The Joy of the Saints: An Advent Sermon (3rd Week)

Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy. (2 Ne 2:22-23; 25)

First, we must draw a sharp distinction between happiness and joy. We can see the difference in the words themselves. Happiness comes from the Middle-English root word hap which means “chance” or “fortune.” The same root can be found in words like “happen,” “hapless,” and “happenstance.” Happiness is the feeling we get when good things happen to us, and the feeling depends entirely on the situation. When the things that cause happiness go away, so does the feeling they produce. When Solon tells Croesus, “Call no one happy until they are dead,” he means that, as long as a person remains alive, their fortunes could always change.

Joy is something else. At least when used as a theological principle. And, for Latter-day Saints, it is not a mere theological principle; it is the entire reason that human beings exist—the thing that we are that we might have. And, following the Book of Mormon, Joy was unavailable to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They had contentment, to be sure, and an almost complete absence of misery and pain. But in spite of that (or perhaps because of it, see 2 Nephi 2:11), they could not experience joy.

When they left the garden, they had misery, hardship, enmity, and pain. But they also had joy because they knew what was possible. They knew that they could be so much more than content. The serpent had been right about that–they could be as the Gods. Apparently, having great potential is a joyful thing.

Along with being not the same thing as happiness, joy is also not the same thing as pleasure. CS Lewis, in his book Surprised by Joy, takes great pains to separate these three concepts:

Joy, is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.

For Lewis, joy is the yearning that comes with the knowledge that God is real and that Christ really did bring about reconciliation with God. As an atheist, Lewis acknowledges, he was content. He did not worry about a resurrection or an afterlife because he did not see such things as possible. Belief in God gave him hope, and hope lead directly to joy. But this joy was not calm and peaceful; it was a relentless yearning for something newly identified as possible. Once he decided to believe, he had to abandon both peace and contentment for a life of yearning—which he describes as joy.

In the book that bears his name, Enos uses very similar language as he wrestles with God. After reflecting on his father’s words regarding “eternal life, and “the joy of the saints,” Enos is struck by an urgent desire to understand that joy:

And my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul; and all the day long did I cry unto him; yea, and when the night came I did still raise my voice high that it reached the heavens. (Enos 1:4)

Enos’s experience matches Lewis’s almost exactly. Once he determines that something beyond his current existence is possible, he can no longer be content with hunting and gathering. He feels an overwhelming desire to communicate with a divinity beyond himself whose possibility he had not earlier understood. The possibility gave him hope, and the hope robbed him of his peace and gave him “the joy of the saints.”

But the most instructive part of the story comes after God responds to Enos’s prayers and announces that his sins are forgiven. Once Enos understands -the reality of the Atonement, and receives an absolute knowledge of his own salvation, he does not rest content. Rather, he becomes obsessed with the salvation of his community, the Nephites, and with the salvation of his enemies, the Lamanites. Once Enos understands the possibility of reconciliation to God, he cannot be content until everybody else understands it too.

And this is how joy works. When we have it–remember that having it is the whole point of our existence–we understand the overwhelming reality of God’s love, and that reality changes our lives. It is neither a temporary feeling nor a consequence of good fortune, but a conceptual rock upon which everything else must eventually break to pieces. It can make us deeply uncomfortable, as it takes “going about our business” off the table forever. But, once we experience it, we can never imagine living without it again.

Comments

  1. Very nice. It is the reason missionary work can bring us joy.

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