As with the concepts of love and peace, so the concept of joy has undergone some redefinition and is misunderstood.
Many today understand joy as an emotion, a feeling. It is equated with a feeling of euphoria, of soaring high spirits, like something experienced at a rock concert or a football game when your team wins. It is just here that many Christians become a bit perplexed. Jesus promised them perpetual joy (John 16:22-24) and yet they do not always feel particularly joyful. Monday morning comes and they do not feel euphorious; they do not leap out of bed with a cry of elation to greet the day and dance into the kitchen with song to plug in the coffee pot. Where’s the promised joy? If joy is being always high-spirited, why do I often feel, if not rather low, then at least lacking in elation?
Some forms of Christian spirituality are built upon the false definition of joy as an emotion. For emotion can be induced, especially with music. Singing loudly and long can induce a kind of euphoria and a feeling of well-being, which is then equated with joy. The problem is that emotions come and go by divine design. This ebb and flow of emotion, this rhythm of highs and lows, has been called “the law of undulation”. A high emotional state is followed by and balanced with a succeeding low one, which in turn is balanced by another high. Unless one suffers from a bi-polar disorder, the successive highs and lows are within a kind of range, but one always follows another, for that is how God designed our psyches to work. If one insists on artificially prolonging the emotional high through music (“I’m coming down; quick, let’s sing another chorus!”) then eventually one will suffer burn-out and will come down with a crash. That is the cost of foolishly identifying joy with an emotion and of trying to sustain it through artificial means.
In fact joy is not an emotion, and so can indeed be sustained. Joy is the quiet pilot-light of the soul, sometimes burning brightly and sometimes burning with less intensity, but always staying alight. It is, more precisely, the overflow of hope in the heart, the unshaking conviction that God is with us, and that therefore (to quote Julian of Norwich) “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well”. We are each one of us hurtling through time towards eternity and toward a destiny of unimaginable bliss, “a weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17). That is the source of our quiet, unshakable hope. Sorrow, however terrible, is only fleeting. The glory to which we are hurrying will last forever.
We can know this because of the blessings and gifts which God gives us all through our lives in this age. In the words of a Vespers prayer, He has “pledged to us the promised Kingdom with blessings already given”: every blessing we receive in this age is a proof and a pledge of God’s goodness and His willingness to give us the Kingdom in the age to come. What blessings you may ask? We often miss them because of God’s exuberant generosity in giving. We miss the miraculous around us because they are so many.
Take, for instance, the fact that the sky is blue. Every day or at least on many days we look up and can see the blue sky. But suppose it were otherwise. Suppose God arranged His world so that clouds always covered up everything except for one day of the year and on this day alone we could see blue sky. Does anyone doubt that it would be a universally-observed day of wonder? That a global holiday would be declared, and traffic would stop on Blue Sky Day, and everyone would stand still and look up for as long as it lasted with open mouth and astonished marvel at the sheer beauty of it? But because God gives a blue sky so often, we take it for granted. The sky is blue. So what? What did you expect? Green?
Or take for example the fact that you can walk a block. That itself is a great gift. I know, for my dearest friend in the world cannot walk a block, having been confined to a wheelchair since his childhood. He is under no illusion regarding the gift of motion. But we take our ability to walk entirely for granted, when such mobility should make us swing our arms as we walk and sing our way down the street.
Or take for another example the bare fact that you got out of bed this morning. That is possibly the greatest gift of all, for many people in fact did not get out of bed this morning, but died during the night. God gave them that gift of a new dawn many times, but the gift-giving eventually came to an end, and when the sun dawned and the alarm-clock rang, they did not stir. But we stirred, and arose, walked out of the bedroom to greet another day. Did we thank Him as we roused and rose? Did we cry out in the words introducing the Great Doxology of Matins “Glory to You who have shown us the light!” Or did we take our rising altogether for granted and just shuffle away?
These are just a few gifts. I have not mentioned the gifts of friendship, and marriage, and wine, and chocolate, and children, and a thousand other things that make life worth living. The way to joy is to focus not upon the things in life which weigh our hearts down, but upon these gifts which lighten our eyes. These all are the gifts already given us by God, proofs and pledges of the Kingdom which awaits us and has awaited us from the foundation of the world. Thinking of them, the pilot-light of hope burns in our hearts, regardless of whether or not our circumstances are happy or unhappy. Joy is hope that has been poured into our hearts, and this hope will not disappoint us. It burns with its own incandescence, until we finally come home.