During the winter of 1838, Mormons were forced to flee from Missouri’s infamous extermination order. On one freezing cold night, Eliza Snow and her family stayed in an overcrowded, underinsulated log cabin. In recalling that night, Pres. Snow wrote:
Not a complaint was heard—all were cheerful, and judging from appearances, strangers would have taken us to be pleasure excursionists rather than a band of gubernatorial exiles. That was a very merry night. None but saints can be happy under every circumstance.
We have a long history of our ancestors and/or church predecessors being happy in what were frankly horrendous circumstances; if they could be happy freezing in a log cabin in the Missouri winter, I should be happy in my modern comfortable situation, right? In fact, I may feel like I have a religious obligation to be happy.
But Pres. Nelson complicates this easy (and, frankly, unhealthy) narrative. Although Pres. Snow said they were “happy,” Nelson reads this happiness as “joy.”
I don’t think the desire to appear happy is uniquely Mormon. I mean, even science tells us that if we smile—even when we don’t feel like it—we’ll become genuinely happier.
And that may be true, but replicating those studies has so far proven elusive.
Moreover, there is no sin in being sad. Sadness is natural (and, if we believe Pixar, even necessary). Sin can certainly make us unhappy, but so can tragedy. And brain chemicals. And tons of other things. We live in a fallen and imperfect world, and sadness is the natural and necessary result of many of the fallen and imperfect things that happen in our world.
But joy, Nelson tells us, is independent of what’s happening in our lives. Joy comes from Christ, and we can find joy by focusing on Him and following His example.
If we do that, will we be shielded from unhappiness? Of course not. Even Jesus, who, as the source of joy presumably has better access to it than us, was betrayed by one He loved, and was crucified for us. But he endured the pain in part through experiencing joy.
In short, the Gospel won’t always make us smile. And not smiling is no indication that we’re doing anything wrong. The sadness, the depression But even through our tears, the good news of Jesus Christ can bring us an underlying and enduring joy. And that joy can stay with us through seasons of happiness, of sadness, and of all of the emotions in between.[fn]
[fn] (including fear, anger, and disgust)