Do not be afraid: for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy . . .
Advent is a good time to ponder the distinction between happiness and joy. They share common ground, and much in life can bring us both happiness and joy, yet they are not the same. For while happiness eludes us in times of struggle and suffering, we can experience, even when our hearts are breaking, moments of joy.
Happiness, in the words of our nation’s founding fathers, can be pursued. The pursuit of happiness is the fulfillment of desire. Happiness is also deeply subjective, for each person has a different definition of happiness and therefore a unique path of pursuit. There is a limitation to happiness, dependent as it is upon external circumstances and subjective experience.
One of the most liberating insights of my life, that I must relearn over and over again, is that it is impossible to make other people happy. We can strive to bring happiness to others, based on what we know about them, but we can’t control their response. It’s also sobering to realize how our definitions of happiness are influenced–some would say controlled–by what we see around us. We can never be happy in a perpetual state of want.
Joy, on the other hand, goes deeper within us than happiness can reach, into the realm of meaning. Joy doesn’t depend on external circumstances or good fortune, nor is it something that we can pursue. Joy comes to us, often in unlikely times and places. “Happiness,” writes the spiritual author Frederick Buechner, “turns up more or less where you’d expect it to–a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the One who bequeaths it.” One would expect joy at a wedding; but it can be equally palpable at a funeral. One would hope for joy on the perfect Christmas morning. Yet it can also come to us in the loneliness of imperfection, when nothing turned out the way we hoped it would, after an argument, and in a hospital bed, even in a jail cell. Joy is a gift that God gives, and with it a deep sense of being at home in an all too imperfect world.
The Scriptures often speak of being filled with joy, or of joy breaking forth, descending upon those who live in darkness or fear. Not only does joy come to the unexpecting, but also to the undeserving. What’s striking about these passages is that they often speak of a joy that is beyond anyone’s capacity to pursue or accomplish. More often than not, they point to a promise of joy yet to be fulfilled. Somehow, the seeds of joy can take root in us long before there is anything to be happy about. The promise of joy is often joy enough.
I wish happiness for all of you and your loved ones. But this may or may not be a happy Christmas, depending on circumstances beyond our control. Whether it will be a joyful Christmas depends not on our pursuit, but rather upon our openness to receive. For what God gives can come in the loneliest hour and the darkest night. “Weeping may spend the night,” the psalmist wrote, “but joy comes in the morning.” Joy comes in happiness or sorrow, calm or chaos–it doesn’t matter. For it is God’s doing, God coming to us as we are, in the world as it is, with an assurance of deep meaning and the promise of joy.