Joy is an odd thing to talk about, at least it is to me. Joy is one of those things that is often conflated with other emotions like happiness. And, while I think happiness can absolutely be coupled and linked with joy, it seems to equate happiness to joy is to strip joy of it’s depth. I think of Bonhoeffer on death row in Nazi Germany, and the joy that outlasted happiness or was even present when happiness was absent. I think of the joy that accompanied the early Christian martyrs as they slowly marched to their deaths. I think of the joy early Puritan theologians were filled with while struggling with illnesses like depression. And think, while I very much desire the joy that is present while and enriches times of happiness; I also want joy that is very present in times of loss, sadness, and illness.
A couple years ago, I was experiencing fear, inner isolation and anxiety like never before - I was in a very dark place. Much of it had to do with the environment I was constantly in and the unattainable and unhealthy goal I was working toward and pressure I was working under in the church world - I was completely joyless! Nothing, not prayer, scripture reading, nor my wife could remedy this. So, I turned to Lewis. Lewis was my reprieve, and my handy shovel to dig myself out of this pit. I know of no other writer who writes of joy like C.S. Lewis. Grant it, things like happiness and emotion make joy tangible, and Lewis does speak of joy in a very abstract way. Living through the different things I’ve lived through, I am not sure how else to truthfully speak of it either. Lewis, in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, says this:
"In a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else... The quality common to [my] experiences... is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again... I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”
Then speaking of his younger life he says,
“I was still young and the whole world of beauty was opening before me, my own officious obstructions were often swept aside and, startled into self-forgetfulness, I again tasted Joy. ... One thing, however, I learned, which has since saved me from many popular confusions of mind. I came to know by experience that it is not a disguise of sexual desire. ... I repeatedly followed that path - to the end. And at the end one found pleasure; which immediately resulted in the discovery that pleasure (whether that pleasure or any other) was not what you had been looking for. No moral question was involved; I was at this time as nearly nonmoral on that subject as a human creature can be. The frustration did not consist in finding a "lower" pleasure instead of a "higher." It was the irrelevance of the conclusion that marred it. ... You might as well offer a mutton chop to a man who is dying of thirst as offer sexual pleasure to the desire I am speaking of. ... Joy is not a substitute for sex; sex is very often a substitute for Joy. I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy.”
At the end of the day, as abstract as Lewis’ definitions may be, he is saying that joy, true joy always points away from itself to something greater, or maybe draws us to something greater. Maybe, when we experience joy - in happiness or sadness - it is because in that moment, subconsciously or not, our souls are experiencing the Divine, fleeting may it be, our souls have for a moment been entangled with the Divine love.
Later, Lewis will attempt to define joy by saying,
“All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still 'about to be’.”
Joy, according to scripture, is our strength - not accomplishment or achievement; not financial security; not popularity or fame (Hollywood proves this everyday); but joy. Joy happens when we slow down enough to allow our souls to entangle with the Divine, in times of happiness, sadness, weakness, strength, failure, or accomplishment. This holiday season (or next year) practice the art of slow in order to allow your life to be entangled in the Divine Love and allow joy to be your strength as you live ordinary well!