The Christmas season is a time of great delight for many people. It is a time of lights, festivities, and feasting; a time of laughing and memory-making with family and friends; and a time of giving and receiving without reservation. As the Andy Williams song goes, for many of us, “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” But in all honesty, there is some degree of tragedy in all this seasonal excitement – for far too often it is deeply synthetic. It can become a spray-tanned bliss that lacks any real durability beyond December 25th. In many ways, it is just gilded over nostalgia and joviality. For all the holly and jolly many know that when the radio stations go back to “normal” and the tinsel and lights are stored away, they will be faced once again with an abiding dissatisfaction and uneasiness with life.
For many, life will go back to a version of C.S. Lewis’ land of Narnia, where it is always winter and never Christmas. Just like Williams’ song, many will go on experiencing the wonder of Christmas episodically: nothing more than a wistful camping ground along the journey of an otherwise hectic, monotonous, and anxious life. This ought not be. Christmas should be carried within us on the daily, steadily, and subtly transforming us by its true Beauty. It should awaken in us an ever-growing sense of wonder, delight, and purpose throughout our lives just as it did for those who were given its original message.
When Christmas first came to the bewildered yet enthralled shepherds, it was harkened by the angelic chorus as “good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10). It was seen centrally as the breakout of True Joy into this world; a return, if you will, of an abiding delight and restfulness that the human heart has hungered to taste again since the days of Eden.
STRIVING FOR DELIGHT THROUGH SHADOWS
The human soul longs for joy. In fact, it can be strongly argued that joy stands at the center of our life’s desires. It could even be provocatively said, it is what we are made for. The author of Ecclesiastes (900s B.C.) said long ago,
God keeps [Man] occupied with joy in his heart…. [and] man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful….
Ecclesiastes 5:18-20 and 8:15
For the classical Greek and Roman thinker’s joy (or happiness [Greek: eudaimonia]) was the chief end or aim of all man’s purposes. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) affirmed that,
“[Happiness is] the most choiceworthy of all things while not counting it as one of those things […] [It is] complete and self-sufficient, and is, therefore, the end of actions.”
Centuries later Saint Augustine (354-430 A.D.) declared,
“What all agree upon is that they want to be happy, just as they would concur, if asked, that they want to experience joy and would call that joy the happy life. Even if one person pursued it in one way, and another in a different way, yet there is one goal which all are striving to attain, namely to experience joy.”
What Ecclesiastes, Aristotle, and Augustine bring to light is what we all know deep within: we long for joy and happiness. In fact, everything we do in life – from our careers to our relationships to our product purchases to our extracurricular activities to our law making – centers around the desire to find fulfillment and happiness. We strive for delight. However, often we fail to realize that the variety of paths we take to attain Joy all too often miss the Real Thing. Far too regularly we become lost in finding True Joy amid a sea of lesser goods (and artificial ones) that divert and even enslave us. This is no truer than in our present age.
If you do a Google search on “How to Be Happy?” you will get a myriad of websites and blog posts on the topic. One of the most notable is an extensive article from the New York Times’ Guides for Living Smarter page which advises on the various methods of how to craft happiness in one’s life. The author states at the beginning,
“Everyone has the power to make small changes in our behavior, our surroundings, and our relationships that can help set us on course for a happier life.”
They then proceed to give an extensive listing of what modern behavioral scientists say are the keys to unlocking happiness, which can be boiled down to the following:
Ø Conquering negative thinking
Ø Controlled breathing
Ø Rewriting your life story
Ø Physical exercise
Ø Practicing optimism
Ø Finding your happy place
Ø Spending time in nature
Ø Decluttering your environment
Ø Getting enough sleep and sex
Ø Spending time with happy people
Ø Getting pets
Ø Finding purpose at work
Ø Being generous to others
Ø Giving yourself a break
Take a moment and think on these. Many of them are noble goals and all of them do affect mental, emotional, and physical health and wellbeing – so in that regard, they are not inappropriate. But think about what the overall message of the list is: Happiness is all about getting control of your life in such a way that your circumstances remain favorable. The ball is in your court if you want happiness – you have the power to just generate happiness through certain persona steps.
Do you realize how shallow and ridiculous such a vision of happiness is?
This vision of happiness is deeply subjective and deeply circumstantial; it is wholly shaped by the attainment of certain people, things, or environments. Most humans in the history of the world have never had access to a quarter of the options listed. How many Medieval peasants do you know could “rewrite their life story” or “give themselves a break” amid strict social hierarchies and backbreaking labor conditions? How many third-world peoples do you know that can afford to “declutter their environments” or “conquer negative thinking” amid endless famine and disease?
These strategies are vacuous because they only address the surface of true joy and happiness. Consider the fact, for example, that in the entire article of over 5,000 words neither “faith” nor “God” is once mentioned. That speaks volumes.
The tragedy of post-modern Man is he has bought hook, line, and sinker the illusion that he can find wisdom, identity, and happiness without the Transcendent Source sustaining them. Instead, he has settled for a menagerie of lesser goods to tantalize his longings. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) set it forth candidly,
“[Man] wants to be happy, only wants to be happy, and cannot help wanting to be happy. But how shall he go about it? The best thing would be to make himself immortal, but as he cannot do that, he has decided to stop himself thinking about it […] That is why men are so fond of hustle and bustle … [for that is] all men have been able to devise for attaining happiness.”
