your instinct a car crash?
Most people picture some kind of calamity putting an end to the joyful scene. This, according to Dr. Brown, is foreboding joy. There is something instinctive within us that correlates a feeling of joy with a foreboding that it will not last. And not only do we fear that joy will not last, we also fear it will come crashing down around us in calamitous fashion.
Theologians distinguish between joy and happiness, and they may like to discuss which of these the family in the car was actually feeling, but my point is not that fine-grained. Call it foreboding joy or foreboding happiness if you like. Either way, we seem to have an instinctive desire to guard against it. When things start getting too good, we start getting scared.
The reason, from a Christian perspective, is simple. There is an enemy who wants to steal, kill, and destroy. In particular, he wants to steal our joy, kill our faith, and destroy our relationship with God. The moment we start listening to his whispers, our joy starts icing into fear.
But Satan is powerless against our God. And our God wants to give us not just temporary joy that crashes in calamity, but eternal joy that grows from His spirit living within us. Our God desires not just an “out there” relationship, but a deeply personal, indwelling relationship. There is no foreboding there. Nothing can snatch us from God’s protective arms.
The only appropriate response to this truth is thankfulness. Thankfulness that God defeated the devil so that we don’t have to. Thankfulness that God is our defender, our provider, and our ever-present companion. Thankfulness that God will bring us through the darkest nights.
The more our thankfulness is focused toward God’s character, the firmer our faith foundation becomes. The more we understand God’s character, the more we find to be thankful for. This creates an interesting parallel to Dr. Brown’s studies on foreboding joy. In her research, she discovered a simple key to overcoming the foreboding: gratitude. Recognizing the experience of joy as a gift and expressing appreciation allows us to experience the joy without the foreboding. This makes perfect sense to me. After all, the devil can’t get a word in edgewise if we’re too busy thanking God to listen.
I don’t know about you, but I’m thankful that simply being thankful increases my joy. And I’m thankful there is nothing foreboding in the joy of our Lord.
Janet Beagle, Ph.D. serves as director of graduate programs for Purdue University’s College of Engineering and is a writer, a Bible study teacher, and a student of God’s word. In her spare time, she likes to eat other people’s cooking and hike with her dog, Marly. Read more of Janet’s Christian reflections at www.mustardpatch.org.