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I always feel guilty when there are big snowfalls. I am usually delighted, while others groan due to the inevitable inconvenience and trouble. But I can’t help feeling giddy while I furtively snap artsy Instagram photos and sip hot cocoa and watch the snow fall to the ground from inside my cozy office.
I recently thought about how this juxtaposition of joy and sadness caused by the same thing perfectly sums up what could be called “The Problem of Joy.” Joy is almost always twinned with pain in this world. Mothers bring the joy of life into the world through pain. One thing can bring one person relief and that same thing can bring another pain. This reality is a constant reminder that suffering is inescapable in this world. Joy is never truly pure.
We long for everlasting happiness but we can never quite grasp it. Joy is so closely united with pain that it seems we are hardwired to experience both. Studies show that extended periods of happiness can be bad for us. Our joy is so reliant on suffering that an absence of pain can actually have negative consequences in our lives.
Many of us are experiencing pain at the state of our world. Terrorism is like an odor diffused in the air; impossible to trace and difficult to stop. ISIS is killing thousands of people in a methodical, scientific manner similar to the Nazis. There haven’t been this many people displaced by war since World War II. In the United States, the suicide rate has surged to a 30-year high. Income inequality is worse than people think and it’s increasing. Christianity is on the decline. Our electoral system has produced two presumptive presidential nominees whom many believe are deeply lacking in honesty, trustworthiness, and integrity. We are fiercely divided over issues like healthcare, abortion, the economy, immigration, and same-sex marriage. The division has become so rife and elemental that we cannot even agree on who should use what bathroom.
What is a Christian to do in the midst of these difficulties?
In the recent readings from the Gospel of John, Jesus has been mentioning joy quite a bit. And he makes some promises that in today’s world seem quite optimistic. He tells his disciples, “Your grief will become joy” (Jn 16:20). He is referring to how the disciples will feel after the death of Jesus; their grief will become joy. And this applies to us now too. Jesus is promising us that our grief will become joy.
In fact, if we believe Jesus, our grief has already become joy.
How is this possible? Jesus promises the disciples, “But I will see you again … and no one will take your joy away from you” (Jn 16:22). In other words, Jesus brought joy in the resurrection to all of his disciples, and it is a joy that cannot be stolen from us. Why is it a joy that remains, no matter what pain or suffering comes our way? Because this joy has its origin in the indwelling of the Trinity in our soul.
God dwells in the souls of all baptized Christians, and as long as we remain united to Christ his joy remains in us. A fruit of the Holy Spirit is joy (Gal 5:22). When we live in union with God, even in the midst of trials and great suffering, we will find joy because the Holy Spirit dwells in our souls.
This does not mean that Christians are called to be foolishly naive, grinning in the face of evil. We are called to combat evil with bravery and peace. But it is also possible to maintain our joy. Otherwise, we begin to behave as orphans of the Heavenly Father, with anxiety, anger and fear, rather than children who are cared for by a Father who will never abandon us.
So, in the midst of a world thirsting for a joy that cannot be stolen, we pray:
“Come, Holy Spirit.”
Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP, is the author of The Prodigal You Love: Inviting Loved Ones Back to the Church. She recently pronounced her first vows with the Daughters of Saint Paul. She blogs at Pursued by Truth.