There’s a restless spirit that lurks in the heart of many: joylessness. It emerges in varying forms, sometimes depression or anxiety, other times ingratitude and anger. But the root is the same, and it erodes our ability to be fully alive in the truth that God made us for joy.
My mom casually mentioned to me a while back that no one will be attracted to Christianity if there is a lackluster and downtrodden portrayal of it through those of us who claim the Faith. It’s true that, when I go in public, I see a lot of faces hung in sorrow or unspoken burdens. I am often among them. But I do not want to contribute to the growing spiritual oppression of joylessness. How, then, can I rise above it?
Joy is an Act of the Will
For those of us who are of the melancholic temperament, such as myself, joy does not come easily. In fact, it is in direct opposition to our tendency toward pessimism, fatalism, and worrying about catastrophe. The battle to reclaim joy has been an ongoing one for me, one that fluctuates through seasons of hardship and periods of rest.
It’s natural to express joy when one is relatively content in life. If all of our needs are met and “life is good,” as they say, then why not be joyful? But our crosses are getting heavier these days, and most Christians are being asked to bear the burdens with more courage and hope than ever before. It may be for the purpose of reparation for social sins. It may be for the purpose of honing that virtue of fortitude so necessary to undergo whatever greater trials may be in store.
No matter, joy is an act of the will. It is something we must deliberately choose every day. When we wake up each morning, we have to start changing our cognitive patterns to reflect the reality that joy is in us; it’s a gift from God, and He does not want us to squander that gift. So, how can we begin to choose joy today?
Joy Is a Result of How We Choose to Live Our Lives
We also know from Galatians (5:22-23) that joy is also a spiritual fruit, which means it’s a direct result of how we choose to live our lives. If we begin by making a conscious effort to choose joy i.e. as an act of the will, then we will begin to notice that joy becomes a consequence of our daily Christian walk.
Joy is apparent every time we opt to smile at a glowering customer, wait patiently behind an angry driver, and compliment the neighbor who is constantly complaining. Joy happens when we look for subtle signs that goodness and beauty still exist all around us. In my family, that happens most frequently when we take a little trip outside our front door and into the tiny nature preserve of our backyard. Joy, for us, is restored when we see the downy woodpecker rooting in the oak tree for his lunch; when we hear the distant trill of a falcon or Great-horned owl; when we notice for the first time a new varietal of wildflower peeking behind the mossy ground covering.
Gratitude Cultivates Greater Joy
How is it possible to change our negative habits and begin cultivating a habit of joy? A simple, but practical, beginning is by fostering more gratitude in our lives. The Catechism lists several impediments to joy, such as indifference, ingratitude, lukewarmness, and acedia (#2094). The root of each of these is a lack of recognition of and reciprocity for God’s love for us!
In our family, writing down and sharing what we are thankful for at the end of our long days uplifts each of us and broadens our spiritual vision, so that we are more likely to recognize God’s blessings in ways both obvious and subtle. Another helpful exercise in gratitude, besides listing or sharing with your loved ones, is to keep a prayer journal and write down when each request is answered. Revisiting these is a powerful reminder that God is always listening and cares infinitely for the smallest of our intentions and needs.
In turn, nurturing a sense of gratitude will boost the level of joy you exude to others. It also grants greater confidence and trust in God’s overarching design for your life.
Joy and Suffering Can Coexist
Joy and happiness are not the same. Yes, we are to be “reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy in the next,” but happiness is based on emotion and cannot be a reliable indicator of our interior disposition. Any feeling, whether dark or otherwise, can be intensely experienced but should not be a spiritual barometer of where we are or where we’re headed. Nor should we rely on feelings to make decisions.
Joy supplants happiness. I can attest that joy can mingle somewhere in your heart when you are suffering great tragedy or are in the midst of a trial. When our daughter, Sarah, underwent her first surgery at six months of age, I knew the high risk of getting her skull cut open. I never felt more keenly the fragility of life than that moment. But, sitting in the surgical waiting area at the children’s hospital, my heart was steady and constant. God’s grace poured out the gift of joy that led me to thank Him for His goodness. As a result, the peace that surpasses all understanding flooded my soul.