Joy is essential to spiritual life. It is the experience of knowing that we are unconditionally loved by God and that nothing in this life – sickness, failure, oppression, war, or even death – can take that love away. Joy is not the same as happiness and can co-exist with sorrow. In fact, joy can be discovered in the midst of sorrow. It is in some of our most painful times that we may become aware of a spiritual reality much larger than ourselves – a reality that allows us to live the pain with hope. Joy, however, does not come automatically. We need to choose it daily based on the knowledge that we belong to God, have in God our refuge and safety, and that nothing, not even death, can take God away from us.
While we cannot control the circumstances of our lives, we can choose how we respond to them. Gratitude or bitterness in victims of a similar accident is the result of inner choices, the choices of the heart. At every moment of our life, we have the opportunity to choose joy by focusing on the joyful aspects of life – without denying the inevitable sorrowful aspects. It is in the ability to choose that our true freedom lies, and that freedom is ultimately freedom to love. We can increase our capacity to choose joy by focusing at the end of each day on the things to be grateful for – no matter what may have happened during the day. As our hearts become more joyful, we will automatically become a source of joy for others.
Joy is contagious, so being in the presence of a joyful person will make us more joyful – enabling us to catch glimpses of the sun on a cloudy day. We’ll learn to recognize God’s presence in the midst of all human suffering and perceive something beautiful for which to be grateful in all things. Our spirit will gravitate towards the light in the darkness and the prayers in the midst of the cries of despair. We’ll start developing a spiritual realism, a faith which informs us that hope is more real than despair and love more real than fear. If we continue choosing joy as a way of life, we’ll be to others messengers of hope.
Our world seems to want to surprise us by human sorrow – news is filled with ever-increasing violence, hate, disasters and destruction. These surprises tend to paralyse us and seduce us to an existence where our main concern becomes survival in a sea of sorrows. We start thinking of ourselves as survivors of a shipwreck and gradually accept the role of victims doomed by the cruel circumstances of our lives. The great challenge of faith is to besurprised by joy. This can happen by noticing such things as little children or cute young animals. Perhaps it is the child that can reveal to us what is true reality.
Money and success do not make us joyful. It is often the poor who laugh easily and exemplify joy. Joy and laughter are the gifts of living in the presence of God and trusting that tomorrow is not worth worrying about. While rich people have much money, the poor are generous with their time. When there is time, life can be celebrated. Also, free and open time enables God to be encountered in the present, and life can then be lifted up in its simple beauty and goodness. In their smiles and laughter, children often display a simple direct joy. That is why Jesus calls us to be like children – it is smiles and laughter that open the doors to the kingdom.
Joy is not the result of optimistic predictions about the future or things going well in our lives. Rather, it is based on the spiritual knowledge that while the world is shrouded in darkness, God, through His Love, has provided a means to redeem the world. We shouldn’t be surprised when we see human suffering and pain all around. The real surprise is that God’s light is more real than all the darkness, God’s truth more powerful than human lies, and God’s love more powerful than death. We should be surprised by joy every time we see that God, not evil, has the last word. By introducing into the world the fullness of Divine Love, God opened the way for us to live in the world not as victims, but as free men and women guided not by optimism, but by hope.
Joy and hope are closely related. While optimism makes us live as if someday soon things will improve, hope frees us from the need to predict the future and allows us to live in the present, with the deep trust that God will never leave us, but fulfil our heart’s deepest desires.Joy in this perspective is the fruit of hope.When we have confidence that today we are secure in God’s embrace and safely guided along the way, we don’t need to worry about what tomorrow, or next month will look like. Instead we can focus on the present and notice the many signs of God’s Love within and around.
Joy and hope reach beyond wishes. They are spiritual gifts rooted in an intimate relationship with the One who loves us with everlasting love and will always remain faithful to us. We hope in God and rejoice in God’s presence even when our wishes are not realized and we are not happy about life’s circumstances. It may be precisely in times of great physical or emotional pain that we perceive God as our only source of hope and joy. When our worldly supports collapse is the time we discover that true support and real safety lie beyond the structures of our world.
These reflections are based on Henri Nouwen’s book, Here and Now, Living in the Spirit (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 1994), 13-21.
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Photo credit: Nevit Dilmen