Whenever I speak to groups on the spirituality of joy, I am usually asked some excellent questions afterward. These questions always prompt me to think more deeply about the topic, so I thought I might share the most common query with you: Does Christian joy, which flows from believing in the good news, mean that I am supposed to be happy all the time?
Short answer: No.
This is a concept particularly important for an understanding of Christian joy. First, let me distinguish joy from happiness. Unlike happiness, joy is not simply a fleeting feeling or an evanescent emotion, it is a permanent result of one’s connection to God. While the more secular definition of joy may be simply an intense form of happiness, religious joy is always about a relationship. Joy has an object and that object is God. The ultimate response to the good news is joy, one that is lasting and can endure even in the midst of difficulties.
But this does not mean that the Christian is always happy. Sadness is a natural response to pain, suffering and tragedy in life. It is human, natural and even, in a way, desirable: sadness in response to a tragic event shows that you are emotionally alive. If you were not sad from time to time, you would be something less than human. William A. Barry, a Jesuit priest and clinical psychologist, echoes this. “If you’re not saddened by certain things, you’re not normal,” he said. “For example, when a loved one dies or in response to natural disasters. Sadness is part of life.”
Jesus Began to Weep
Jesus was surely a joyful person who laughed. How do we know this? For one thing, his parables and sayings are clever and often amusing. Indeed, Scripture scholars tell us that we may be missing much of Jesus’ sense of humor in the New Testament, since we no longer understand the context. And we know that as a fully human person, Jesus experienced the full range of human emotions, so Jesus must have laughed.
But we do not have to do so much surmising when it comes to the question of whether he was sad. The New Testament tells us outright—without having to read between the lines—that Jesus broke down after the death of one of his friends. When Lazarus, the brother of his friends Mary and Martha, died after a brief illness, Jesus traveled to the tomb and, we are told, “began to weep” (Jn 11:1–45). Jesus’ weeping is seen as proof of his compassion, of his humanity. “See how he loved him!” said those in the crowd.
Later, the New Testament writers use some of the strongest words imaginable to describe his anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane. “He began to be greatly distressed [ekthambeisthai] and troubled [ademonein],” writes Mark (14:33). Raymond E. Brown, S.S., in his magisterial book The Death of the Messiah, translates that first word as “greatly distraught.” The Gospel of Luke, speaking of the garden experience, uses the word agonia and says that Jesus’ tears fell on the ground “as if drops of blood”—that is, his tears flowed as copiously as if it were a flow of blood (22:44).
If Jesus was sad, surely we can be sad.
Also, the notion that you must be cheerful at all times in order to demonstrate belief in God is ridiculous. But it is common. “Get out of the tomb!” one otherwise well-meaning woman told me when I told her that I was sad over my father’s death. “Aren’t you a believer?” (She was referring to the idea of focusing on death instead of the resurrection.) But even the saints, those avatars of belief, grew sad from time to time. Like Jesus, they were occasionally sad because they were human.
Nor do I believe in what is known as the “Prosperity Gospel,” which tells people that if they believe in Jesus Christ, their lives will be one of constant success.
This is demonstrably false. The Twelve Apostles believed in Christ, to take one obvious example, and many of them met with difficult, painful, even tragic ends. Does anyone think that St. Peter, who was crucified, had insufficient faith? The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the great religious figures of our time, suffered greatly, was jailed and was assassinated. Did he not have sufficient faith? Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, toward the end of her life, was often in terrible physical pain. She even suffered from a great interior darkness, a “dark night of the soul.” Was she unfaithful? Suffering—interior and exterior—is the lot of all people, including believers, even devout believers and including those who strive to lead joyful lives.
While the Prosperity Gospel has a number of important highlights—its focus on joy is a needed corrective in many Christian circles; its emphasis on a rock-ribbed faith in God is essential; its encouragement to believe in a God who desires your ultimate joy is an antidote to so many terrifying images of God. But its denial of suffering means that it does not fully embrace the human condition. This may be one reason why some of its adherents shy away from Good Friday services.
Nor do I believe that people who encounter suffering or illnesses have somehow failed to “think positively.” The social critic Barbara Ehrenreich takes aim at that idea in her piquant book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. While it is often helpful to look on the bright side of life and salutary to strive to be cheerful, the belief that the sick have failed to “think positively” is monstrous. Such a belief finds its ultimate end in the notion that cancer patients, to take but one example, are somehow “responsible” for their illness because of their faulty thinking patterns. That approach can compound the misery of the sick. Ehrenreich, a cancer survivor herself, writes, “Clearly, the failure to think positively can weigh on a cancer patient like a second disease.” Illness is not a moral fault or a failure of will. Illness is simply a reflection of our humanity.
On the other hand, a culture of carping and general complaining predominates in some quarters. Everyone knows someone who seems to be a champion complainer, always lamenting some new fate that has just befallen him, complaining endlessly about his latest malady, reminding you about the next terrible turn of events that he is sure will happen and in general worrying everyone around him. Typically these people are self-centered. And typically they are unpleasant to be around. I used to know someone who was a full-time hypochondriac (something I am prone to). You knew better than to ask, “How are you?” lest you find out, in numbing detail, his latest scourge.
