Imagine you are standing at the railing of a ship sailing in the middle of an ocean. If someone asked what you see, what would you say? Water? Clouds? Perhaps another ship? Many of us, looking at a seemingly empty expanse of water stretching to the horizon, would probably say, “Nothing.”
Joy can be like this. In the previous unit we learned that God is joy; this means that we as Christians are surrounded by joy. To use the sailing analogy, you could say we are carried by joy—perhaps even that we swim in it (as we “live and move and have our being” in Christ (Acts 17:28))! Unfortunately, however, like the person who sees nothing while looking at the open sea, we too often fail to experience the joy that God gives to us.
If joy is all around you, how could you possibly miss it? What might prevent you from experiencing true joy?
Nothing prevents us from experiencing true joy like the presence of habitual, unrepentant sin in our lives. Blessed Augustine explains that, when we choose a sinful life that distances us from God, we “inhabit the land of commotion, that is, of carnal disquietude, instead of the enjoyment of God.” We can see this in the life of the Holy Prophet and King David who, when confessing to God his adulterous relationship with Bathsheeba, cried out, “Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me with Your guiding Spirit” (Psalm 50:14). In another particularly poignant psalm David clearly describes how sin dampens joy: “Because I kept silent (i.e., did not confess his sin), my bones grew old from my groaning all the day long; for day and night Your hand was heavy upon me” (Psalm 31:3-4). Perhaps you’ve felt like this—sick inside, feeling too weak or brittle to even get out of bed, and longing for true joy.
King David’s reference to God’s “heavy hand” shows that we may currently experience a lack of joy because God is disciplining us for our sins. St. Paul tells us that God chastens us “for our profit, that we may be partakers in holiness. Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:10–11). As we saw in the previous unit, joy is a gift of grace from God; He may therefore temporarily withhold that gift in order to humble us and once again make us partakers of holiness.
St. John Chrysostom notes that God sent the Israelites into captivity “to discipline (them), and hinder their being hurried further into vice.” God similarly disciplines us when we sin in order to prevent us from wandering deeper into a sinful life. This is why, when being disciplined by God, we must always remember St. Paul’s words (quoting Proverbs 3:11–12), “My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; for whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom he receives” (Hebrews 12:5–6). It may be discouraging to undergo such discipline—the apostle himself says that being disciplined definitely does not seem joyful—but the very fact that we are being disciplined demonstrates how deeply God loves us, and that is a source of joy.
In addition to the result of being disciplined for our sins, our inability to experience joy may be a problem of vision—not the ability to clearly see an eye chart on a wall, but the ability to clearly see and accept reality. Not only can we fail to see the joy God gives us (as we mentioned at the beginning of this unit), but we can also distort our vision of life through such attitudes and emotions as discontentment, greed and envy.
One of the most common ways in which we prevent the growth of joy is through discontentment. We become dissatisfied with our lifestyle, or income, or appearance and increasingly believe that we are not living the lives we should. Over $412 billion dollars is spent each year on advertising in the United States alone—each dollar is intended to make us dissatisfied with our current situation in life, flooding us with images and messages carefully crafted to seduce us into continually pursuing new possessions and experiences (often with the explicit message that we deserve them). Notice what can happen: when we pay attention to these messages, we stop looking clearly at the many blessings we’ve been given in family, friends, and (by world standards) a comfortable lifestyle, and instead we focus on our desire for a larger home, or faster car, or even—in a particularly sad case—a “new and improved” spouse.
This distorted vision is a serious problem: when we lose our appreciation for God and the blessings He gives to us, and instead chase after other things, we become like the ancient Israelites who, in rejecting Yahweh for Baal, “changed their glory to a glory from which they will not profit” (Jeremiah 2:11). This is why St. Peter calls Christian teachers who are dedicated to satisfying their greed “accursed children” (2 Peter 2:14), and St. Paul states that those who know the judgment of God against greed—but are nonetheless greedy—are equal to those who hate God (Romans 1:29-32).
Discontentment and envy prevent us from experiencing joy not only because they harm our relationship with God—as serious as that is—but also because they destroy our relationships with others. St. Maximus the Confessor states, “What separates us from the love of friends is envying or being envied,” and St. Clement of Rome points out that “envy has alienated wives from their husbands,” lamenting the destructive power of these emotions when he adds, “Envy and strife have overthrown great cities and rooted up mighty nations.”
St. Theophan the Recluse aptly sums up the spiritual effect that our desire for newer, more exciting things has on our souls, but also directs us to the cure for this problem:
It happens that amusements, especially pleasant ones, give rise to depression, because while they are not sinful, they are unable to content the heart. Generally speaking, the inconstancy of emotions is characteristic to us. It is necessary to discard and overcome this, being concerned that one thing does not change; that is, that your most important decision, the goal of life you chose for yourself (i.e., dedicating your life to God), always remains in force.
Can this really be?! God is asking your heart once and for all, and the heart desires God. For without God it is never satisfied, and is bored; examine yourself from this aspect. Maybe you will find the door to the peace of God there.
St. Paul makes a similar point in a letter to St. Timothy: people whose lives are dedicated to pursuing and accumulating things will ultimately be unhappy, whereas those whose fulfillment comes from God find that “godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Timothy 6:6-11). This cannot be overemphasized: our vision distorts when we shift our focus from God to other things, whether material or emotional, and we will inevitably become less and less joyful. Like the passenger at sea, we can be surrounded by joy and yet completely fail to see it.
This is why St. Theophan tells us,
Everywhere and always God is with us, near to us and in us. But we are not always with Him, since we do not remember Him; and because we do not remember Him we allow ourselves many things which we would not permit if we did remember. Take upon yourself this task—to make a habit of such recollection. Make yourself a rule always to be with the Lord, keeping your mind in your heart, and do not let your thoughts wander; as often as they stray, turn them back again and keep them at home in the closet of your heart, and delight in converse with the Lord.
All Christians would agree that we should delight in our relationship with God, but how can we do this? We’ll find out in the next unit.
As we will see throughout this study, living joyfully depends upon our ability to keep our vision undistorted. This is why St. John Chrysostom says a key activity in the spiritual life “consists in keeping the mind fixed on God, in not entertaining or approving impure thoughts, and in not paying any attention to the phantasms which the detestable, diabolic picture maker stirs up in our imagination.”
A great way to focus your attention on God is to begin the day with this morning prayer from St. Basil the Great,
As I rise from sleep, I thank Thee, O Holy Trinity…And now enlighten my mind’s eye, and open my mouth that I may meditate on Thy words, and understand Thy commandments, and do Thy will, and hymn Thee in heartfelt confession, and sing praises to Thine all-holy name: of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.