Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Smiling on the Inside? Part 1

Sustaining Joy in a Joyless World

Life shreds thin joy. If our joy is not robust and solid, daycare shootings in Detroit and homelessness in San Francisco and beheadings in Baghdad and genocide in Sudan and AIDS orphans in South Africa will slash it to shreds in seconds. Either that or we’ll medicate ourselves against the pain by living in a fantasyland where the wretched realities of the real world can’t threaten our chipper self-centeredness. (This option, by the way, is the one most people choose by default, numbing themselves with TV, movies, music, fashion, achievement, whatever. But that’s a problem for another blog entry…)

Our world is filled with pain… and I haven’t even mentioned the everyday frustrations of hard classes, sour relationships, excessive demands—all the normal distresses of daily life even before we read the newspaper. So what can we do to sustain real happiness even with both eyes open to the horrors and heartaches of the world around us?

I think I need to divide my answer into two parts… Second, my answer. First, a few problems with what might be the traditional Christian answer.

Typically, I think Christians have tried to draw a distinction between joy and happiness, going something like this: “Happiness is a feeling, and it’s based on the circumstances outside you. Joy is a choice, and it’s based on what’s inside you.” But I think that answer fails for several reasons…

First, both happiness and joy are spontaneous and emotional. The reason some Christians try to distinguish joy from happiness is probably a sense that joy is deliberate and strong while happiness is spontaneous and superficial. But in reality, joy is not an internal disposition we can simply choose with our will; it’s a gift from God, a work of the Holy Spirit (Rom 14:17; Gal 5:22; 1 Thes 1:6). And it spontaneously erupts as a felt sense of delight in our heart, just like happiness (cf. 1 Pt 1:8).

Second, the Bible concerns itself with both our happiness and our joy. For example, “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7). And “How happy are the people whose God is the Lord” (Ps 144:15; cf. Deut 33:29; Is 52:7).

Third, I don’t think we can successfully separate feelings of happiness from a sense of joy in our own soul. Even if there is a difference between happiness and joy (which I doubt), practically it’s a meaningless one because we are unable to experience the difference. How convincing is “The frown on my face is only circumstantial. Deep inside I’m quivering with enjoyment…”? People who talk this way don’t possess superior self-awareness or outstanding willpower. Nope. They're either being naive or they're lying. Joy in the heart shows up as a smile on the face. No exceptions.

So how should we answer this crucial question of maintaining joy in a joy-stealing world? Well, I’ll try to get at the answer in a day or two. But whatever we say in the meantime, let’s NOT pass over the question glibly and say with a smirk, “Well, I’m smiling on the inside.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

BOC here ~

I eagerly await your Part 2! I've always wondered about this, & I like that the common theory I'm familiar with (discussed in this post) may very well be right up there with, "I am a very humble person."