One of my friends describes it as searching for the drop of red paint in a can of white paint. It is a powerful image: the red represents your one problem. You have an entire can of white paint—let’s say, a job, a roof over your head, a loving family, and you choose instead to concentrate on the one tiny red drop—the one thing wrong in your life. Suddenly the whole can turns red; that is all you can see.
That is where choice comes into play. Sometimes, when presented with the mixed bag of life, we can choose to focus on what makes us happy, on what more readily connects us to joy in our life.
The form of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy is also helpful here. This school of psychology starts from the assumption that since our thoughts shape our experience of the world, unhealthy and inaccurate thinking can lead to an incorrect evaluation of one’s life and therefore to unhappiness.
For example, if you are the type of person who thinks you are “always” facing some sort of misfortune, when in reality your life is a mixed bag of good and bad, you might end up miserable—not because of your situation, but because of the way you think about it. Once again, I am not speaking here of a person in the midst of a great tragedy or experiencing real pain. Nor am I denying the occasional need for psychotherapy or counseling to deal with serious psychological problems like depression. Rather, I am speaking about the person who chooses to focus only on the negative side of life despite the preponderance of evidence for the positive.
What are the signs that one is doing this? “Global” words are one tip-off. “I never get what I want!” “I’m always sick!” “Everyone hates me!” “I’m the only one who has it this bad!” “No one ever calls me!” “My boss always picks on me!” Those are tip-offs that you are probably not thinking as clearly as you should.
For some, it can be as simple as deciding, hard as it may be, to focus more frequently on the positive aspects of life. For others, visiting a counselor or therapist will enable them to see things more clearly. But, once again, this does not mean that tragedy will never happen or that you will never be sad. It simply means taking a more realistic look at one’s blessings in life.
A few years ago, for example, I was lamenting to my spiritual director how difficult my life was. So many struggles! So much work to do! So many physical difficulties! And on and on. I told him I had expressed all of this to God in prayer, and it just made me sad.
“Are you being honest with God?” he asked.
“Of course I am,” I said. “I’m sharing all of my difficulties with God.”
“Ah,” he said. “But honesty means being truly honest with God about reality. Are you looking at the totality of your life? Both the good and the bad? Are you honestly presenting your whole life to God or focusing exclusively on the problems?” That helped me to see how negative I was being, in my prayer and in my life.
Real and False Religion
The believer must navigate between grinning, idiotic, false happiness and carping, caterwauling, complaining mopyness. (Notice again that I am also not speaking of clinical depression here, which is more of a psychological issue.) Overall, the believer will be happy and sad at different points of his life; but joy is possible in the midst of tragedy, since joy depends on one’s faith and confidence in God.
To that end, one of my favorite quotations about religion comes from the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray, who contrasted “illusory” religion with “real religion.” The maxim of illusory religion is: “Fear not; trust in God and He will see that none of the things you fear will happen to you.”
Real religion, said Macmurray, has a different maxim: “Fear not; the things that you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you, but they are nothing to be afraid of.”
Macmurray’s sage observation illustrates the contrast between deep-down joy and evanescent happiness.
Joy can even creep into our lives and catch us unaware, in the midst of dark times. Kathleen Norris, author of The Cloister Walk and Acedia & Me, told me that while visiting her sister in a hospital, joy crept in. “I was anxiously watching an oxygen monitor in my sister’s hospital room, when a janitor came in with a mop. In a low voice, barely perceptible, she was singing a song I recognized, a love song from a Broadway musical. I commented on it, she began to sing louder, in a voice more enthusiastic and polished. But small matter. By the time she left the room, my sister and I had been treated to three songs and a significant portion of her life story. Joy is powerful medicine.”
Norris concluded, “I am convinced that joy is a fruit, because it tastes so sweet.” (What a wonderful way of understanding one of St. Paul’s “fruits of the Spirit.”)
Likewise, a person in a difficult situation can still find humor in his or her life and still laugh. Moreover, he can choose to be cheerful around others, not in a masochistic way but rather as a way of not unduly burdening everyone with his latest complaint. This is not to say that one should never talk about one’s struggles or burdens with anyone. As St. Paul would say, “By no means!” It is important during times of struggle to speak to a close friend, family member, a priest or minister, or a therapist when things are very difficult. And it is important to share those struggles with God in prayer.
What I am arguing against is the kind of round-the-clock complaining that many people—including me at times—sometimes engage in.
Lately, I have been trying to be more silent about some of my struggles, that is, not to share too many personal burdens with people whose lives are already difficult. Once again, this is not to say that I do not share my struggles with my friends, my spiritual director or with God in prayer. Rather, it is a gift to give people your cheerfulness even in the midst of pain. This may be something of what Mother Teresa meant when she said, “Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.” The ability to do that comes from a deep-down sense of joy even in the midst of pain.
So does the Christian have to be happy all the time? No. But is the Christian invited to experience lasting joy, which can stand unshaken in the midst of troubles? Just ask the disciples on Easter Sunday morning.