Is joy selfish?
At the end of a year that was so difficult for many, it feels selfish to express the joy I have found in 2016. Mentally, spiritually, and physically—both internally and circumstantially—this year has been one of my favorites. While I entered this year with so much fear and uncertainty, I am leaving it with nothing to express other than gratitude. My oldest sister had twins, my other sister got married, my mom had a successful heart surgery, I graduated college and have started a job in my field, and I am in a wonderful relationship with one of my best friends. God has spoken to me through everyday blessings and reminders and people that He loves me. I have grown closer to my church family and have even begun to teach a Sunday School class with my boyfriend, Jon. I have so much to be grateful for–
So why do I feel guilty?
I remember feeling depressed as a teenager and sometimes coming to church or Bible study and being told to have a moment of silence to reflect on the suffering in the world. It was assumed that teenagers spent their time seeking out busyness, noise, and fun to distract them from their pain and the pain of the world. They were inherently selfish. I didn’t have that problem, and many of us don’t. While I think it’s important to have moments when we open our eyes to the big picture and remember those around the world, these moments often made me feel guilty for the joy I had in my own life. I felt guilty for having Christian parents who loved me, guilty for having plenty of food on the table and good health and a warm bed.
I think we sometimes try to make others feel guilty for their joy. When we don’t see joy in our own lives, we begin talking down the joy others are experiencing. We see a couple on Instagram and think, “I bet they’re not really that happy. And why do they have to flaunt their happiness anyway? The rest of us can’t relate to that.” Or we get annoyed when another family is going to Disney and we’re cooped up in the house all winter.
And then there’s the reverse side of things. We hear that someone we know is going through a really hard time, or we see on the news that another bomb went off. We get bitter and start pointing fingers at the people who are not mournful enough, not ashamed enough, not meditating on what it would be like if it had happened to them. Or we’re the ones getting pointed too. “How can you be having such a good time when…(fill in the blank).” Others will say, “Cheer up! It’s not happening to you!” And that’s almost worse.
We are taught to feel guilty. We are taught that empathy is the greatest virtue. And then we are told to lighten up. We are told we need medication.
So where is the balance here?
At the beginning of this year, I decided to live by a phrase coined by Henri Nouwen. “Choose joy and keep choosing it.” In the mornings, I wake up and tell myself to choose joy. For me, this means acknowledging that I am a child of God, that He is with me, and that I can trust Him.
Joy is impossible without trust. To choose joy, I first have to choose trust. It also means looking for joy, seeing how joy is found in creation, in my niece’s smile, in the feeling I get when I’m out in the sun. I later would read this excerpt from a poem called “Unmarked Boxes” by Rumi:
God’s joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box,
from cell to cell. As rainwater, down into flowerbed.
As roses, up from ground. Now it looks like
a plate of rice and fish, now a cliff
covered with vines, now a horse being saddled.
It hides within these, till one day it cracks them open.
The poem reminds us that God’s joy is seen in the smallest of things, the kinds of things that make life worth living.
But the times when it was the most difficult to choose joy wasn’t when I was focusing on my own life. It was when I was overwhelmed by the pain in the world. It was when–suddenly–I felt guilty.
I have been reminded lately of how Christ wept over Lazarus’s death and how, before he was betrayed, he said, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” Christ grieved during his life. “Very truly I tell you,” he told the disciples, “you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices.”
But his grief never remained. It never had the last word. He continued to tell them, “You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy” (John 16:20). There was resurrection after death. There was hope. He himself would be the joy of nations. “I bring you good news,” the angels declared, “that will cause great joy for all the people.” (Luke 2:10).
The story of the gospel is one of hope and joy. As Christ’s followers, we are told again and again to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4). This Christmas, we have been reminded once again of the good news of Jesus Christ, the promise that we have not been left to wander in darkness but have been given a great light. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). We are children of light, adopted into this Kingdom of hope.
There are times for grief and times for mourning. There are times when we realize we have been given much so that we may give much–not because of guilt but because of love. And there are times when–like Jesus looking over Jerusalem and longing to gather them to himself like a hen gathers her chicks–we look at the world and grieve for those who are lost.
But we don’t stop there.
Sometimes we become obsessed with our grief. We let it consume us. It takes away our own guilt and shame. It makes us feel holier than those blind happy people who don’t realize what’s actually going on.
But what if living in grief–always looking for the bad instead of the good–is actually an act of ungratefulness? What if turning my face from the blessings in my life to point to everything broken in the world is the equivalent of saying God isn’t good enough for me? Instead, can I remember that the gospel doesn’t end in despair? It is a story of resurrection, hope, and possibility.
That’s why, at the end of this year, my hope is that I can live as a bearer of Good News, embracing my adoption as a daughter of Christ and living like a child of light who will not be overcome by despair. My hope is that I will once again open my eyes to joy, from the smallest morsels of earth to the greatest treasures in heaven.
When I see that the world is mourning, I will mourn. When it grieves, I will grieve. It is this grieving that moves us into selfless and sacrificial living, sharing our blessings with others. But something I’ve learned this year is that it is almost impossible to see God’s joy from afar, and it is even more difficult to love from a distance. We live in a century where we can see the world hurting from our television and computer screens. Save for a few life-giving articles, most news stories will only show us the darkest sides of events. It’s no wonder 2016 has been given a terrible reputation. Everyone wants it to be over. What I must do, however, is trust that there is more to every story.
How many times have we ourselves been through something we thought we couldn’t face and were shown God’s grace when we needed it? Here’s something beautiful—every person on this earth is covered by God’s grace. Not everyone has accepted it, but Christ died for all. His spirit is among us. That’s why I’ve found that, if I truly want to see God’s joy, I must look at what my own eyes can see, what my own ears can hear, and what my own hands can touch. I see God’s joy in my life, in my family’s lives, in my friends’ lives. I see it in the mundane everydayness of life. I see it when I look back on this year and reflect on everything God has done to show me His love.
My Father has reminded me this year that He truly cares about my needs and desires. He has shown me this so that I will know and trust His love. This means nothing if I am not willing to express my joy to others. It means nothing if I stay silent because I am afraid of sounding insensitive or naive.
Now, more than ever, the world needs our joy.
The world needs to hear us express our gratitude for God’s goodness in our lives without embarrassment or fear of judgement. It needs us to stop feeling guilty and ashamed of the gospel, to stop trying to relate to the world’s despair and to start embracing the fact that we are members of a kingdom of hope.
This year, may our joy be a blessing to the world.