What gives you joy?
I think my Mom is going to really like this one. Her name is Joy, so whenever she sees or hears the word "joy", she perks up. She even finds ways to use this word in her comments, and make it really stand out by writing it in ALL CAPS, maybe adding a few exclamation marks: JOY!!! So we might say that the word joy actually gives my mother joy.
Or would we? Hmm...
I recently had a conversation about joy, kind of. I was at a Bible study where the topic of the day was authenticity, and how we go about living more authentic lives. When we broke up into small groups to go over the discussion questions, the last one read as follows:
One way we can be authentic with ourselves is to know what brings us joy. What delights you? What causes you to lose track of time? What brings you joy?
Mind you, this was a group of mothers with young children, so at this point, we named fairly simple things. One loved sewing, and another baking. We all sighed longingly at the thought of a quiet moments to ourselves to simply breathe and be—no one needing anything from us, or accidentally head-butting us in the face as the result of a random, full-body spasm while sitting on our laps. I mentioned music that touches my soul, and meaningful conversation with real connection and inspiration—like the one I was having that very moment.
But as I reflected on all this later, I realized that we did a pretty good job of answering the first parts of the question, but never really got to the last part. We were talking about things that make us happy. Situations that put us in a good mood. And while these are all very good things, when we speak of joy on a spiritual level, there's a lot of room to go oh-so-much deeper. The last part of the question asked: what gives you joy?
And joy, in the spiritual sense, is not exactly the same thing as happiness.
I can easily explain that happiness is an emotion—a mood we can be in. But joy and it’s difference? That’s a little more complex.
Joy, in the spiritual sense, is not exactly the same thing as happiness.
Joy is deeper than our external feelings or current mood. We might first make note of this in popular children’s songs where, you know, if you’re happy and you know it, then your face will surely show it. But joy? That’s down in my heart. That stuff is down in my heart to stay!
Joy speaks to the very core of our existence, and is not dependent on circumstances. It doesn’t come from hobbies, or achievements, or the weather. Instead, joy comes from the Holy Spirit, which literally means that nothing on earth can give us true joy but God himself.
That’s why dancing to a great song can make me feel happy in the moment, but as soon as it’s over, emptiness can sink in again if there is no real joy in my soul. It's also why sinning can feel so great in the moment only to leave us emptier than before. As St. Thomas Aquinas once said, "No person can live without joy. That is why someone deprived of spiritual joy goes after carnal pleasures." Sin is a temporary happiness that actually cuts us off from a deeper, truer, lasting sense of joy.
Meanwhile, a truly joyful person can endure complete misery, and still genuinely praise God while encouraging and inspire others to do the same. How is that? It's joy! Happiness based on circumstances can't even touch that.
Since joy is something the Holy Spirit grows within us, it's something we can only receive. We can’t grasp at joy like we can at happiness. We can't earn it, or cling to it, or ascend to it as if we’re climbing a rope into a helicopter that’s come to lift us out of the war zone we’re in. Instead, it’s how Bishop Robert Barron describes the spiritual life: getting everything out of the way so the helicopter can get to us. Through Confession, we remove selfish pride, distraction, and rebellion from the landscape of our souls. We clear the way for the bird to land.
Sometimes, Joy shows up unexpectedly in the worst moments, like right in the middle of an extremely difficult situation, when the Holy Spirit reminds us that our current fight is not forever, but the victory will be. And we remember that God can redeem even the most challenging of circumstances, and turn them into something so very good. Just like manure feeds an entire garden, the beauty of it all is our ultimate fate. We begin to understand the crap in our lives. And when this incredible Truth sinks in, often times, so does joy.
It's hidden in the part of the Universal Prayer that says, "Teach me to realize that this world is passing, that my true future is the happiness of heaven, that life on earth is short, and the life to come eternal."
Joy is often accompanied by the other Fruits of the Spirit, like love, peace, patience and the lot (Gal. 5: 22-23). It’s something outside of ourselves, entirely of God, that makes itself at home in us as evidence that we are united to Him, overcoming good and bad emotions, good and bad circumstances with the ultimate awareness that whatever else we may be at any given moment, ultimately, we are Beloved. It is who we are.
Whether or not there is good conversation. Or beautiful music. Or a quiet moment to ourselves. Or anything else that naturally puts us in a better mood.
Nothing on earth can give us true joy but God himself.
By all means, when we can, we should make room in our lives for the things that make us feel happy. But let's also take care not to confuse these things with a clear and deep connection with the God who Is Love. He is the only one who can, as my Mom would probably say, help us “en-JOY!!!” our lives the way we are meant to.
(My Mom... She's so punny like that.)