Forward Note: This piece was difficult to put together. I write as a way to process my own struggles and feelings- not because I am an expert or journeying through it all perfectly. With this topic in particular my spirit and my humanity are constantly at war. Although I know the truth in my spirit, I am still working to fully embrace it in my life. It’s incredibly hard.
Experiencing happiness can be as easy as opening a new package of M&M’s and stuffing a handful in your mouth. I would know. Other things that elicit happiness: Going for a walk during autumn when the sun has cooled and the leaves are crunchy, little hands reaching out to hold mine just because, a really good book… oh and don’t forget COFFEE. The list is endless! But then the cool air turns bitter cold. Those little hands draw circles on the wall with permanent marker. The book is finished and the coffee mug empty. What happens when that feeling fades? Well… that all depends on you.
Happiness in and of itself is not a bad thing. In fact, it is a wonderful emotion. It can motivate us to action, bring relief from the mundane, extend a much-needed reprieve from a painful circumstance, or just simply turn a frown into a smile. BUT…
We live in a culture that thrives on the achievement of happiness as the be-all, end-all goal in life. Sadly, the disappointing result from that can only ever be intermittent, temporary relief from the unrelenting torment of discontentedness. There will never be permanent satisfaction. Nothing will ever be enough- because happiness is just a feeling, and feelings are fluid- they evolve, and change- coming in like waves and receding with the tide. They are mostly unpredictable.
Happiness is not a foundation you want to build your house on. The onslaught of life’s difficulties will splinter the wood and rip off the shingles; shatter the windows and grind the stone to dirt; leave you without shelter and asking all the questions. Your life should not be centered upon the goal of achieving and maintaining happiness. You will end up utterly defeated.
So what is our hope then? Joy, friends. It is joy. Choose the rutted, twisting path towards this state of mind instead. With joy you are guaranteed light even in the company of shadows, hope in the midst of impossible pain, and a peace that doesn’t make sense to the human brain. Where happiness is a transient feeling, joy is a deeply rooted desire.
“In a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else… The quality common to the three experiences… is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again… I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.” ― C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life
When you experience joy, you know it. There is something infinitely more profound, complex, and enigmatic about it that often surprises you by its moment of entrance and leaves you breathless in wonder. People often confuse happiness and joy, believing they are synonymous terms. They are not. Take a moment to consider the following:
Happiness is a simple experience- easily achieved, but developing joy is akin to building a healthy marriage or close friendship: it takes time, conscious effort, focused intentions, and being tested through suffering. As it is independent of circumstance, joy is a thing that cannot be taken from you. Happiness, on the other hand, is dependent upon the situations that you experience. It can be stolen in a moment by a negative encounter, change of environment, or exchange of words, among many other things.
Here’s a recent example: I was with my two young boys at a park that has one of those tall spider web-like climbers- you know, the kind that reach all the way up into the clouds. My older son is great at these. This time I allowed my 2 ½ year old to give it a go, assuming he would only make it up a couple feet. Momentarily distracted, I didn’t realize how far up he had actually climbed. I looked back up at him in total surprise seeing how high he had climbed, feeling incredibly happy and proud that he had accomplished something so physically impressive for his age… until he was yelling at me “I down! I down!” Meaning, come get me NOW. The realization of what I had to do quickly dawned on me. (He’s a jumper, y’all. If he doesn’t feel heard, he will just go for it on his own.) My feelings of happiness very quickly morphed into dread and regret as I unceremoniously climbed up with my enormous, protruding stomach and bare feet to grab him before he could take a flying leap, and then lowered him into the arms of another sympathetic mother so I could very ungracefully crawl back down. In case anyone was wondering, these devices were not designed for pregnant women. Happiness turned to dread in a single moment of realization.
Another interesting truth to ponder: happiness and sorrow cannot coincide, but joy and sorrow can. A most obvious example would be attending the funeral of a close friend or loved one. You experience intense sorrow and grief at the loss of such a precious and dear life, but at the same time have the ability to know and embrace a deeply rooted joy as you remember them, recall your shared memories, and hear the ways in which they touched others. It’s that beautiful, rooted inner force of light that allows you to smile and laugh in the same moment that tears of grief are rolling down your cheeks. It makes no sense except to the ones experiencing it. What a gift joy is to the human heart!
So what does Jesus have to say about it then?
9 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. – John 15:9-12
So joy is established in love. When you love another, joy puts down roots and digs deeper and deeper as the fullness and authenticity of that love is shaped and developed. Learn to love well and you will begin to know joy and the genuine satisfaction it brings. Those fleeting moments of happiness will never again come close. The more you know joy, the less you will strive after momentarily satisfying pleasures. The two just don’t compare.
Paul, an apostle and teacher of Jesus’ life and message said this:
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” –Romans 15:13
So having joy also offers us the gift of hope. A prime example: how else do those persecuted for their faith withstand the beatings, imprisonment, and torture, and continue on believing knowing that it will only cause more suffering? Because their hope rests in Something outside the confines of human power; outside the control of man. Their joy is God-shaped.
The story of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, can be found in Acts 7. The apostle Paul, whom I quoted above, watched and encouraged this man’s death (This was before Paul- formerly Saul- came to know the truth about Jesus and His teachings and became an apostle himself.).
“54 When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.”
Even in the throes of death, Stephen had joy because he knew love. We know this because although experiencing absolute and total injustice, he called upon God to forgive his killers; not to smite them or strike them down, but to forgive them…as he was dying. He saw beyond his present circumstance to a future reality- the promise of heaven. Happiness could not and cannot do that. Joy goes beyond the reach of human understanding.
People settle for happiness because not much effort is required to experience it. People pursue happiness because it makes sense to the human brain to desire pleasure rather than pain. But the result of that is a limited, disingenuous life with poor eyesight and a broken heart. The pursuit of happiness is a rat race with no finish line, motivated by a selfish desire to constantly feel good.
To know joy you have to be willing to feel pain. You have to be willing to love hard and sacrifice. Jesus never promised his followers happiness; in fact he guaranteed sorrow and persecution, grief and suffering… but also joy. A full and complete joy.
“These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” –John 15:11
“10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” –Matthew 5:10-12
18 “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. 20 [… ] If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. 21 They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me.” John 15:18-21
Anyone who preaches a happiness gospel is a liar; a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Only disillusionment awaits those believers. Accept that this life is full of suffering, often the inexplicable kind. Seek to love authentically so that you may know joy, and in turn experience hope. Hope gives us the courage and strength to carry our torch through the night, feeling the weight of its oppression, but knowing that a Greater Force has already won back the day. And we, too, can share in the light of this freedom.
Happiness becomes the enemy of joy when it tricks people into believing it’s enough; that it will last; that it sustains. It does none of these. It becomes a false “easy button” because it provides quick pleasure without the work that joy requires. As I said earlier, happiness in and of itself is not a bad thing; in fact, it is a wonderful emotion. The danger comes when we set our sights on the end goal of achieving “true happiness” (whatever that means), rather than pursuing a life of joy.
Choose the hard work of joy and regret will not sit at your table.
Peace & Love, Amy