What robs joy of its joyfulness?
We began to think through this question last week. We started with the affirmation that joy is central to our dogma and practice as Christians. In other words, the Christian life is not very Christian if there is an absence of joy. We should strive to cultivate joy, and that oftentimes means pulling out the weeds that try to crowd out or stunt our growth. Over the next few weeks, we will examine some of these weeds up close. And today’s foe, while he may look like a friend and often is a friend, subtly becomes a foe if we are not careful.
I believe that happiness can be one of the greatest threats to our joy.
That probably seems like an odd statement. “Happiness” and “joy” are two concepts our culture considers synonymous. And not only our secular world, but even some of our greatest pastors. How could happiness possibly be a threat to joy? What I hope to demonstrate is not that happiness is our enemy full stop, but rather, our typical version of happiness needs to be updated and redefined if we truly want it to aid our joy.
I first really caught the grasp of happiness and joy’s relationship in the Christian life in John Piper’s seminal work, Desiring God. The book changed my life in many ways, no doubt, especially in this area. In his introduction, Piper lays out five maxims for happiness and joy, also known as the core of Christian Hedonism:
- The longing to be happy is a universal human experience, and it is good, not sinful.
- We should never try to deny or resist our longing to be happy, as though it were a bad impulse. Instead, we should seek to intensify this longing and nourish it with whatever will provide the deepest and most enduring satisfaction.
- The deepest and most enduring happiness is found only in God. Not from God, but in God.
- The happiness we find in God reaches its consummation when it is shared with others in the manifold ways of love.
- To the extent that we try to abandon the pursuit of our own pleasure, we fail to honor God and love people. Or, to put it positively: The pursuit of pleasure is a necessary part of all worship and virtue. That is: The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever.
First, a few reflections on that list. Piper bases the first three claims on some compelling arguments from Blaise Pascal and C.S. Lewis. Pascal powerfully wrote that “All men seek happiness…This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.” Piper calls human happiness “a simple given in human nature. It is a law of the human heart, as gravity is a law of nature.” Lewis built on Pascal’s point with his famous “making mud pies in a slum” quip. Piper interpreted Lewis’s point to mean that “It is not a bad thing to desire our own good. In fact, the great problem of human beings is that they are far too easily pleased.” Through more of Pascal and Lewis’s work, Piper saw not only the givenness and the inadequacy of our happiness, but now began to see the often-quoted “God-shaped hole in our hearts,” the void that without being filled with God will go on to create empty longing in us.
The key here for our discussion today is in the small, but massively important clarification tagged onto the end of point 3: “Not from God, but in God.”
Oftentimes in the Christian life, we want to be happy. We long for it. We pray for it. Most of the time, these longings and prayers are the result of difficult, hard circumstances.
A frustrating job or boss.
A stale dating life.
An emotionally distant parent.
A lack of true friends.
A house that never seems finished.
Such circumstances make us unhappy. It’s not bad that they do. We want to be happy instead. That’s not bad either. The trouble comes when we think the primary need for our soul’s happiness is a circumstantial answer.
Our prayers often look like this: “God, change my circumstances.”
That’s not a sinful prayer, but it is a shallow one.
“God, help me to delight in You, to trust You in these circumstances, and show me Your glory.”
Isn’t that how we all want to pray?
Back to Piper’s point. Happiness is not merely from God – in other words, if we chalk up happiness to only be a tangible blessing for us here and a feeling there, affecting us only at the emotional and feeling level, we will likely be often unhappy. Joy must not be conditional on feeling happy. Because Christian joy is helped by a happiness that is not from God, but in God. Christian joy is theologically rooted when circumstantially tried.
How does happiness rob joy of its joyfulness? Simple. If we begin to equate our Christian joy with how we feel, or in what happens to us, we will often find ourselves struggling for air and reprieve. But joy is altogether different than feeling, emotion, and response.
James was not a psychopath. When he encourages us to “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (Jas 1:2), he understands joy as something that does not merely reside in the realm of circumstances and feelings. Joy must be different. It must penetrate our hearts beyond what feels good, what brings pleasure and a smile to us. It must be concerned with something deeper than how we humanly process our difficult circumstances, great and small. It must be a happiness in God.
We do not leverage God to get worldly happiness. We leverage joy to get happiness in God.
Happiness may be an enemy to your joy in this season, if you think the point of joy is to “be happy” and “feel happy” in your circumstances. You may not be happy, by worldly definition, at all. And yet, you can be joyful, even happy, in God. To keep happiness in its proper dance with joy, we must remember the Psalmist’s song, “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps 16:11).