Happiness or Joy, Which Do You Seek?

by Reverend Amanda

I am not a very graceful person by nature. I am very clumsy and have little to no rhythm. When I was in the Gospel choir at Eastern Connecticut State University, I had to learn to approach music and worship from a very different and uncomfortable perspective. In many ways, the lessons I learned in that year were invaluable. And in many ways, I learned about myself and faith as well. We learned our music without having sheets of music in front of us. We learned by call and response. The choir directors would sing a line and we would repeat it. We learned all our music this way and that included these complex lines of harmony as well. We also had to learn our choreography in the same manner.
I learned in this instance what I had kind of always known to be true. I cannot dance and sing at the same time and that I have absolutely no rhythm. I worked hard to memorize the steps with the thought that if I did everything in the perfect order I could fake it until I made it. I believed that if I looked like I knew what I was doing, then eventually I would become more graceful. This was not the case. I soon made my way to the back of the group to cover up my inability to dance. In faith as in other areas of life, we often believe that if we say the right things, do the right things, show up every Sunday, then our lives will work out, everything will fall into place and life will get easier and we will be successful.
Unfortunately, faith does not work this way. Even if we know all the right things to do, and practice and perform them to perfection, it is not necessarily going to translate into a successful happy life. Trust, faith, and belief are not so black or white, right or wrong. Trust, faith, and belief are not about getting rid of pain and struggle. This was not the case for Jeremiah. We learn from Jeremiah that trust is not about having outward success. But trusting God is what inspires a believer to rise above despair and cynicism. It is what keeps us connected to God even in the most difficult situations. It is what gives us strength and depth of character to successfully survive and make something out of the experiences that we have.
This could be what inspires us to find ways to make God’s kingdom more of a reality in our world. It is what should nspire us to combat the societal gaps that Jesus preaches about in the beatitudes. Our faith should be based in the promises of God to bring comfort and strength to those who suffer. What we are called to search for is something more lasting than passing happiness, but rather we should be seeking a contented life based in a spiritual joy that reinforces our confidence in God. S.D. Gordon writes, “Joy is distinctly a Christian word and a Christian thing. It is the reverse of happiness. Happiness is the result of what happens of an agreeable sort. Joy has its springs deep down inside. And that spring never runs dry, no matter what happens. Only Jesus gives that joy”.1 Jesus was making the case for joy and not happiness because humanity could and does make life hard and miserable but with the hope that God will be coming to bring an end to such suffering then we have a reason for joy. The present should not be our basis for a contented life.
Like the people of Judea during the time of Jeremiah, the people of Jesus’ time largely felt out of control of their lives and their country. There was extreme poverty with a growing disparity between the rich and the poor. Those with illnesses, injuries, or those who lost employment would often end up dying within the year. There was some charity but little in the way of compassion. There was more judgment than love. What Jesus hoped to share was that with God there was no need to focus on outward success. With God there was only love and compassion and not judgment for what one lacked in life. There was hope in a new life to come that would be devoid of such judgments, such suffering and pain.
Similarly, our lives may not be perfect. We may go through times when we have financial woes, familial troubles, housing issues, marital strife, or health issues. We may feel like saying to God “We are good Christians why don’t our lives reflect this?” We may wonder how much longer before people start treating us better and our prosperity reflect our faith. Jeremiah says, “Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream”.2 In times of hardship, we are called to place our trust in God. No matter what our lives may look like. We are called to trust in his promises and his future. We called to base our joy in life not upon the opinions and actions of others but upon the presence and love of our creator.
So this week, we are called seek out strength in the arms of God, in the promises that only he has to offer. Let us place less stock in what society and others have to give us. Let us seek to live the lives of those who find joy in our faith and trust in God and allow for that to inspire us to treat each other with respect instead of judgment, with love instead of pity. Let us seek to live as those who have hope for tomorrow because God’s blessings reside inside our hearts and not in what we have or how others think of us.

1 S.D. Gordon, 20th century lay minister and author.
Happiness or Joy, Which Do You Seek?
2 Jeremiah 17: 7-8, NRSV