How to Become… Joyful

Reflections from Dr. Howell

So for 3 months we’ve been exploring how to become spiritual – or more spiritual. I hope you’re still with me, and are getting the hang of the spiritual life not being a swoosh of emotion or a wide grin on your face. It’s not hearing voices or improving the percentage of your prayers that are answered. It’s a journey. It’s a discipline. It’s a habit, a way of being in the world, not a little devotional pasted on the outside of an otherwise unchanged life.

Three weeks ago I spoke of the ultimate goal of the spiritual life as holiness and joy. How fitting that today we speak of Joy. Thanksgiving is just 3 days away, and then it’s Advent and Christmas. Joy begins and is always rooted in gratitude. And Joy is both expectation of what hasn’t fully dawned just yet, and then the sheer delight over the simple arrival of life, especially the coming of God among us in the infant Christ. “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.”

What is Joy, though? It sounds alluring, and elusive. God made us for joy, which is deeper than happiness, or maybe different entirely from happiness and fun. Joy isn’t happiness times seven, or a really tall pile of fun. The word “surprise” often attaches itself to Joy, as in C.S. Lewis’s autobiographical Surprised by Joy. You don’t grit your teeth and try hard to be Joyful. Okay, in a sense, we do choose joy. We forever stumble upon some fork in the road, and we can choose joy, or choose to be resentful. And yet the very choice of joy is a gift of the Spirit, who is forever beckoning, coaxing me toward joy. Knowing it’s a gift makes Joy more Joyful. “The fruit of the Spirit is… joy” (Galatians 5:22).

A solid definition of Joy is this one from Henri Nouwen: “Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved, and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death – can take that love away.” Such unconditional love is divine; it’s in the heart of God. When you are loved deeply in your life, you feel some joy. You’re okay. You belong. With God, you’re always okay. You always belong.

Notice how Joy and Sorrow often sidle up next to one another. I’ve heard laughter at some of the saddest funerals. Those who’ve loved and lost exchange the most beautiful smiles with those offering comfort and love. Joy is the candle that flickers in the darkest night.

Joy is the fruit of hope – not optimism. Joy isn’t a warm fuzzy fantasy that tomorrow will be a happier day. Joy understands and clings to the hope that, whatever is endured in this world, God has overcome the world, and will redeem us and the whole world – and is, even now, unseen, redeeming the world. I’m moved by the stories of Jews gathering in those evil Nazi camps, donning their prayer shawls, and together reciting prayers of praise, even as their captors jeered.

Joy is communal. Sure, you can share some happiness; you can have fun with other people. But Joy happens when, together, we embrace, and trust, and lean on one another in hope and faith and love.

Joy laughs now and then. Thomas Merton: “The chief reason why we have so little joy is that we take ourselves too seriously.” G.K. Chesterton: “Angels can fly because they take themselves so lightly.” Joy is the release we feel when we admit we aren’t the center of the world. Joy is when you’ve been carrying the whole world and its troubles on your shoulders, but then realize it’s God’s world – and you let it go. Joy is acknowledging it’s not all up to me. Joy is ruined by feelings of pride or entitlement. Joy hinges on confession, humility and grace.

Joy is, like every good and perfect gift from God, cultivated over time. You can’t snap your fingers and become Joyful. You get busy working on the spiritual life. You stick with it. You show up, and keep showing up. Lots of gratitude, and quiet. You do the work we’ve covered in this whole series. And then one day, when you weren’t looking for it, you find yourself surprised by Joy.

And since it’s God’s gift, and since it’s really about God, the Joy tethers you tightly to the heart of God, which finds Joy in your Joy. “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may suffer trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold tested by fire, may redound to praise… of Jesus Christ. Without having seen him you love him, and you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy” (1 Peter 1:6-8).

My favorite Joy quote is a poem from the medieval Franciscan friar, Giovanni Giacondo:

The gloom of the world is but a shadow

Behind it, yet within reach, is joy

There is radiance and glory in the darkness

Could we but see

And to see, we have only to look

I beseech you to look.