When the Founding Fathers of this country, after having been oppressed in England throughout much of their lives, sought to define the inalienable rights to which every human is entitled, they came up with this phrase found in the Declaration of Independence: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We see that the pursuit of happiness was considered to be as important as life itself.
Who among us doesn’t want this happiness and joy? It is something that we all hold dear to our hearts.
Our problem today is that we don’t understand what true joy is. In the midst of this sinful world, joy has lost its true meaning. We have all types of entertainment and other ways of having fun available to us, but we still find that joy is absent in our hearts. The few times we are able to experience some happiness, we find that it is not a fulfilling happiness, but rather something temporary that eventually fades away.
What is true joy? We find a description of it in the Book of Genesis in which we read that man in the Garden of Eden was happy, blessed, innocent and perfectly joyful. The source of his joy was a real and uninterrupted relationship with God. As long as he was close to God, he was filled with the peace of God and rejoiced in the perfect and indescribable joy of God. When he chose to become independent by disobeying God, however, he became separated from the source of his great joy.
From the time of man’s fall until the present day, people have been searching for this great joy. Some thought they would find it in the pleasures of this world and in sinful living. The Prodigal Son, for example, thought he could find this great joy by living a sinful life far away from his Father. Others thought they would find it in luxury and the enjoyment of riches, like, for example, the rich young man in the Gospel who turned away from the Face of our Savior because he couldn’t give up his wealth. Yet others seek to find joy in addictive behaviors, which turn out to be nothing more than self-medications that help us forget our pain.
What we do today is have fun, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into joy. I think it is highly instructive that the Greek word for fun, diaskedazei, is the same exact word used to describe how the Prodigal Son scattered his wealth in sinful living. It’s the same exact word, because to simply have fun is to scatter oneself on the things of the world, which never produces true joy. As Evagrius of Pontus, a Palestine monk who dwelt with and learned from the Coptic monks of the fourth century, said, “People rejoice in riches, or in glory or in nobility of birth, but the righteous in the salvation of God.” Similarly, St. John Chrysostom says that good will and true joy do not come with the size of one’s possessions, nor the amount of one’s money, nor the size of one’s sovereignty, nor physical strength, nor luxurious tables, nor fashionable clothing, but only in spiritual accomplishments and a good conscience.
So what is true joy and how can we attain it? Let us consider some brief aspects of joy found in the writings of the Holy Church Fathers and early Christian writers.
First, we find true joy in the lifegiving work of our Lord Jesus Christ. Evagrius tells us very simply, “Joy is rooted in Christ.” True joy is to believe in this lifegiving work and to share in it through the pure and perfect Christian life. This joy in Christ can never be taken away. Consider what St. Cyprian of Carthage wrote in his work On Mortality:
To see Christ is to rejoice, and we cannot have joy unless we see him. What blindness of mind or what foolishness is it to love the world’s afflictions, and punishments and tears, and not rather to rush to the joy that can never be taken away!
We notice how he describes true joy as seeing Christ in every aspect of our lives. Origen of Alexandria offers a beautiful description of what this means. He says,
For what else is the light of the countenance of the Lord over his righteous ones than a heart full of joy? That very thing which we feel through the sensation of joy becomes a partaker of his divinity when it contemplates God.
In other words, when the light of God shines in our lives — when we place ourselves continually in His presence through our prayer, fasting, meditating on His word, participating in the very life of the Church, and every other thing we do to be in His presence — we gain a heart that is full of joy. St. Augustine, one of the great Western Fathers, tells us that just to meditate on what a blessing it is for us to be Christians who are called to this life should give us a very great joy.
Second, true joy comes from sincere repentance. In the Orthodox Church, we have a concept known as joyful sorrow that is found especially in the ascetical writings of St. John Climacus and others. St. Basil the Great, who was a great ascetic in his own right, describes it as follows:
“Blessed are they who weep, for they shall laugh.” They, therefore, who spend the days of their life, which is already at its consummation and declining toward its setting, in weeping for their sins, these will be glad in that true morning that is approaching. “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy,” of course, in the future.
The picture is very clear. As we weep for our sins in the world, we find true joy springing up in our hearts as we look forward to the eternal life in which there will be no more sorrow or sin.
Third, true joy comes from seeing God’s deliverance in the midst of adversity. In Psalm 31, King David the Psalmist cries out to the Lord, saying, “Thou art my refuge from the affliction that encompasses me; my joy, to deliver me from them that have compassed me.” St. Athanasius the Apostolic, the Great Patriarch of Alexandria, commented on this verse in his fourteenth Festal Letter in the year 342, saying,
He caused a light to shine at the prayer of the psalmist, who said, “My Joy, deliver me from those who surround me”; this being indeed true rejoicing, this being a true feast, even deliverance from wickedness, to which a person attains by thoroughly adopting an upright conversation and being approved in his mind of godly submission toward God.Fourth, we find true joy in the midst of the tribulations and afflictions that test us in this world. We know that our Lord Jesus Christ suffered for the sake of our salvation. As Christians bearing His Name, we are called to suffer, as well. As Christ told us in John 15, “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). Since we strive to follow our Lord Jesus Christ, our greatest duty is to bear all suffering just as He did. To live as a Christian in this world is to suffer tribulations and persecution. As St. Paul teaches us, “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12). Interpreting this verse, St. John Chrysostom preached, “Anyone who pursues the course of virtue should not expect to avoid grief, tribulation and temptations.”
When we tribulation and suffering for Christ, we feel true joy, because in them, we are able to carry our crosses with Him and share in His suffering. St. John Chrysostom explains it this way:
The affliction pertains to the body, and the joy to things spiritual…So then, it is possible for one who suffers not to rejoice when he is suffering for his sins but nevertheless to experience pleasure when he is being beaten and suffers for Christ’s sake. For such is the joy of the Spirit. In return for the things which seem to be burdensome, the Spirit brings delight. They have afflicted you, he says, and persecuted you, but the Spirit did not forsake you even in those circumstances.
In the life of the Christian, adversity can never take away true joy. The important thing is that we respond to adversity in the right away.
There are many more things we can say about true joy, but from what we’ve said thus far, it is clear that true joy is different from the fun and entertainment of the world. Our experience as Orthodox Christians should reflect true joy. Abba Nilus, a hermit who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries, describes the Orthodox Christian experience of joy. He says,
Joy destroys sadness, in tragedy it gives patience, in prayers it gives grace, in labors and struggles it gives delight, in obedience it gives merriment, in hospitality it gives shelter, in hope it gives recourse, in mourning it gives comfort, in sorrow it gives assistance, in love it gives decoration, and in patience it gives reward.
This joy, dear brothers and sisters, comes only from a life in Christ, from a true and sincere relationship with Him. It comes from knowing Him and seeing His work in your life. It comes from immersing yourself in the life of His Church and participating in all of Her Mysteries. This true joy is in the heart of every sincere, honorable, and saintly Christian.
May it be in your hearts, as well.