February - 2017


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The Pursuit of Joy

Emily Brandenburg

"Because I'm happy... Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth!"

Pharrell William's song, "Happy," is so catchy and fun. It makes us feel happy just by listening and dancing to it. Happiness makes us feel so good. Why wouldn't we want to be happy?

What is happiness? Get my dream job, and then I will be happy. Buy my dream house, and then I will be happy. Find my soul mate, and then I will be happy. Have a certain number in my bank account, and then I will be happy. "If it feels good, do it!" At every turn, society pounds the idea of happiness into our heads as if it is the end-all and be-all of our lives.   

But, the truth is that happiness is elusive. It only lasts a moment because it is defined by our external circumstances. Happiness literally comes from the word "hap," which means "chance" or "luck." Even in modern dictionaries, happiness is defined as "characterized by good fortune."

Our happiness can change from day to day and moment to moment. We have our dream job or get that promotion, and then we have a run-in with our boss or co-workers. Happiness now... zero. We find our soul mate and get married, but we hit a rough patch in our relationship and we question whether we made the right decision. Happiness now... gone.

“Christian life is not just one big party. Not at all!” Pope Francis said. “We cry, we cry so many times… When we are sick; when we have a problem with our son, in the family, with our daughter or wife, or husband.” The Holy Father said that another type of sadness comes “when we take the wrong road” and try “to buy (the) happiness, joy, of the world, of sin…"

Happiness in and of itself is not wrong, but it should not be "the thing" that we are seeking. To make decisions solely by asking “what will make me happy?" – well, that is a bad decision-making process. Happiness should not be our guiding light.

Only keeping those things in our life that makes our lives happy seems to make sense. Not feeling the job? Quit. Not loving your spouse? Divorce. It is so easy, right? Just eliminate the source of unhappiness, and then we will be happy. Right?  

Wrong. For the rest of the world, this may be an option. But, as followers of our Lord, God calls us to higher things. We are called to pursue virtues; we are called to moral excellence.  

God wants to push us out of our comfort zone. He wants to stretch us to become more holy and the best version of ourselves. But to become the best version of ourselves, we need to carry our cross. And, carrying our cross does not equal happiness. It means suffering.

“If we knew the value of suffering, we would ask for it on our knees with joined hands.”
Saint Andre

“Do you want to become a great saint? Ask God to send you many sufferings.” 
Saint Ignatius of Loyola

“When it is all over you will not regret having suffered; rather you will regret having suffered so little, and suffered that little so badly.”
Saint Sebastian Valfre

Wow. I think these quotes from saints gives us the right picture. The Christian life means that, not only is suffering a part of our lives, but that we should actually desire it to become more holy—to become the best version of ourselves.  

Even Stanford professors, in the “Journal of Positive Psychology” in 2013, have recognized that solely pursuing a life of happiness leads to a meaningless life. Those who only pursue happiness and not a meaningful life are "takers" not "givers" to society. The study concluded: "Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided." (“Some Key Differences Between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life”).

Why would anyone want to follow Christ if it means suffering?  Suffering produces character and matures our faith. Either in this life or the next, we will suffer. In this life, we can choose to suffer for Christ, but gain eternal life. Or, we can choose to reject Him and then suffer in the next. 

But doesn’t God want us to be happy? Yes, He does! God definitely wants us to be happy. But happiness is not what we should be pursuing. If we did everything that made us happy at one particular moment, our life would be a mess. We could never hold a job because we would flee the second we ran into problems. We would never commit to marriage because it would mean a lifetime of "for better or for worse."   

Instead, we should pursue joy.

"Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything" (James 1:2-5)

"What is this joy?" Pope Francis says, "Is it to be happy? No, it is not the same. To be happy is good, yet joy is something more. It is another thing. Something which does not depend on external motivations or passing issues. It is more profound. It is a gift. To be 'happy' at all moments at all costs, can at the end turn into superficiality and shallowness. This leaves us without Christian wisdom, which makes us dumb, naive, right? All is joy... no."

"Joy is something else... it is a gift from the Lord." The Holy Father then continued to say that joy has to be searched for and shared continuously. It is something static and always in continuous movement.  

Joy is not only a gift, but also a choice. Joy must be pursued in order to receive it. Saint Francis of Assisi said that “Spiritual joy arises from purity of the heart and perseverance in prayer.” 

"Don't feel like you're a particularly joyful person? You can do something about it.” The Fellowship of Catholic University Students’ President and CEO, Curtis Martin, explains that “Like building a muscle through repeated weight lifting, joy is strengthened by practicing natural virtues. God's gift of grace builds on nature, so by developing virtue, the treasure of divine life (cf. 2 Pet. 1:4) flourishes within our hearts. But this takes consistent effort. It means we must work to acquire fortitude, so that we don't give up when things become difficult." (“You Better Not Pout”).

Joy is not only a choice, but an obligation. "Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you" (1 Thessalonians 5:16-17).   

When we have true joy in our lives, many times happiness will naturally flow from our joy because happiness is a by-product of joy. Pursuing joy will not always make us happy at every moment in our life. And pursuing joy means we will encounter suffering. But a lifelong pursuit of joy will produce many happy moments. Laughter, fun, cherished memories with family and friends, a warm embrace, a child's smile, and a loving glance—these happy moments, produced from pursuing joy, are ours for the keeping.
© EMILY BRANDENBURG (www.EmilyBrandenburg.com) is a Catholic Youth and Young Adult leader in the Diocese of Orange, California. She hosts a large Bible study and Praise, Worship, and Adoration evenings, and speaks at retreats. In addition, Brandenburg holds a J.D. from Pepperdine School of Law, and is a full-time attorney. She enjoys spending time outdoors, fellowshipping with family and friends, making new friends, and always having a good laugh. You can connect with her on Facebook (www.facebook.com/emilyannebrandenburg) and on Instagram (@emily_brande).