Last Sunday I attended a conference for all of our local church branches. I felt deeply filled as I listened to the sermons given. The topic of the whole conference was that of joy, and each speaker addressed a different aspect of it: joy within families, joy through creativity, joy as an abiding peace, etc.
I found myself wanting to do a study of my own on the subject. Each one of us wishes to obtain joy in life, and God has declared that this is what He wishes for us as well. However there are many different ideas in the world for how one attains it: from hedonism, to just letting go of expectations, to applying oneself to meaningful labor.
In this study I would like to examine what joy itself is. I would like to find whether it can be reliably pursued, or whether it just comes and goes on a whim. If it can be pursued, I would like to identify which methods can best secure it for us. Finally, I would like to consider what one can do in those moments where feeling joy seems impossible. As part of this study I will also examine what elements bring me joy in my personal life.
Moses 1:39, John 17:3, 2 Nephi 2:25
For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.
And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.
Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.
This is my glory—to bring to pass the eternal life of man
And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God
We understand God to be a being that has no restraints upon Him. He is not held back by a lack of power, or time, or by any external compulsion. He is, therefore, the freest being imaginable, and His pleasure is to perform whatever work He chooses.
And with that total freedom what has He chosen to do? To make us, His children, and raise us to life eternal. That “life eternal” is defined by Jesus as knowing God. This means to learn of God while here on Earth, but also to know Him perfectly when we dwell forever in His presence.
But for what purpose? Why does God consider it a personal glory to have us live in His presence and receive of His kingdom? And why should we want that ourselves?
Men are, that they might have joy
The answers to those questions are obvious. God wants us to dwell with Him because He loves us. And we want to dwell with Him because doing so will make us happy.
Even a small child understands that heaven means happiness, which is quite significant because there really is so very little that we know about heaven. And yet amidst all the many, many things that we do not know of it, we do know that it is a place of peace and joy. We know it fervently, so much so that we often use heaven as a synonym for happiness.
Not only that, but this idea of heaven=happiness holds firm across a plethora of different cultures and beliefs. It seems that if people believe in a creator, of any sort, then they also believe that dwelling with that entity is the most joyful existence possible. A joy that puts all worldly pleasures to shame.
God with all His power and all His freedom wanted to make us, His children. And then He wanted to make His children happy. It is as simple as that.
Joy, therefore, is the very reason for our existence.
Psalm 149:5, 1 Peter 1:7-8
Let the saints be joyful in glory: let them sing aloud upon their beds.
That the trial of your faith might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ:
In whom ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.
Let the saints be joyful in glory
Ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory
As I tried to identify what exactly the “joy” promised in the gospels is, I noticed a subtle association between that word and “glory.” In fact in these two examples joy is being associated with “glory” in both of its forms: first as a verb, meaning to take pleasure in, and then as a noun, meaning to have achieved honor or renown.
In each case “joy” and “glory” seem to be describing a state of deep spiritual gladness and contentment, an exuberant celebration of that which is good. Another word that comes to mind is “rapture.”
And just what goodness is it that we live in rapture of? And joy in? And derive glory from?
First and foremost the goodness of God. We are children who take immense pleasure when our Father reveals Himself in our lives. We just feel more right when we sense His presence and feel His blessings.
Secondly we glory and joy Christ, Jesus. He is our elder brother and our conduit to God. He did all that we wish we could, and he promises us that one day we can live in full harmony with our consciences, just as he did.
Which leads us to our third source of joy: ourselves. We rejoice when we feel ourselves reciprocating the goodness of God and Jesus. There is deep contentment and joy just in having a clean conscience, in doing what we know we should, in being better than we were the day before, in being more like them. This is life eternal.
One of the motivations for this study was that I have been feeling an increase of joy over the past year and wanted to examine the reasons why. As I’ve considered the matter I have identified three basic reasons.
My discipleship is in the best place it has ever been. A little over two years ago I decided to really try to be my best self. All my life I was raised in a religious environment, and I definitely “wanted” good things for myself and the world…but if you had asked me what I did to actively promote that goodness I wouldn’t have had much to say. That I just wished for goodness, maybe? Suffice it to say that I was a very passive follower of Jesus.
After some dramatic life events I knew it was time to take my faith seriously and finally listen to all of the things that my conscience was trying to say. I didn’t want to try and make one little change here or there, I felt a need to let the light of Christ pervade my entire life.
So I started exercising, I brought better focus to my work, I started meeting with a therapist, I made a habit of studying the scriptures with real intent, I decided to put my phone away and really be there for my wife and son. Most recently I’ve added reaching out to my brothers and sisters and nurturing a forgiving heart to the list.
Now I have a long way to go before I’m perfect in any of these practices. Several of them have been on-again/off-again, but I am making a point to not lapse back into complacency. I try, I waver, I recommit. And in that imperfect trying I already feel so much more awakened, so much more like I am living the way I was intended to live. It just feels so right.
I’ve always been fascinated by the act of writing. I wrote stories all through my teenage years, I loved crafting essays in college, and even in my careers as a software development I do a form of writing every day. Surprisingly, though, I never thought of myself as “called” to write until a year-and-a-half ago.
