I’ve been studying the Psalms lately, the church’s original hymnal. I’ve also been studying Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—the composition itself, and its reception history—particularly its “Ode to Joy” theme. So I’ve been thinking a lot about joy, and the struggle for it, which is something the psalmists expressed a lot, as did Beethoven in his masterwork.
Because the topic of joy has been at the front of my mind for the past month or so, I’ve been alert to its appearances in my RSS feed. And this week, I came across a video promoted by W. David O. Taylor—of musical artist Latifah Phillips singing her rendition of the popular kids’ Sunday school song “Down in My Heart” (“I’ve Got the Joy”).
From the first bar, you’ll notice a distinct difference in mood and tempo from what is traditionally played as a bright, fast, peppy tune accompanied by clapping: Phillips sings slowly, somberly, in a minor key. The dirge-like music seems to contradict the words. But actually, the pairing makes sense as an expression of that common spiritual experience that John Piper calls “the dividedness of the heart.” In a 2006 sermon, Piper preached from Psalm 43, showing how the writer of this psalm deals with the disjunction between what he knows to be objectively true (God is my refuge) and what he subjectively feels (God has rejected me). This psalmist’s process involves first praying for spiritual light and truth, then praying that this light and truth would lead him to God as his exceeding joy, and lastly praying that he would be able to express his joy in God.
In Phillips’s song, the speaker, the pray-er, is moving through a similar process: she reminds herself of the joy that is hers regardless of the circumstances she faces. She doesn’t put on a happy face; that would be inauthentic. She deeply feels the pain of her situation and expresses that pain to God. But she holds on to the joy of Christ that indwells her, claiming it as her own.
At 2:40 in the video, a bridge cuts in, loud and raw:
I can’t understand
And I can’t pretend
That this will be all right in the end
So I’ll try my best
And lift up my chest
To sing about this joy, joy, joy
Then in the chorus that follows, she sings, “I will be happy”—future tense—instead of “I’m so happy.” Happiness is different than joy: happiness is fleeting and dependent on temporal factors, but joy is deep and abiding, and Spirit generated. Joy is an inner state. The speaker recognizes that circumstances change all the time, and she trusts that God will bring her through this present trial. But no matter what her surface-level emotion is, was, or will be, she’s got a deep joy, always, down in her heart.