You’ve probably heard people say that joy and happiness are not the same thing. They’ll say that happiness is circumstantial and joy is not. Yet when we talk about joy, it’s more often than not a conversation about our emotions.
When someone says joy, maybe you think of bright colours, spring bouquets, a feast, sparklers, champagne and laughter. I think of these things too. But recently I’ve also been thinking of a more dimly lit experience when I think of joy. I used to have pretty severe panic attacks. Although I don’t get them very often anymore, they still happen occasionally. They’re not nearly as bad now because, through counselling, I’ve learned how to better manage my anxiety and practice techniques to work through a panic episode should one occur.
In particular, I’ve learned to pray during them. Not nice prayers – more ‘why have you forsaken me’ type prayers. I figure that saying something to God, even if it’s not pretty, is better than not talking to Him at all. While praying during my last panic attack, I experienced an awareness of the joy God offers us through His presence. In the midst of an intense physiological and emotionally painful experience, I did not feel joy. But I knew it was there nonetheless. It was a knowledge that ran deeper than my emotions could go; knowledge of the resurrection and ever-present help in trouble.
It is this type of experience that makes me say that joy is more than a feeling. Of course, joy manifests emotionally at times. There are those moments where a thick and full joy rises up in us and seems as if it can only seep out of our mouths. This is complete joy. I hope God gives you these moments frequently.
But we also go through seasons where the emotional uprisings of joy seldom occur. When this happens, God is no less the God of joy than he was when the wise men “rejoiced exceedingly, with great joy” at the Messiah’s birth. He is no less the God of joy than when David cried, “you have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.” He is no less the God of joy than when His only son endured the cross “for the joy that was set before him.”
Joy that is rooted in the reality of the resurrection transcends brokenness.
When we limit joy to a feeling, we devalue it. When we think of it as solely emotional, we rob ourselves of the full experience of joy. I want to be clear – I do think it has an emotional component. And in the fullness of joy, we will experience those blissful feelings.
But the joy of salvation is more than a feeling (queue that Boston song). It is an understanding, a disposition. Joy is a posture we find ourselves in when we praise the God who is with us—the risen Saviour who defied death to be our advocate.
If joy were only a feeling, commandments such as ‘rejoice always’ would appear ludicrous. God created our capacity for emotions. He knows the ways they bend and sway to and from the emotional manifestation of joy. When he commands us to rejoice, he knows that we don’t always feel like it. He knows that there are moments when feeling joy seems impossible, inappropriate, even offensive, in the face of the brokenness of the world. But because joy runs deeper than what we feel at any given moment, we can still have the joy of salvation in these times. Joy that is rooted in the reality of the resurrection transcends brokenness.
Sometimes I feel resentful when people tell me to be joyful. It feels patronizing. A teen spirit lingers in me that says, “don’t tell me what to feel.” This is partly because it can seem like there’s something wrong with your faith when you’re told to be joyful while you feel so far from it. It can feel like there’s something wrong with you when you see the biblical commandments to dance, to sing loudly, to shout for joy – yet it takes so much energy just to muster up a fake smile.
Whatever it is that hinders your ability to express the emotional aspect of joy, the problem isn’t always with your faith. This is why I believe it’s important to define joy as more than just an emotion. It can be isolating to those for whom the feeling of joy is evasive when we speak of it exclusively as a feeling.
If you suspect that the emotional experience of joy is faint in your life due to mental illness – even if you’re not 100% sure – please reach out. There are people at St. Peter’s who would love to listen to you and can point you to resources that are right for you. Subjects of joy, anxiety, and depression can be confusing for those of us in the church who struggle with mental illness. Know that you are not alone and there are compassionate people and a compassionate God to surround you.
Just like there are techniques I’ve practised to better manage my anxiety, there are also things we can do to cultivate healthier soil for the joy that God gives us. Joy is always a gift from God. But that doesn’t mean it can’t become clouded at times. Joy is also a labour; joy is a fight.
When you do not feel joy, hold fast to the knowledge that it exists nonetheless. Ask for joy. Cling to the presence of the risen Christ, our great comforter and the truest source of joy.