Originally published at Homiletic & Pastoral Review
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). This and other exhortations in Scripture have shaped Christian tradition with the understanding that joy is meant to be part of our life. It’s traditionally counted among the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22, CCC #1832). Spiritual writers have often commented on its importance, including Pope Benedict XVI, who called it “a fundamental distinguishing characteristic of Christians.”(1.) Indeed, since Christ Himself prayed “that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves” (John 17:13), we might infer that joy is part of what He wills to give us.
But what does this joy mean in practice? What is it like, and how does it relate to times of suffering? Some homilies on Christian joy, no doubt preached with good intentions, can give the impression that if we pray, have faith, and generally keep a proper disposition toward God, we will always be serene and cheerful and radiate our happiness to the world. An otherwise lovely hymn, “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” reasons along these lines:
If our love were but more simple,
We should take Him at His word,
And our lives would be all sunshine
In the sweetness of our Lord.
If we don’t sense intuitively that this is asking too much of human nature, we’re likely to find out by experience. Even the most upbeat of personalities feel sadness at times, and not everyone is made with an upbeat personality. The idea that a Christian’s life must “be all sunshine” can also lead to insensitive treatment of the suffering; it would be callous to tell someone overwhelmed with grief, anxiety, illness, etc. that if they would only pray and have faith, everything would be fine.