Joy in the presence of God


9 Jan 2019

Joy is different to happiness. Joy brings a deeper warmth and contentment to our hearts.

Sitting with the question ‘What does joy mean to me?’, no one answer came readily to mind. I know joy is an emotion and not just a mere feeling, and that feelings are our normal reactions caused by someone or something that has affected us. Joy can be a positive response when we experience something good happening to ourselves and to those for whom we care, or, as Thomas Aquinas observed – joy is a response to having been ‘united’ with whom and what we love.


Paradoxically, I believe, joy can also be unpredictable, absurd, fleeting, all-consuming. It can shatter our illusions. It can shatter our most basic beliefs about life. It can come to us in the depths of despair or the height of frustration; when we are lonely or feeling fully loved or just absent-mindedly staring out into space… Joy is transforming, yet ironically, it does not necessarily take us out of ourselves or where we are in our life situations.

As Christians, hopefully, we will experience God’s presence even when joy seems to be a million miles away. These are the times when we do not feel so joyful. Does this mean then that God is not present? Thankfully no; it just means we are, after all, merely human. Could joy, then, possibly be the answer that gives birth to all our myriad of questions?


The Gospels speak frequently of joy. Yet true joy is so often misunderstood. Many of us confuse it with happiness which means we are inclined to chase the wrong things in life to discover it. Both happiness and joy are positive and desirable emotions where we can experience feelings of satisfaction. However, often our fleeting moments of happiness are triggered by events over which we have no control. We get that job, we find our missing mobile, the rain holds off for the school fete . . . Short-term happiness can temporarily camouflage many of our fears, while joy brings a deeper warmth and contentment to our hearts.

Joy doesn’t only appear in the major moments of our lives. It manifests itself in the little things which happen in our day-to-day living. As 20th century American author Wilferd Peterson writes: ‘It is looking for the joys that come in small, precious packages and making the most of them. It is making the most of now, enjoying what is at hand. It is taking time to enjoy life as you go along. It is an awareness of the heaven, that exists all about you.’ Depending on the intensity of the feeling, for example, joy can range from sheer ecstasy when we pick the winner of the Melbourne Cup to experiencing calm delight as we gaze on a sleeping baby. Perhaps we need to reflect more deeply that the awareness of joy in our lives is the essence of the Gospel message.


I believe joy can never be induced or made to happen. It is something that has to find us precisely within our mundane, duty-bound, worried and pressured lives. As Henri Nouwen so wisely observed: ‘Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.’ We need to meditate on those special moments, in the presence of the Lord, when, for no apparent reason, we suddenly experience that ‘joie de vivre’ feeling.

Benedictine nun, author and speaker, Joan Chittister, says much the same thing: ‘To lust for joy is to lust for the God of life. To make joy where at first it seems there is none is to become co-creator with the God of life. The problem is that we far too often expect joy to come to us rather than realising that we have a spiritual responsibility to make it for ourselves.’ I guess, in a nutshell, that’s why we so often wrongly blame God for all those times when joy seems absent.

As I reflect now on my question ‘What does joy mean to me?’, I find there is an answer to be found in the comforting words of Pope Francis: ‘No Christian can exist without experiencing joy in their lives . . . The Christian identity card is joy, the Gospel’s joy, the joy of having been chosen by Jesus, saved by Jesus . . . even with the crosses and sufferings we bear in this life – is expressed in another way, which is peace in the certainty that Jesus accompanies us, is with us.’


Soon we will celebrate the true gift of Christmas – joy – as we welcome the birth of the infant child. Christmas means that the infant Jesus must find a home waiting for him in our hearts, in our families and in the society in which we live. It means also the need to look beyond our own joy and reach out to all those who lack not only joy in their lives but also the basic necessities.

It is this joy of reaching out to others that enables us to remain in the loving presence of God.

This article first appeared in Madonna magazine Summer 2018-19 edition.

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