March of 2018 I was attending a spiritual retreat up in the mountains where I had a lot of pondering and prayer. God spoke to my heart with many sacred messages, and one of them was an invitation to take my old hobby and make it a spiritual vocation.
I distinctly felt that God took pleasure in my writing. The thought occurred to me that He is a supremely creative being, and my own desire for creativity is a sign of my being His son. It was time to start taking that gift seriously.
As a result I began a blog where I examine the principles of storytelling and publish short stories. I also began working in earnest on a novel, one which communicates the deepest feelings of my heart. And last of all I began this second spiritual blog six months ago.
My skills still have a long way to go, but the fact is I am already so much more fulfilled by doing that which I feel was I was born to do. If what I write is good for anyone else, that is delightful. But already it is enough that what I write is good for me.
A little over three months ago my wife and I discovered that we are expecting our second child. Now I’ll be perfectly honest, along with the immediate joy at this news, I also felt a great deal of anxiety. As time has allowed me to settle into this life change, though, I have found the anxieties to be fleeting and the joy to be abiding.
Being a father is the one of the most rewarding roles I have ever had, right up there with being a husband 🙂 It feels good to give my time and energy to my son, to make things for him, to help him process his life. I am very excited to do these same things for our new daughter as well.
Being a father is certainly one of those things that I feel completes me, something that gives expression to an essential element of my soul. It puts me better in touch with the mind of my Heavenly Father.
Years ago, the first time my wife and I got pregnant, she had a very painful miscarriage. Given that this was our very first pregnancy, my mind raced to all sorts of worst case scenarios. I began to dread whether this was to be our lot in life, and whether our family would feel incomplete because of it.
In the end that was a short-lived fear. But after that very brief taste I have the greatest sympathy for anyone who is not able to have children of their own, for whatever reason. It seems that some of the core joys in life are not intended for everyone. That is a very hard truth of this fallen world, and one that should move each of us to mourn together. At the same time, it also gives us all the more reason to deem precious the joys that we are allowed.
First I spoke about my discipleship, and how finally taking it seriously made me come alive spiritually. Secondly I spoke about creativity, and purposefully doing the work I felt I was made to do. And finally I spoke about my wife and I expecting our second child, and the way that fatherhood helps me discover divinity within myself.
Now all of these describe my very personal situation, and some of these points may not apply to you. But I do believe there is a common core that is universal in them, which is universal to all mankind. In each of these cases I was receiving joy by more fully living my fullest, truest self. I was discovering the man that God meant for me to be and feeling immense pleasure in becoming more complete with that image.
I am convinced that this truth applies to us all: the level of our joy is directly related to how fully we are living the divine identity God put in us. The more we fill that measure, the more we give expression to the person God meant for us to be, the happier we will become. We will simply feel more right.
Matthew 5:48, John 5:6
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, he saith unto him, Wilt thou be made whole?
Be ye therefore perfect
This verse has been to known to create quite some anxiety among the faithful. Most of us find it difficult enough to just be good, let alone having to worry about being perfect. However the meaning that we associate to the word “perfect” is somewhat removed from original Greek word that Matthew chose for his gospel.
The term rendered “perfect” in most English translations is τέλειοι (teleioi), the same word used in the Septuagint for תָּמִים and meaning “brought to its end, finished; lacking nothing necessary to completeness.” … Applied to people, it refers to completeness of parts.
Ultimately we hope to achieve perfection in the next life, but for now it would appear that it is enough to strive for completeness.
Wilt thou be made whole?
Consider how this need for completeness aligns with Jesus’s oft-repeated offer to make incomplete people whole. Something is lacking in each of us, and Jesus fills that hole, thus making us whole.
And when incomplete people are made whole they rejoice. Consider the example of Philip and the eunuch. That eunuch was frustrated by his own ignorance, and Philip taught him the gospel and baptized him, filling that lacking. Having been made that much more complete, we are told that the eunuch went on his way rejoicing (Acts 8:39).
This idea is certainly in-line with my own observations. I just completed sharing about my personal experiences, and what stood out to me was that my joy came when I felt most complete. Being healed, or enlightened, or given purpose…these are all ways that God makes us whole. And we feel great joy in that.
Acts 16:23-25, John 14:27, Hebrews 10:34
And when they had laid many stripes upon them, they cast them into prison, charging the jailor to keep them safely:
Who, having received such a charge, thrust them into the inner prison, and made their feet fast in the stocks.
And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them.
Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.
For ye had compassion of me in my bonds, and took joyfully the spoiling of your goods, knowing in yourselves that ye have in heaven a better and an enduring substance.
And when they had laid many stripes upon them, they cast them into prison…And at midnight Paul and Silas sang praises unto God
There are several stories like these in the scriptures, ones where the disciples are persecuted and yet remain in utmost joy. When we read these accounts we might have one of two responses:
- Wow, I wish I could have abiding joy like that. My own emotions seem so fickle, coming and going depending on my circumstance. Is there any way I can be happy even when my world is turned upside down?
- Well that’s just weird.
