catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 16 :: 2009.07.31 — 2009.09.03


Joy and melancholy

In one of the several interviews as I was vetted by the superintendents of the Evangelical Covenant Church for placement as a Covenant minister I was asked, “Are you happy?”  That question did not sit well with me.  I recall saying something like, “Sometimes I am happy. Sometimes I am not.” I was asked to explain.

I said that happiness wasn’t a Christian virtue.  In high school and college, I had encountered so many Christians and Christian groups who seemed to think that it was the Christian duty to be happy at all times.  In fairness to them, joy and happiness are often conflated.  Also in fairness to the superintendent, I had a strong philosophical dispute with the modern perspective that the pursuit of truth is the ultimate goal, even if it makes one unhappy, as opposed to the more prevalent attitude in ancient philosophy that the attainment of truth leads one to happiness.  To the ancients, happiness would have been understood as the harmony between the human and what is, rather than simply a feeling of euphoria or well-being that may be passing or brought about by a particular circumstance.  Perhaps the superintendent was intending to discover if I was ruled by fleeting emotions. 

I suspect though that he meant to ask if I rejoiced always.  Had I been asked that question, I am not certain what I would have answered at the time, but I would have recognized an appeal to the Epistle to Philippians often known as the “Epistle of Joy.”  In this epistle of the Apostle Paul, the theme of joy and rejoicing is consistent throughout.  And yet, Philippians is weighted with disappointment, depressing situations and the unfairness of life. Saint Paul writes about things that are distressing him and the Philippians: about his imprisonment, about those who have abandoned him, of those who preach the Gospel for ego and profit, and the persecution that the Philippians themselves are going through.  Yet, throughout this entire account of struggle, the Apostle Paul talks about joy and repeatedly exhorts the Philippians to rejoice. 

Clearly St. Paul’s use of joy and rejoicing does not eliminate expressions of sorrow or admissions that life is difficult.  This is no epistle about the veneer of happiness that papers over life’s hardship. We do not find the Apostle echoing the words of Bobby McFerrin “Don’t worry, be happy.”   Joy is not about feeling happy, though it is perhaps about not worrying.  Joy, sorrow and frustration seem to be able to coexist.  When one rejoices, it is not to banish the pain or sorrow over life’s circumstances and unjust situations.  To rejoice does not mean to ignore people’s false motives and hurtful actions. If so, then what is the reason for this joy when the circumstances are not happy and this is not an exhortation to be carefree? Why should we and the Philippians to rejoice?  Where does joy come from in unhappy and difficult circumstances?

In order to answer these questions one has to discern what Paul is rejoicing about in this letter.   He rejoices over the faith and faithfulness of the Philippian Christians, and in the mutual relationship they have through faith in Christ.  This faith community as a whole — the laity and the bishops and deacons — support the Apostle and the work of the Gospel.  This community is exemplifying the life of faith.   This leads us to a further reason for joy: the spread of the Gospel, even if it is spread by unsavory and hypocritical people.  Ultimately, the reason for joy is God’s self and that God is at work in the world, through Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit in the world.  We are to rejoice because we are part of the other reality, the world to come, the Kingdom of God that overlaps with this current reality, in which there are imprisonments, betrayals, false motives, injustices and persecutions.  Joy does not come from circumstances, nor mere friendship, but with the persistent yet hidden reality of the God of Jesus Christ at work in the world.  Joy comes from the believer’s ability to share in the sufferings of Christ that are part of the redemption and transformation of the world into the coming Kingdom of God. Joy is an ecstasy of standing in another world present amidst this one, yet exploding it, since the present world cannot contain the world to come.

Thus joy is not attached to fleeting emotions that one may have because of good circumstances, It can’t be worked up in one’s self, or encouraged through ecstatic worship; rather it is the ecstasy of being in both this world and the world to come, both the kingdom of this world and the Kingdom of God.

The Apostle Paul’s sense of joy is then perhaps close to that of some schools of ancient philosophy. St Paul’s joy and the reason that the Philippians and we are to rejoice always is that we who have faith in Christ and are filled with the Spirit are already part of what is coming: a world transformed and redeemed.  Our joy comes from the fact that we are in communion with God and each other through Jesus Christ, and we rejoice as the announcement of this transformation is proclaimed and people respond and come into this other reality.  God and God in Christ is our joy. The source of our joy is the reality of the suffering death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

There then is perhaps a certain melancholy about Christian joy: a joy that, like Christ himself, is acquainted with grief.  The Christian virtue of joy looks upon the world with clear sight, seeing both the failings and falseness of this current world while seeing through these things to the patient enduring work of God in Jesus Christ and the Spirit moving under, over and through our suffering, hypocrisy and injustice.   So we rejoice and rejoice always for God is continually and always at work transforming the world, and with eyes of faith we can see the other world breaking through our current reality.

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