Are you ready for a joyful life? A life in which you are truly glad to be alive, where you are transformed by your relationship with God, where you can confidently face the problems life throws at you, and where you rejoice in your relationships with others—and those people rejoice in their relationship with you? Now here’s another question: do you feel that joy right now? Or are you instead trapped in what you could call the “Land of When and If:” “I’ll be joyful when I have a better job;” “I’d be joyful if my spouse would only change this habit…”
If you feel trapped in that land where joy is postponed until your circumstances change, I want you to see what the Holy Apostle Paul commands: “Rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16), and “Again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4)! The Christian life is meant to be joyous—our Lord even says, “I have come that they might have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). Think about this: God gives us the fullest possible life—to the point where He expects us to always rejoice—and yet too often we feel almost anything but true joy in our daily lives. What, then, prevents you and me from experiencing true joy, and how can we grow each day in experiencing the joy that God intends for us?
A key to answering this question is to understand both what real joy is, as well as what we frequently mistake for the real thing.
First, it is important to realize that joy is not something that can be manufactured or earned through the “right” purchases or activities. Our culture is obsessed with pursuing a never-ending series of physical and emotional pleasures, but these things ultimately fail to bring you true joy: you can enjoy eating, but become sick from overeating; you can enjoy buying things, but get caught in an endless cycle of materialism; you can work toward a high occupational or social status, but soon find that you crave an even higher status. In fact, when reflecting on our habit of confusing pleasurable sensations with joy, C.S. Lewis says, “I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for joy.”
You and I must also keep in mind that true joy is not merely an emotion, like the “happiness” so greatly valued by our culture. Calvin Miller, a Protestant writer, explains the difference like this: “Happiness is a buoyant emotion that results from the momentary plateaus of well-being that characterize our lives. Joy is bedrock stuff, on the other hand. Joy is a confidence that operates irrespective of our moods. Joy is the certainty that all is well, however we feel.”
If mere sensation and emotions are not true joy, then what is? Miller gives us a clue when he says joy is “bedrock stuff”—bedrock is solid rock, the foundation for an area. Since joy is “bedrock stuff,” it is linked to the foundation of our lives, and St. Paul clearly identifies this foundation: Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11). What a thrilling realization: God is joy! St. Athanasius the Great shows us that joy is inherent in the Holy Trinity when he proclaims, “The Father delights (in the Son), and in the same joy the Son rejoices in the Father;” St. Gregory Palamas adds that the “rejoicing of the Father and Son is the Holy Spirit.” Still more, God’s joy isn’t something completely removed from us—St. Nicholas Cabasilas tells us that, through Christ, we share in this divine joy: “It is said that the blessed rejoice with the joy of Christ, for that in which He rejoices gives them joy as well. He rejoices in Himself, so it follows that those who are able to share in His joy will enjoy the same degree of pleasure.”
Blessed Augustine powerfully describes the source of our joy—and the difference between true and false joy—when he exclaims:
O Lord, far be it from me to think that whatever joy I feel makes me truly happy. For there is a joy that is not given to those who do not love you, but only to those who love you for your own sake. You yourself are their true joy. Happiness is to rejoice in you and for you and because of you. This is true happiness and there is no other. Those who think that there is another kind of happiness look for joy elsewhere, but theirs is not true joy.
Of course, saying that true joy is relationship with God—Who is our true joy—raises a vital question: how can you recognize this joy, and how do you experience it? Fortunately, Holy Scripture provides examples of several varieties of joy you can experience through God (we’ll look at these points in greater detail in coming units).
One form of joy you can experience is rejoicing in the goodness God shows to you. Holy Scripture is filled with songs of joy and praise for God’s great work on behalf of His people, such as in Psalm 94:1, “Come, let us greatly rejoice in the Lord; let us shout aloud to God our savior; let us come before His face with thanksgiving, and let us shout aloud to Him with psalms.” Blessed Augustine similarly demonstrates this delight when he proclaims, “In all these things shall we not rejoice? Or shall we contain our joy? Or shall words suffice for our gladness? Or shall the tongue be able to express our rejoicing? If therefore no words suffice, ‘Blessed are the people who know glad shouting’” (Psalm 88:16). You will live in true joy when you can look at your life and praise God for everything He does for you.
You can see another kind of joy—which biblical scholar William Morrice calls “inward joy”—in the parables of the hidden treasure and pearl of great price (Matthew 13:44-45); in both cases people joyfully gave everything they had for a great treasure. St. Gregory the Dialogist relates the joy in these parables to spiritual joy when he says, “In the same way, he who has a clear knowledge of the sweetness of heavenly life gladly leaves behind all the things he loved on earth…His heart yearns for heavenly things, and nothing on earth pleases him. The allure of earthly things has now dissipated, for only the brilliance of that precious pearl dazzles his mind.” You will live in true joy when your heart and soul expand with love and worship for God during Church services and personal prayer.
Your joyful relationship with God is also a source of optimism and courage. Even when you suffer terrible circumstances in your life, you can remember God’s promise, “And My Spirit remains among you; take courage” (Haggai 2:5; see also Matthew 28:20). Regardless of what you might face, you can always depend upon Christ’s words, “Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me” (John 14:1). These promises are a source of joy for Christians because, St. John Chrysostom points out, they show us that Christ is “the one Who makes all things easy.” You will live in true joy when you experience God working in and through the difficulties you face in life.
When you think about some of these facets of joy—and the fact that you can experience and grow in this joy through your relationship with our joyous and joy-giving God—you can better understand why pursuing physical pleasure or mere emotional happiness will never enable you to experience true, transforming joy. As St. Peter of Damascus puts it, “If our joy is not in the Lord, not only do we not rejoice, but in all probability we never shall.” This is why you and I should pray along with the Holy Apostle Paul’s benediction, “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).
Our culture is filled with different ideas about what will bring joy—in fact, the advertising industry is built around making us dissatisfied with our current lifestyle, and then promising that specific products or activities will bring us real joy: drink this beverage, and attractive people will flock to you; buy this car, and your life (or at least your drive times) will be a luxurious vacation in which you are enviously watched by the people you pass. Elder Macarius of Optina corrects these false messages like this:
In answer to your question as to what constitutes a happy life, whether splendor, fame and wealth, or a quiet, peaceful, family life, I will say that I agree with the latter, but will add the following: A life lived in humility and with an irreproachable conscience brings peace, tranquility, and true happiness. But wealth, honor, glory and exalted position often serve as the cause of a multitude of sins, and such happiness is not one on which to rely.
We need to avoid being swayed by false promises of joy, and instead remember what St. Raphael of Lesvos tells us about the only source of true joy, “Happy is the Christian who studies and follows the teaching of Christ. He is happy in this temporary life and in the life after death.”