Joy is a common word in the Bible and in Christian tradition, but—like many biblical and theological words—joy does not always mean what most people might assume. It’s not a synonym for happiness, nor is joy the same thing as optimism. In Matthew 28:8, we are told that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary “left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy.” Joy does not replace negative feelings, but rather accompanies them into the heart of God.
Joy is fleeting on our side of eternity. Jesus tells the disciples in John 16:22, “you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” St. James tells us, “Whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy” (James 1:2). St. Paul talks about joy several times, including (perhaps most importantly) as one of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). The Catechism identifies joy as the experience of the reality of heaven (CCC 1029-1030). C.S. Lewis, a Romantic by sensibility, identified joy as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction,” a longing for and a foretaste of the world to come.
It is no surprise that real joy is often associated with particularly imaginative types like Lewis; and in the second half of the twentieth century, the word attached itself to the most famous television artist of his age, Bob Ross. The Joy of Painting debuted in 1983, and its thirty-one seasons live on in syndication and via streaming down to the present day. Since Ross’ death in 1995, he has become one of the best-known icons in American popular culture, burned into our memory thanks in large part to his famously frizzy hairdo. Few would dispute that Ross radiates “joy,” however you define it.