After the shocking suicide of Robin Williams in 2014, comedian Jim Norton admitted in an op-ed, “In the 25 years I’ve been doing stand-up, I’ve personally known at least eight comedians who committed suicide.”
Not even comedy can keep the demons away.
So is there a joy that has any hope of survival when laughter has ceased?
Joy in Narnia
Near the end of the last book in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series, when all the lore of the mythic kingdom seems to come to an end, the teary-eyed reader must finally turn the last page and leave Aslan, break from the enchanted lands, and wait in anticipation for something greater. Peter, one of the main characters, faces a similar reality. He will never return to Narnia, at least not the “old Narnia” of his recollection. For him there is a “real Narnia” ahead, a better Narnia to come, the substance of the shadowy Narnia of his past. This “new Narnia” will be “a deeper country” where “every rock and flower and blade of grass will look as if it meant more.”
“The deepest joy carries with it a pain and a longing that truly make the heart better.”
As Lord Digory lowers down the weight of all this on Peter, the tension breaks momentarily with a little joke: “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!”
The punchline (repeated in some form three times throughout the series) brings the solemn group into a moment of jovial laughter. But it swiftly passes as Lewis’s own voice breaks into the story.
But very quickly they all became grave again: for, as you know, there is a kind of happiness and wonder that makes you serious. It is too good to waste on jokes.
There is a divine bliss too wonderful to paste on the end of a punchline. There is a joy strong enough to hold the soul through life’s hardest experiences when laughter will not do.
There is a joy that carries us through pain and loss — “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). Sorrow makes us serious, and this serious sorrowing is where divine joy emerges to gird the soul with strength.
Joy and Folly
“Deep seriousness is not at all an enemy to joy, only to folly.”
That was the testimony of a dying man, Douglas Taylor.
Quietly and unnoticed by the world, Taylor passed into eternity on June 2, 2014, two weeks short of his sixty-sixth birthday. Douglas was an editor and typesetter for the Banner of Truth, a faithful gospel publisher in Scotland. Diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer in May of 2011, and told he would have six months to live, Taylor took up his pen and chronicled his path of serious joy, as he walked toward his own fast-approaching mortality.
The meditations of dying Christians pierce with supernatural clarity, and for Taylor it became a three-year journey, first journaled online and now collected into the new book I Shall Not Die, But Live.
Taylor was on the hunt for the kind of joy that would hold up under the weight of his unstoppable disease. In one excerpt, he presses into the text: “Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy” (Psalm 43:4). He translates this beautiful phrase from the literal Hebrew: God is the gladness of my joy. “What a full and wonderful expression!” Taylor exclaims. “It seems to suggest the very essence and quintessence of joy, its very heart and soul” (87).
Such God-centered gladness buoyed Taylor’s life. Joy in God does not distract from the seriousness of his glory.
“There is a kind of happiness and wonder that makes you serious.”
Two months after his cancer diagnosis, Taylor’s hunt for serious joy led him to Ecclesiastes 7:2–4:
It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
Here Taylor made his deepest discovery into serious joy:
These verses are not against joy, but against folly. Those who have experienced deep joy have discovered a strange thing: that, in its poignancy, it is closer to sorrow than it is to mirth. The deepest joy carries with it a pain and a longing that truly make the heart better, whereas the laughter of fools in the house of mirth undoubtedly makes the heart worse. Deep seriousness is not at all an enemy to joy, only to folly. The thoughtful consideration of the end of all men is also likely to produce sobriety, a quality in which the professing church today seems lacking. (39)
Those words pierce with urgency for us all.
Serious joy does not wait for hospice care in the house of tears; it’s offered to us right now as a necessary ballast for faith in a fallen world. Serious joy makes it possible for us to live inside the simultaneous juxtaposition of sorrowing and rejoicing (2 Corinthians 6:10; 7:4).
Such a serious joy shapes everything about the life of faith. It shapes our worship and preaching and discipleship. It can be the focus of schooling, as an “Education in Serious Joy” (Bethlehem College & Seminary). It should shape our missional focus, as John Piper says, “We exist to summon the world to serious joy in a sovereign Savior.” Serious joy embraces and governs every experience in the Christian life.
“There is a joy strong enough to carry us through life’s hardest experiences.”
Taylor and Piper are not alone in making this discovery. Charles Spurgeon said it centuries ago: “Be not frivolous, but be joyful; gravely, heartily, deeply joyful.” And Martyn Lloyd-Jones said it decades ago: “People have this foolish notion that you cannot be happy and serious at the same time. That is where the trouble comes in. But you can. The only joy worth having is a serious joy, a sober joy, a deep joy, a solid joy” (Living Water, 417).
More recently, Piper explained serious joy in these sobered words:
Christian Hedonists can smell the flames of hell. Christian Hedonists tremble still at the ledge from which we were snatched. Christian Hedonists see those who are toppling toward wrath as people who are just like us, only not yet snatched by grace alone from the ledge. Christian Hedonists feel a potential for joy — infinitely serious joy — in the God of holiness and wrath and grace that is so great it would break our heart if God did not give us a divine ability to bear the weight of our happiness without being crushed by it. Oh, the difference in worship when the wrath of God is known and felt! Gone is jesting and silliness and slapstick and pettiness and trifling and joking and clowning and levity.
God is the gladness of our joy, a crushingly deep and weighty joy. Deep seriousness is no threat to this joy. Indeed, serious joy alone is a solid joy for our lives. Seriousness does not threaten joy. Seriousness only threatens our folly. And that’s a threat we can joyfully welcome.