The best we can do to attain happiness, Pascal says, is diversion: “hustle and bustle.” How true this is given the extensive list of behavioral research above. We must have busyness and mindless distractions to keep us “happy.” But they aren’t achieving true happiness for us, they are just amusing us and suppressing our deeper angst.
A truism can be found here: a person that increases their diversions reveals the increase of their unhappiness. Put another way, more diversion equals more unhappiness, and more unhappiness equals more diversion. Statistically speaking, we know this is true. We are the most distracted and amusement-seeking culture to inhabit the globe. At the same time, we are sustainedly the most unhappy, most worried, and most purposeless generation of humans to exist, despite having more options, more gadgets, and freedoms than any of our ancestors.
Why are we so consumed with diversion and unhappiness?
The answer lies within our souls. “The best thing [to attain happiness],” Pascal says, “would be [for Man] to make himself immortal,” but because Man can’t do that, “he has decided to stop himself thinking about it.” In other words, we recognize life and it’s pleasures are like chaff in the wind. We are creatures that have far less control over our lives than we care to imagine, are far more fragile and transient than we care to acknowledge, and far more ignorant and uncertain than we care to think. To compensate for all of this we are driven to be tantalized and enthralled by an endless stream of novelties to keep ourselves from thinking about such things. But none of the novelties really staves off what we deeply know to be true about ourselves and our lives. We are jovial in the moment of a joke or a silly TikTok video only to turn back as sullen as Jacob Marley to the mediocrity of our lives. We become imprisoned to the increasing “law of diminishing return”  as C.S. Lewis called it, which is an ever-growing consumption of novelty to satiate our ever-increasing apathy and insecurity.
This sounds bleak, and it is, in the absence of any real Ultimate Meaning or Truth.
THE DEEP, DURABLE, DELIGHT OF TRUE JOY
The central problem with our modern understanding of joy is that we equate it with laughter and smiles. But these are circumstantial and reactionary. The problem is much deeper in us and until we recognize that, no amount of surface-level sanitization will fix our sickness.
The solution for our malady must come from beyond us rather than generated within us. It cannot be grounded in our souls because our souls are themselves in need of remedy. Augustine long ago spoke powerfully on this point in his Confessions, where he detailed the journey of his restless young life trying to seek Ultimate Happiness. He sought it in entertainment, in friends, in lovers, in learning, in love, in lust, in excess, in food, and all the rest. His life was one of perpetual pleasure-seeking. Finally, coming to see that all these things are lesser goods (or pure distractions) that do not satisfy, he said,
“The [truly] happy life is joy based on the truth [and] this is joy ground in God, who [is] the truth…. [The] human mind…in its miserable condition…will be happy if it comes to find joy only in that truth by which all things are true—without any distraction interfering.’”
Augustine brings forth a profound fact: true happiness is grounded in Truth, and until that Truth is grasped, we will stay miserable and distracted. Our souls seek happiness because we were made for happiness, and to be made implies there is an objective meaning and purpose to why we live, move, and have our being. Our lives are not our own for we were made for more. We were made to enjoy one another and to be enjoyed and to find Ultimate Enjoyment in the One Who is Joy itself. Sex, power, money, alcohol, sports, video games, social media, meditation, self-organizing, friends, family, boyfriends, girlfriends, marriage, kids, and the like are not going to give us true abiding happiness because they are but shadows of the deeper longing of our souls. These things, in their proper order, are not bad, and they are not insignificant soul-forming things, but they are not the Source of All Things. They are faint echoes of a far Greater Rhythm our souls are seeking after, and it is only when the rhythm of our lives aligns with that Greater Chorus, can we truly live in beauty and meaning. The Puritan theologian Richard Sibbes (1577-1635) said it this way,
“God hath joined these two together, as one chief end and good. The one, that he might be glorified; the other, that we might be happy. And both these are attained by honoring and serving him…. Thus our happiness and God’s chief end agree together…. [Our] salvation and happiness is within the glory of God, and we live to Christ, not only in serving him, but in seeking our own souls; and what a sweetness is this in God, that in seeking our own good we should glorify him.”
The great American revivalist and theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) would dovetail off such words when he declared,
"True saints have their minds, in the first place, inexpressibly pleased and delighted with the sweet ideas of the glorious and amiable nature of the things of God. And this is the spring of all their delights, and the cream of all their pleasures: it is the joy of their joy."
Centuries later C.S. Lewis would bring forth the splendor of this truth by saying,
“God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on gasoline, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”
The Joy described by Augustine, Sibbes, Edwards, Lewis and the like is far beyond the circumstantial self-help-ism approaches of our modern times. What they are showing us is profound: Joy is not our inability to cry or mourn nor is it our ability to think positively or always smile and joke; it is not us seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses; rather, True Joy is a deep, durable, delight that pierces circumstances and transcends emotional capriciousness. It is a state of being, not a state of mere feeling, that is bound inextricably to the objectivity of meaning, purpose, and hope.