Now don’t feel bad if you find yourself in that second category. Truly the joyful singing of Paul and Silas after being beaten and imprisoned is irregular. It is, because it defies the common order of things, and there’s no shame in recognizing that fact. And that recognition naturally leads to an important question. Are they madmen, then, or they have found a way to live outside the systems of our common world?
Peace I leave with you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you
For ye took joyfully the spoiling of your goods, knowing that ye have an enduring substance
There is a simple reason why our emotions seem to be so fickle. It is because they are usually based upon the things of the world, and the world itself is fickle. Nothing earthly can be guaranteed, they come and go without warning, and with them so do our emotions.
Jesus invites us to know a more enduring peace, a joy based on a substance that is constant. Abiding joy can only come by being based upon abiding things. Something that is necessarily outside of this world, something that cannot be undone by this world. When one ties their emotions to that more eternal source, then it doesn’t matter what happens in this world anymore, the joy remains. Now they are truly free.
The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.
When I said, My foot slippeth; thy mercy, O Lord, held me up.
In the multitude of my thoughts within me thy comforts delight my soul.
I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.
The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart
Previously we observed that those whose hope is based in heaven are less likely to feel distressed by the setbacks of the world. But that isn’t meant to suggest that the faithful must never experience sorrow. Indeed, even Jesus wept when he heard of the death of his friend Lazarus.
Even with the hope of heaven, there are still some moments that will make us sad down to the soul. To express sorrow in these moments does not show a lack of faith, and there is no shame in mourning life’s tragedies.
In the multitude of my thoughts within me thy comforts delight my soul
I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you
The gospel is a message of gladness, but it does not promise that we will never feel sorrow again. What it does promise is that we never have to be alone in that sorrow. We can be sad, but we can also be comforted.
Many have noted, and I would agree, that that promised comfort feels comes as a companionship. It feels like some invisible friend is sitting with me in my hardest moments. And through those moments I have discovered that one may feel sorrow and joy at the same time.
Studying the gospel can be a most satisfying experience. After all, it is meant to be “good news,” and to bring us “tidings of great joy.” It is specifically designed to make us happy and give us hope. Who wouldn’t want to spend time in those joyful places?
In my experience those mission statements of the gospel are not empty promises. The ideas of peace and joy truly do pervade its verses, and the pattern of life for achieving them are well detailed. The common desire of all mankind is to find abiding happiness, and I am convinced that the gospel provides the best, even the only, path to achieving it.
We Are Meant to Have Joy
We very often try to mask our desires. We don’t want to appear selfish by daring to say we want something or the other. In fact we often see the path of discipleship as being one of restraining our indulgences. It is easy to see where the stereotype of religious people being stuffy and passionless arises from! But nothing could be further from the truth. True disciples are all about the pursuit of happiness.
Do we suppress our carnal desires, yes, but for the purpose that we may be truly happy. The short-lived, guilty indulgences that bring momentary happiness are always followed by abiding sorrow, and there is nothing “stuffy” in circumventing those pitfalls. Instead we pursue deep and living joy, and we pursue it vigorously.
Indeed that is God’s entire intention for us. He made us to be ridiculously, inexplicably, rapturously happy! You are supposed to feel good, you are supposed to feel fulfilled, and you are supposed to feel it always.
2 Nephi 2:25- Men are, that they might have joy
Psalm 149:5- Let the saints be joyful in glory: let them sing aloud upon their beds
The Joy We Seek Can Only Come From God
We are a creative and ingenious species, always looking to invent new things. That is good, it is by design, it is how we progress and improve as a race. But sometimes we take it to the point where we are trying to reinvent the wheel, looking for new solutions to an already-solved problem.
As God is the author of our very existence, He is also the final authority on what we were made for. The workmanship of a perfect creator will only ever be able to find fulfillment and completeness when it satisfies the ends to which it was created. I, myself, have found that my abiding joy comes as a result of living the purposes for which God has made me.
Though we may try to find joy in other paths, it simply cannot work. Our greatest joys will only occur when following God’s precepts. And to that end, God has cleverly placed a conscience in each of us, by which He guides us whether we know Him or not. I do believe that when we stand before God in the flesh we will finally recognize how He was behind every abiding joy we ever perceived in life.
Doctrine and Covenants 88:19- For after it hath filled the measure of its creation, it shall be crowned with glory, even with the presence of God the Father
God Gives Us Joy That Doesn’t Make Sense
As part of this study I chose to examine the joy I have personally been feeling of late. I wanted to place its source, because it caught me off guard. I frankly didn’t feel like I was justified in feeling as good as I have.
As I conducted this study it dawned on me that inexplicable joy is one of the fundamental promises of the gospel. I should therefore expect unexpected happiness when I try to follow my Savior. This sort of peace and joy will never make sense so long as we view it by worldly metrics, because it does not emanate from a worldly place. The joy that God gives is spiritual, and therefore can only be understood spiritually.
Trusting in the dawning of that joy therefore requires faith. You won’t be able to calculate its coming, so you simply will have to hope that the promise of it will be fulfilled. I can give my testimony that it does.
John 14:18- I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you
John 14:27- Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you