A carry-over from “Holy Humor Sunday” is seeing Easter as a perfect season to engage and ponder God’s gift of Joy. (For this reason, we’ve decided, at the churches I am “supplying” through the end of June, to focus on Paul’s letter to the Philippians [what some scholars call the “Epistle of Joy”… for the many ways it emphasizes joy and rejoicing from beginning to end].)
Essential, to me, as an early, first step in any exploration of the topic is discriminating between joy and happiness. Here, I might point out that Paul has a lot to say about joy in Philippians (and elsewhere) but is rather sluggish when it comes to any discourse on happiness. Or, to put it another way, Paul does not have a lot to be happy about as he writes many of his letters. (Philippians, for example, is written from prison.) But this poverty of outward circumstance does not mean he can not share his joy and a call to rejoice. Obviously, in spite of cultural tendencies otherwise, there is a difference between happiness and joy.
It’s akin to a distinction which John Ortberg (drawing from work with Dallas Williard) makes in his book, Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You. There he writes about the distinction between self and soul. Here, too, he writes about a cultural confusion about the difference between the two – and the ways that self has eclipsed real regard for and understanding (and appreciation) of soul. But, in spite of the ways that the two might have been rolled into one, there are pronounced differences: the self is a “stand-alone, do-it-yourself unit” while the soul is a connecting and integrating reality which is ever reaching out and beyond – to God and others and true life/living.
Here, Ortberg’s discussion helps me frame a key distinction (or two) between joy and happiness. So that (and, here, I am still working to fully flesh this out in my mind and heart): happiness is something the self is looking to attach itself to in this world… while joy is something the soul finds in its connection to God and others. Happiness, then, is self-based and attached to temporal things of this world. (Note that the connection, in fact, between happiness and happenstance.) Joy, on the other hand, is soul-based and a matter of divine/sacred connections. (No wonder to me, then, that joy and not happiness is framed as a “fruit of the Holy Spirit” in our lives.)
Worship ended at one of the churches this last Sunday with our singing Horatio Spafford’s “It is Well with My Soul.” Like Paul, Spafford had little to be happy about as he wrote this hymn. He had just lost his home and a large portion of his business in the great Chicago fire of 1871. And, as if that were not enough, the immediate inspiration for his lyrics was viewing the general location where his four daughters had drowned (while making passage across the Atlantic to a European vacation).
No Spafford, like Paul (and like a whole host of other souls we might list here), had nothing to be that happy about. But, connected as they were to realities beyond this world, they had plenty of reason to take delight in the Divine. (That’s the way one author and pastor defines joy: “Divine/Eternal delight/pleasure.” I like that!)
Even so, dear friends,
somewhere out there…
I see a cancer patient singing,
I see a lonely, mourning spouse singing,
I see an addict singing,
I see a prisoner singing,
I see a refugee singing,…
And though their circumstances
be filled with chains and prison bars,
dirty mangers and splintery crosses;
they sing for joy—
in a Lord of Life, a Love
which can not and will not let us go!