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What Joy Isn't

Three ways we misuse or abuse joy

Since joy is so powerful, like other powerful responses it can be abused and misused. Here are three ways we can misuse joy in our relationships.

1. Hurtful humor.

This is what I call the sword and shield approach. With the sword you inflict intentional pain, and then you hide behind a phrase such as, "I was just kidding. Can't you take a joke?"

It's the coward's approach. It's saying, I have an issue with my spouse, but I'm too chicken to bring it up honestly where I might face disapproval or anger. So rather than facing it head on, often in the company of other people, I'll come up with a joke that's intentionally designed to hit at the heart of some tender area between us.

Some neighbors from across the street came to our house one evening to borrow an iron. The husband wanted to use it. I was amazed. And in his hurry to borrow my iron he had to rush back to his house because his stir fry was burning. So he was cooking. I asked his wife, "Does he do in-home training?" making a joke intentionally designed to say to my husband, John, Can't you be like that? How come you don't iron? Why don't you cook?

After this couple left John asked me, "Did you really mean that?" He was hurt. It was so easy for me to say, "Oh, come on; that was just a joke," when it wasn't a joke. I misused joy.

John's also been guilty of using hurtful humor. Not long ago I was commenting on the fact that when our children were little they didn't pull all the pots and pans out of the drawers in the kitchen and play with them like so many toddlers do. I was wondering why that might be, and John mentioned that perhaps it was because they'd never seen the pots and pans. Translation: I wish you'd do more of that home-cooked meal thing. But it was easy to hide behind, "Oh no, I was just kidding."

We know one husband who's a real go-getter, a decisive man. His wife is very different. He loses no opportunity to jokingly chide her about the fact that she can't make a decision about how much salt to put on her salad or what dress she's going to wear. The sad thing is now their sons are doing it. They all make fun and tease their mom about her inability to make decisions.

Perhaps it would be better for that couple to have a heart-to-heart discussion in which they say, "I wish you could make decisions better," or, "Why do you need me to be like you and be decisive? Can it be okay that I have trouble making decisions and you don't?"

Humor that's based on ridicule is using joy destructively on your relationship.

True joy comes when we vow to laugh with each other, not at each other. Personal shortcomings, areas of tenderness between the two of us, are not material for jokes or the use of humor.

2. Inauthentic joy.

Ever been around somebody who doesn't allow negative emotions? They have this attitude that says, I will always pretend that everything is okay. I'll always have a cheerful attitude. But life isn't like that. These people use joy inauthentically.

I grew up in a home where my dad wouldn't face his alcoholism and his job issues that stemmed from that, and my mother wouldn't face her dissatisfaction with their relationship. My father's response was always to tell another joke and laugh, and everything was always okay. The issues were never talked about. His humor was a misuse of the joy that God intends for a relationship. It didn't bring oneness and unity; it split people apart. While laughter is a great tool to help deflect stress, sometimes the stress needs to be faced.

3. Passive joy.

Sometimes we wait for joy to come to us. Television is a great example of passive joy. Sitting side by side on the couch thinking we're bettering our marriage and moving toward oneness when we're both just passively watching the same thing. This comes from the misunderstanding that joy can be external instead of internal. If I keep looking for external things to give me joy, then on Monday morning when I look at my calendar and see that Friday night I have a date with my husband, which I know will be fun, that waiting for joy means I'll miss a lot of the joy that's waiting for me during the week.

How do we become the kind of person who doesn't put joy on externally but actually has it inside us? Jesus tells us: "Remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love . . . I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete" (John 15:9-11).

We become people who experience internal joy when we remain deeply connected to Jesus. Then we carry that joy with us no matter the situation. In many of his writings, the apostle Paul urges us to hang onto joy in spite of whatever else is going on. Not to be passive and wait for it to come to us, but for our marriages to be the kind in which joy springs up and is a gift overflowing no matter where we go. That's active, positive joy.

Nancy Ortberg, a speaker and teacher, lives in California.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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