Designing for Joy


Joy is a hot topic right now.

I base this conclusion on my extensive research — two books I read recently. They are: Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans (Knopf, 2017), and Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant (Knopf, 2017).

As I peer into 2018, I wonder what lies ahead. I am hoping for a little joy. Not that my life is joyless. Yes, a teenager offered me her seat on the subway last week. Yes, I seem to be taking more naps than Reagan ever did. Yes, it’s true that my children seem to be nicer to me — more patronizing — than usual. And yes, it’s true that last week, my daughter said I was “cute” — by which she meant, I assume, cute like someone off his nut, walking down the street in his pajamas.

Apart from these things which occur frequently, my life is a happy one. I’d even say “well-designed.”

They say that it’s important to find joy in the little things. I totally agree. My grandpa Frank was great at this. He’d find joy in the little things … a little nip or two, a little smoke behind the barn and a little card game with the boys. Much of this happened when grandma wasn’t looking. And if she was bothering him too much, he’d find joy in taking a little nap just to shut her up.

Anyway, as I travel through my days, I’d like to be aware of joy or joyfully aware. I suppose some would refer me to the Buddhist philosophy of “awareness,” and others to the trendy faddism of mindfulness. I am sure there is some help there, no doubt.

The Bible says that “the joy of the LORD is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). In 2018, I would like to design a life that is strong with joy — that is, to have a joy that makes me strong.

A Homiletics piece in the November-December 2017 issue referred to design thinking for the last Sunday of the year, which was also the last day of the year, December 31.

The piece mentions the Burnett and Evans book wherein the authors define a well-designed joyful life as “generative … constantly creative, productive, changing, evolving, and there is always the possibility of surprise.”

I don’t disagree, but what does God think is a well-designed life? And is such a life one that brings joy?

According to the Bible, a well-designed life is one that is “worthy of the Lord and please[s] him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10). This is a life that is “filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 Peter 1:8). The apostle Paul says that “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).

Some of us, I believe, have problems living joy-filled lives because our lives are resistant to joy. For some reason, joy just doesn’t seem to stick. Joy slides off us like water off a duck. We just can’t seem to hang on to it.

Have you noticed this? You see people who seem to have everything — but joy!

What is the matter with them?! I mean, these days, if you have a smartphone 7 and good reception, does it get better than that? Come on!

Yet, many people can’t find the joy. Sometimes, this inability to experience joy is an illness. I understand this. Yet others profess to be searching for joy, but look in all the wrong places — like career, mortgages, portfolios and expensive vacations. These things do not seem to provide the joy they hoped to find.

They seem to be condemned to live in the clouds of Sturm und Drang, struggling with Weltschmerz und Angst — to use expressions from the Germans who have been stereotypically described as a joyless race. The French refer to the malaise of a joyless life as ennui — reflecting the utter boredom one experiences with one’s banal and joyless existence.

The Chinese talk about joy in terms of shuāngxĭ, or “double happiness.” It is a very popular character that appears on cigarettes and matches, bottles of soy sauce, cans of evaporated milk, jewelry, fashionable clothing and so forth. The character means “happiness.” Replicate the character, and it becomes shuāngxĭ,  that is, “double happiness” or joy. Two happys equal one joy. It’s a concept that refers to the ability to recognize and understand the natural rhythm of life and acquiesce to its flow.


The thing is, we’re not going to experience joy until we find or make a connection with That Who Is Beyond Ourselves.

We were built for joy — designed by our Creator to be vessels that overflow with joy. We were made in God’s image. Do you really think that the imago Dei represents joyless, woeful, doleful, baleful and unhappy existence? We were not made to be vessels of negativity and sourpuss attitudes.

When we recognize that we were made in God’s image, and, ipso facto, as instruments to the glory of the Lord and the world the Lord has created for us, then perhaps we will choose joy. We will choose to accept joy as a gift from God who would not fail to give us that for which we are made.

Discover God and joy cannot be far behind. Drop your search for joy. Know God and you’ll get joy thrown in for free.

Sometimes, we need to stop doing what’s not working, and move on. In the words of E.M. Forster (or was it Joseph Campbell), we may need to let go of the life we planned in order to live the life that awaits us. Trying to have the life we plan can often be a joyless enterprise.

Seeking first God’s kingdom is a key to discovering the life God has for us.

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Timothy Merrill

TIMOTHY MERRILL is an ordained minister and has served churches in Oregon, Minnesota and Colorado. His doctoral work at Princeton Theological Seminary focused on the apocalyptic nature of the preaching of the First Crusade in 1096 A.D. His work has been published in the academic press including the Patristica and Byzantine Review and the Westminster Theological Journal. His book, Learning to Fall: A Guide for the Spiritually Clumsy (Chalice Press) appeared in 1998.

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