By Audrey Stallsmith
"Rejoice in the Lord alway,” Paul exhorts in Philippians 4:4, "and again I say rejoice." Since rejoice is defined as "to feel joy," that must mean something different than to feel cheerful. It’s impossible, after all, for even Christians to tap-dance on cloud nine constantly.
I’m usually an easy-going type myself. (A college roommate once described my emotional cycle as a straight line!) But, when a relentlessly perky person advises, "Smile," even a placid plodder like me feels more like strangling the encourager than complying. So, if Paul’s adjuration simply meant, "Cheer up!" it would have the same grating effect on most people.
Actually, the most spiritual persons I know are also the most subject to depression. There are plenty of flaws in this imperfect world to dishearten the sensitive. Also, the human biological make-up is such that our mood can be affected by something as simple as what we had for lunch. And those who are sensitive spiritually are frequently sensitive biologically as well. (You wouldn’t believe the number of allergies among us artistic types!)
C. S. Lewis wrote, of Charles Williams, that "He was ready to accept as a revealed doctrine the proposition that existence is good: but added that it would never have occurred to him, unaided, to suspect this. . .This skepticism and pessimism were the expression of his feelings. High above them, overarching them like a sky, were the things he believed, and they were wholly optimistic. They did not negate the feelings: they mocked them."
Lewis called his own autobiography Surprised by Joy. That was a play on words since his wife, whom he married rather late in life, was named Joy. But, when he chose that title, he referred to the fact that the hope he found in God was also entirely unexpected.
Lewis defined joy, however, not as a sense of completion or fulfillment, but as its opposite--a longing. A seeing, here and there in this world, traces of the glory that lies beyond it. As Chesterton put it in "The House of Christmas," "Our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings/ And our peace is put in impossible things/ Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings/ Round an incredible star."
So joy might be described, paradoxically, as both a kind of dissatisfaction and a kind of peace. But peace itself, as Dorothy Sayers points out in Begin Here, 'is not a static thing: it is the extreme example of balance in movement. . .peace and ease have nothing to do with one another." "All joy," Lewis contends in Surprised by Joy, "emphasizes our pilgrim status, always reminds, beckons, awakens desire. Our best havings are wantings."
In John 15:11, Jesus says, "These things have I spoken onto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full." Since He almost immediately begins to describe how his disciples will be persecuted, he obviously didn’t mean a kind of surface satisfaction when he spoke of joy.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin advises that we should make up our minds to admit "that there is no importance whatever in being ’happy’ or ‘unhappy’ in the usual meaning of the words." When we’re harping on our own happiness, after all, we’re still thinking about ourselves. And, as Paul Tillich points out in The Eternal Now, "The inability to get rid of oneself is the exact meaning of despair."
It’s our own worry about whether we’re good enough--or happy enough--that causes a large percentage of our angst, after all. In Screwtape Letters, Lewis writes that "The Christian often thinks his conversion is something inside him and his attention is therefore turned chiefly to the states of his own mind."
But the state of your mind is irrelevant. A woman who has taken the marriage vows encounters many instances when she feels anything but warm and mushy towards her husband. But it’s what she does under those circumstances that proves her love, not how she feels.
When we accept Christ, we also enter into a contract. We’re not always going to feel saved anymore than married couples always feel "in love." But that makes no difference. Both sides promised, and both sides are bound by that promise.
"The secret of happiness," Fulton Sheen posits in Peace of Soul, "is centeredness." And he quotes Mother Teresa who states, "What is not God to me is nothing." She, I have heard, went through a period where she felt no "warmth" at all in response to her prayers. But she didn’t conclude that God had abandoned her.
We’re a little too prone to self-analysis these days. And there’s nothing that kills pleasure like self-consciousness. In The World’s Last Night, Lewis asserts that, "True enjoyments must be spontaneous and compulsive and look to no remoter end."
Most of us are happiest when we are so engrossed in some activity that we are barely aware of ourselves at all. And that’s just as well. As Lewis adds in The Problem of Pain, "The surest way of spoiling a pleasure is to start examining your satisfaction."
Our goal is to become so engrossed in God that we forget ourselves. In that case, the difficult background of this world becomes an invigorating challenge. What lover doesn’t like to be set a seemingly impossible task? "To our good dreams," Chesterton's Charles Dickens asserts, "this dark and dangerous background is essential; the highest pleasure we can imagine is a defiant pleasure, a happiness that stands at bay."
He expounds farther on this idea elsewhere. "The circumstances we can regulate may become tame or pessimistic. . .the thing which keeps life romantic and full of fiery possibilities is the existence of these great plain limitations which force all of us to meet the thing we do not like or do not expect."
Joy, we might conclude then, is the kind of precarious balance that allowed Peter to walk on stormy water--as long as he kept looking at Christ. It was only when he turned his attention back to himself and the tempest that he began to sink.