Joy seems like it would be an easy conversation, but I’ve found that some folks get awfully defensive about the topic of joy – “how can we be joyful all the time when such horrible things happen in our lives and in the world?” I think part of the issue is simple semantics. Joy is confused with happiness. So, let me begin by defining the two.
Happiness is external in the sense that it is dependent upon events, situations, people, places, things or thoughts. And, happiness is often future oriented as in: “I’ll be happy when I have someone to love me” or “I’ll be happy when I find the right job” or “I’ll be happy as long as Uncle Harry doesn’t get drunk and stupid at Christmas.”
Joy, on the other hand, is internal. It can’t be bought or sold. It is not contingent upon other’s behaviors. Joy is a deep inner feeling laced with peace, contentment and gratitude. Joy is a spiritual way of engaging the world.
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In John 15, Jesus talks a lot about oneness and interconnectedness… I am in God and God is in me… I am the vine and you are the branches… as the Divine has loved me, so I love you. He’s describing not only his relationship with the Divine, but his relationship with others. It was the depth of these relationships which allowed him to live from a place of spiritual joy. It wasn’t about external happiness… Jesus didn’t have things to make him happy, he faced persecution and was misunderstood, but his spiritual stability and knowing, his experience of the Divine, grounded him in joy. So, he says he is trying to convey what he knows about God so that “my joy may be yours, and your joy may be complete.”
I heard someone once say that instead of the song “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love” perhaps it should be “They’ll Know We are Christians by Our Joy” – that deep inner joy that rests in a knowledge of connectedness and love. We should live and move in the world with such joy that we show the world the spiritual life we live is beautiful, despite the tragedies and struggles. As Pope Francis says, “I understand the grief of people who have to endure great suffering, yet slowly but surely we all have to let the joy of faith slowly revive as a quiet yet firm trust, even amid the greatest distress.”
I know part of us is thinking, “Yea, well, if I were Jesus that would be easy.” It seems like that kind of deep, internal joy is mysterious and elusive. And yet I would venture to say that most of us know someone who has achieved it on a more or less consistent basis. Someone you think of when you think of “joy.”
When I think of joy I think of an elderly woman who came to church occasionally with her family. I can’t remember her name or who her family was, but I remember how she looked. She always glowed and smiled, even when she was being wheeled around in a wheelchair. She looked like she had a great secret. I always had the feeling that she had found something that I hadn’t quite found yet.
Sandra Brown, in an article from Psychology Today talks about how she learned joy from her mother:
My mother had a lot of joy and I learned from watching her joy. Her pathological man ran off with her life savings forcing her to work well past retirement. It forced her to live simply so moved to a one room beach shack and drove a motorcycle. For cheap entertainment, she walked the beach and painted nudes. She drank cheap grocery store wine that came in a box, bought her clothes from thrift shops, and made beach totes from crocheting plastic grocery bags together. She recycled long before it was hip to do it. But what she recycled most and best was pain….into joy.
Anyone who knew her spoke MOST of her radiant joy. She had the ‘IT’ factor long before it was even called ‘IT.’ Women flocked to her to ask ‘How did you do it? How did you shed the despair and bitterness of what he did and grow into this? THIS bright shining joyful person? What is your secret?’
Somewhere along that rocky path of broken relationships with pathological men, she learned that happiness is fleeting if it’s tied to a man’s shirt tails. She watched too many of the shirt tails walk out the door with her happiness tied to his butt. In order to find the peacefulness that resides inside, she had to learn what was happiness and what was joy.
The transitory things of life are happiness-based. She had a big house and lost a big house when she divorced my father. She had a big career and lost a big career when she got ‘too old’ according to our culture to have the kind of job she had. She had diamonds and lost diamonds.
So she entered into voluntary simplicity where the fire of purging away ‘stuff’ left a clearer picture and path to the internal life. When stuff, people, and the problems they bring fall away there is a stillness. Only in that stillness can we ever find the joy that resides inside of us, dependent on nothing external in order to exist.
Her joy came from deeply held spiritual beliefs but it also came from a place even beyond that. Joy comes when you make peace with who you are, where you are, why you are, and who you are not with. When you need nothing more than your truth and the love of a good God to bring peace, then you have settled into the abiding joy that is not rocked by relationships. It’s not rocked by anything.
It wasn’t rocked as she lay dying four years ago in the most peaceful arms of grace–a blissful state of quiet surrender and anticipation. Those who were witness to her death still tell me that her death brought new understanding to them about the issue of real joy. Joy in all things….death of a dream, death of relationship, death of a body. Joy from within, stripped down, naked and beautiful.
Brene’ Brown, in her book Daring Greatly, talks about how shocked she was when, while studying vulnerability, she discovered that joy was one of the emotions that her research participants named as leaving them feeling the most vulnerable. In fact, she said she’d argue that joy is probably the most difficult emotion to really feel.
Can you think of moments of deep joy that might leave you feeling vulnerable? These things were named in her book:
- Standing over children while they are sleeping
- Acknowledging how much we love someone
- Spending time with parents
- Watching parents with your children
- Getting engaged
- Going into remission
- Falling in love
- Having a baby
Her “research participants consistently described both joyfulness and gratitude as spiritual practices that were bound to a belief in human connectedness and a power greater than us… Participants described happiness as an emotion that’s connected to circumstances, and they described joy as a spiritual way of engaging with the world that’s connected to practicing gratitude.”
She said, those who were really willing to lean into the joy found themselves filled with gratitude for the person, beauty, connection or moment that put them in touch with that spiritual depth. Just to be clear, the moment did not cause the joy as much as reveal it.
But because feeling joy brings a feeling of vulnerability, many folks find a way to shield themselves from the vulnerability with what Brown calls “foreboding joy.” She points out that when we’re young our joy is pure delight bubbling out of us, but slowly, even without our awareness, this shifts and we become less exuberant, less enthusiastic about the little things and much less likely to show – or even feel – that pure, wonder-filled, awe-filled joy. It’s as if we become afraid of this feeling.
Have you ever had a week where everything was going right but you hesitated to enjoy that. Our less-than-rational thinking says, don’t get invested in this good feeling because certainly everything is going to fall apart at any second.
So we temper the joy, the lightness. We’re afraid to truly give in to the joy, to open ourselves to it, because then we’re vulnerable to being let down or being hurt. It seems we actually turn away from, or close off from the opportunity to feel joy.
Brown said that 80% of the parents she had interviewed had moments where they had stood over their children when they slept and thought, “I love you so much I can barely breathe,” and in that exact moment been flooded with images of something awful happening to the child.
What’s the answer? Brown says, “Gratitude.” It was gratitude that became the antidote to foreboding joy. When we are given the gift of a moment to touch the deep spiritual joy that resides within us, instead of succumbing to feelings of fear, we should open to gratitude. Be grateful for the moment, for the catalyst that helped us reach that place of spiritual abundance. Steep ourselves in thankfulness.
Jesus came to show us love, to help us understand our true relationship with the Divine and one another, SO THAT OUR JOY MIGHT BE COMPLETE. God doesn’t want us to respond to the beautiful moments in life with fear. Connection to the Divine Essence reveals to us that beneath our suffering, fear, and grief, joy is waiting. Joy that heals, comforts and strengthens us for another day.
Julia Cameron says, “I invite joy to bless my life… [I] follow the lead which joy sets.” Perhaps this should be our daily affirmation to ourselves: I invite joy to bless my life. I will follow the lead which joy sets.
Love & Light!