Eliminate my guilt and fears, create a trouble-free environment, pay all my debts, perfect my relationships; give me a loaf of bread, a jug of wine and a "thou" beside me singing in the wilderness--that is a capsulated form of the joy formula we are fed from infancy to senility. But the contradictions are everywhere. Without guilt and fear we become reckless of consequences. In a trouble-free environment we become insensitive and lazy. Owing nothing, we become arrogant. We're stunted and dwarfed by easy relationships. The bread molds, the wine intoxicates, the "thou" either threatens or bores, and we are left to sing the modern lyric: "I don't know where we both went wrong, but the feeling's gone and I just can't get it back."
"The feeling's gone." Perhaps these words are a significant cue to what joy really is, and we may ask whether it is indeed adequate to describe it as merely feeling or sensation. An emotional high is easily daunted, highly fragile, perilously insecure. It is threatened by tests and trials, by tensions, ill health, and fluctuating relationships. When "everything's going my way," as another songwriter puts it, one may feel joyful, but the odds for that combination of circumstances are small, the duration transient, and when everything goes our way, it is likely to be at someone else's expense, as well as self-defeating in the long run.
When I was a small child, I was intrigued with our Montana bluebirds, and I remember my dad remarking, with a wry grin, that I could catch one if I would just put salt on its tail. If we make a landmark of the feeling of exaltation that comes from everything going our way, we can spend a lifetime trying to capture bluebirds by dubious means. We have all experienced the frustration of trying to recapture a fond memory from our childhood, an exhilarating adventure, an expired romance, only to find that it was unrepeatable, simply because that unique set of circumstances could not be reproduced.
It would be harmless enough to savor past emotional highs, except that we are all too prone to live in the present on the basis of some memory now become fantasy. Many marriages and friendships have been blighted, some broken, because joy became a command performance, a demand, rather than a by-product. Many have become bitter, hostile, and resentful because some brief period of emotional delight cannot be reproduced or perpetuated, and the supply of either salt or bluebirds has been exhausted.
But joy cannot be catalogued, spindled, or preserved. When pursued it becomes elusive. It comes unbidden and unrehearsed when the mind and heart are free of coercion and demand. Genuine joy is ingenuous, not ingenious--the subtle but significant difference between a product and a production. Authentic joy results from a quality of life, an inner attitude. It surprises the simple and eludes the sophisticated.
Know how to be joyful? the world asks. Buy pleasure; pay any price. Pursue it with body, soul, and spirit. Prostitute your body, perjure your soul, and placate your spirit. Eat, drink, and be merry; who cares about tomorrow? But tomorrow persistently arrives, and demands the price for yesterday's small joys, leaving the celebrant bankrupt and regretful.
Then a new voice is heard, a magic word: change! Change your residence, toothpaste, religion, spouse, deodorant, furniture, eating habits. Move to a new neighborhood, take a South Sea island cruise, adopt a new ideology. Or, in the event all these have been tried and failed, retreat from society. Drop out of the rat race; bury yourself in fantasy or some esoteric notion. Or if the adrenalin still runs high, rebel--raise an angry fist and shout out your frustrations, voice your outrage! Invest every energy in changing (or is it punishing?) a world that has robbed you of joy!
Still, in the small sensual joys, there is the hint of a larger, nobler satisfaction, a joy that will endure to quench a deeper thirst, to feed a greater hunger. There is yet another voice. Quiet and tranquil, yet persistent and pervading, it has sought to be heard in the quiet moments of despair, in the restless moments of anxiety, as well as in the small but fleeting joys of beauty and laughter. Pursue it we must! This is the voice of One who calls to us in the small illusions, the elusive encounters with small joys designed to speak of the gigantic joy for which we were created. Hear the voice of Jesus:
If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commends and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. No one has greater love than the one who lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command (John 15:1-14 NIV).
One brief summary from the lips of Jesus, and already there is the joy of discovery! Hear the voice of the One who designed us for joy: Obey me: Love as I love you! Both the means and the end are revealed in his loving command. Joy is the by-product of love, God's love. It is the certain consequence, as well as the clear evidence, of godly love. We will attempt to sketch this beautiful plan God has made for joy through love.
Meanwhile, beware the imitations. Neither love nor joy is genuine apart from God who is Love. We can only effect shabby imitations of the real thing. So long as we persist in building monuments to small joys, trying to content ourselves with the symbol rather than the reality it represents, we must be willing to live with fantasy and illusion and settle for its consequences.
The God of love calls to us in our emotional highs and our emotional lows. When we respond to him the reward is gigantic and eternal joy.