How to Find Real Joy
I used to wish I were happier. My life seemed synchronized to some sort of adagio or nocturne in a minor key; most cruel of all, it was a key to which I was drawn. I preferred night over day and black more than color. I was incurably attracted to sad stories, and if I was not listening to “sad rock,” Chopin’s nocturnes and Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8 were always on replay. As it turned out, my sorrow was my pleasure, my muse, my aesthetic. In hindsight, it is what kept me from experiencing true joy.
The truth was, I did not actually want happiness. I only wished I could want it. For me, the realization of this distinction changed things; it meant the problem wasn’t so much sorrow itself, but rather my own perception of sorrow.
The Human Desire for Depth
Many on this earth struggle with sorrow—of differing intensities and for a multitude of reasons—and I do not propose to have the cure-all or assume that I can identify with everyone’s pain. I also do not want to suggest that happiness is always better, or that sorrow is always wrong. God created us with the capacity to experience a whole spectrum of emotions, and sorrow is on this spectrum along with joy. There is a kind of sorrow that is good.
Rather, I want to address a particular kind of sorrow that lingers because the eye has perceived some good in it, and sadness itself now appears attractive. Difficult to pin down both because it is elusive and because it typically begins with real grief and struggle, this kind of sorrow is also difficult to relieve, because the world often portrays it as a trait of genius or depth. This is a popular kind of sorrow, a cool and easy kind, and the first step in becoming free of it is to admit to yourself that you find it desirable.
Next, as obvious as it sounds, to be happy you have to actually find joy desirable. This is harder to do than you might think. In fact, it is so hard that apart from Christ you cannot do it.
The world hijacks sorrow and calls it deep; it steals joy and calls it vain. Sadness is profound, experienced, and intelligent. Happiness is superficial and naïve—so the story goes. This is the image, the vision, which is painted for us and by us. No wonder we prefer sadness. No wonder we find that image more attractive and fulfilling—for God made us to be creatures who desire depth. Since this desire is part of our very humanity, created in us by God himself, it is meant to be fulfilled. But what happens when our vision is blurred? We misconstrue; we seek the wrong things; we fail to envision what makes for a fulfilled life.
A Vision of the “Good Life”
We all have pictures in our minds of what we perceive as the “good life.” As inheritors of the social imaginary of our age, we find our place within its pictorial narrative and pursue the vision of life that we believe will give us a sense of “fullness.” In other words, whatever image you hold as portraying the “good life”, you will pursue. If sorrow becomes your vision of the good life, you will pursue sorrow.
Thus, we must evaluate our internally held pictures of the good life, and ask ourselves, “Is this the blessed life for which God has created me? Will this vision of life fulfill me?” God created humans to find fulfillment. He desires to bless his people with the end for which he created them. Yet, when our vision of the good life is tainted by our own clouded ideals and fallenness, we seek those same fallen ideals we imagine. We pursue what appears good to the eye.
God—the Only Source of Joy
So, how do you find real joy? How do you come to see joy as desirable? By making a study of its anatomy, putting before yourself a true, full, and rich image of joy with all of its many contours and hues. By making a life out of this study, probing, discovering, and even being surprised by it. Yet, this image cannot be of your own making, for then you will surely be wrong. How, then, can we envision the real thing? We do so by finding joy in something not made by human hands, but given to us by God himself in his Word, in the person of Christ whom we find only there. Not superficial or vain, but full of life and light, with every emotion true to man—yes, even sorrow—Christ is the image of joy. We know joy when we know him, and he gives himself freely so that our joy may be full.