God is everywhere, present in every place, and therefore that He is ever with me and within me, my heart expands; it is free, light, alive, and my mind is clear – I am in a joyful state.” (St. John of Krondstadt)
As I write this blog, it is bright week, one of the most joyful times of the year. The long Lenten journey is over, Holy Week is past, and Christ has risen! We have moved from fasting to feasting. Just as the two men on the road to Emmaus felt their heart burn with joy as they experienced the risen Christ, we too should know this joy.
It makes me wonder about our understanding and experience of joy. I think we often confuse it with happiness and the quest to be happy. Most books, talk shows, psychologists, and other “experts” get it wrong as they seem to confuse happiness with joy and compound it with the means in which to attain happiness. Book stores are filled with self-help books about happiness, and so called gurus run constant infomercials and offer products and seminars about how to be happy. Most of what they discuss is how to achieve happiness through fulfillment in jobs, careers, and relationships, and it blends philosophy, religion, psychology, and new-age thought into step programs for lasting happiness.
That is not to say that these materials are without any worth. Many of them contain some measure of truth, but they fail to deliver on their promise of true and lasting happiness. This is because they often focus on achieving happiness through human willpower and effort or by some change in one’s external conditions (e.g., job, relationship, etc.). They promote one huge inherent flaw that breeds the opposite of happiness – they are based on achieving happiness through self-reliance and self-focus. Any theory of happiness that begins with the word “self”, such as self-esteem and self-actualization, is ultimately wrong-headed. Too much self-focus ultimately breeds anxiety and not happiness.
True happiness is simply being fully in the moment (i.e., living in the present) and focusing lovingly on others. It is a state of a mind and heart and a movement away from self that paradoxically fulfills self. Real happiness is the by-product of right living, which is communion with Christ that leads to a deeper love for Him. This love in turn leads to a deeper love for others. As we seek Christ and grow in Him and towards Him, He gives us our true self in abundance (John 10:10). This abundant life is the joyful state I am writing about. The state of mind and being that breeds happiness is made possible over time as we grow in Christ and see everything good in life from God and even see God’s goodness at work in the bad stuff. Christ is who fulfills us spiritually, and what fulfills us spiritually is ultimately what leads to true and lasting joy.
So, when we think of joy, we should not think of a giddy happiness or even a depth of feeling. We should understand it as a deep spiritual sense of wellbeing that allows us to know that God loves us and is truly with us in all circumstances, even in our suffering. I have seen this in people who have suffered the worst tragedies possible. And I was amazed until I finally began to understand from where they draw their joy and strength.
Joy comes from our relationship in Christ and the ultimate trust of Him that is in our hearts. It allows us to live fully and joyfully in any circumstance, as St. Paul knew this truth and attained this state of joy. For most of us, we are still on that journey.
“…for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11-13)