True Joy is the unique affection we possess (or rather can possess) because it requires the totality of our being to experience it. It requires the use of our heart, soul, mind, and strength to actualize it. You see, it is possible to understand something without having any happiness in it (i.e. understanding how cancer works). It is also possible to be happy in something without understanding it (i.e. being moved by the beat of a song without carefully listening to the lyrics). It is even possible to act upon things without any true thought or emotion (i.e. the simple act of blinking or walking without thinking). For many of us, we live our lives in these ways. We act without thinking, we think without acting, we feel without thinking, and think without feeling. Many of our relationships are like this. We go through life detached, distracted, and depressed. But Joy, true Joy, is different.
True Joy, Advent Joy, is the wonderful symmetry of knowing, feeling, and acting. It is a deep abiding resting satisfaction of life that finds its anchorage in the beauty, love, and promises of God. It is not frothy or fickle, but a refreshing fervent maturity of longing and rest indwelling our soul. This type of Joy is rooted fundamentally and inextricably with the Hope and Peace we have discussed in our Advent Series. It is linked to the First and Second Advent, which are assurances of the love, justice, promises, and plans of a God Who is the Father, Lord, and Lover of our souls.
It is this kind of Joy that can sustain a people in the midst of a world gone mad in its darkness. It is the kind of Joy that came upon the Israelites after they crossed the Red Sea and faced a bleak wilderness of wandering, and yet sang and rejoiced in the Lord (Exodus 15; Psalm 105:43). It is this kind of Joy the Apostle Paul proclaimed he had and desired for the Christians in Philippi (Philippians 1:4, 1:25, 2:2, 2:29, 3:1, 4:1) even though he was writing with shackles in a prison cell. It is this kind of Joy the Apostle Peter and James encouraged the fledgling Christians of Asia Minor with even in the face of immense trials and persecutions (James 1:2; 1 Peter 1:6-9). It is this Joy that Jesus said His disciples could rejoice in even though they would be reviled and persecuted (Matthew 5:11-12). It is such Joy that He Himself exemplified when He stood in the face of the vilest of accusations, beatings, and eventual murder; to the degree that it could be said paradoxically that the cross itself was “the joy set before Him” (Hebrews 12:2). And it is such Joy that broke forth into our world 2,000 years ago and is offered to us now and forever more by Him Who says, “My joy may be in you… that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).
Joy to the World, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.
Joy To The World, Isaac Watts (1719)
 Clerk Shaw, Ancient Ethics, https://iep.utm.edu/a-ethics/. It should also be noted that the word “happy” as we moderns think of it is not the same kind of thing the pre-moderns thought of. The word “happy” in Greek is eudaimonia, which has this understanding of the condition of contentedness and completion in life that is found when one lives virtuously. In short, happiness is a product of living the good and virtuous life and coming into accordance with your purpose and meaning. It is this understanding of “happiness” that the ancients, medievalists, and early modernists spoke about – as in when the American Declaration of Independence speaks of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
 Aristotle, Nichomecean Ethics (pg. 10 in pdf) https://socialsciences.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/aristotle/Ethics.pdf
 Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. by Henry Chadwick (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), pg. 198-199
 Tara Parker-Pope, How to Be Happy (October 8, 2020) https://www.nytimes.com/guides/well/how-to-be-happy
 Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1993), pg. 171-173
 The lost art of concentration: being distracted in a digital world (2018) https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/oct/14/the-lost-art-of-concentration-being-distracted-in-a-digital-world; Udemy In Depth: 2018 Workplace Distraction Report (2018) https://research.udemy.com/research_report/udemy-depth-2018-workplace-distraction-report/; Abundance of information narrows our collective attention span (2019) https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/490177
 Survey: Americans reach a record level of unhappiness (Feb, 2018) https://www.theladders.com/career-advice/survey-americans-reach-a-record-level-of-unhappiness; Americans are getting more miserable, and there’s data to prove it (Washington Post, March 2019) https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2019/03/22/americans-are-getting-more-miserable-theres-data-prove-it/
 C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters in Signature Classics (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2003), pg. 257-259
 Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. by Henry Chadwick (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), pg. 198-200
 Richard Sibbes, The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. with mem. by A.B. Grosart (United Kingdom, n.p, 1863), pg. 298-299
 Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, Part III
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), pg. 53-54
 This phrasing is taken from Sam Storms’ blog post For Joy (2 Cor. 1:23-2:4) https://www.samstorms.org/all-articles/post/for-joy--2-cor--1:23-2:4-
 A good discussion on this point comes from Sam Storms’ article post 10 Things You Should Know About Joy, accessed from https://www.samstorms.org/all-articles/post/article-10-things-you-should-know-about-joy
 An excellent discussion on the topic of “Joy” is the chapter on the subject in Dane C. Ortlund’s book Edwards On The Christian Life: Alive To The Beauty of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), pg. 75-88
Michael H. Erskine is a high school Social Studies Teacher, has an M.A. in History & School Administration, serves as a Bible teacher in the local church, and is happily married to his beautiful wife Amanda.