Fathom Mag

Joy, (un)Elusive

Is joy an emotion or a state of being?

Published on:
August 20, 2020
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4 min.
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I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart this year. It’s the first time I’ve experienced something like it. And weirdly enough, it keeps cropping back up like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole—even in the midst of Coronavirus and death.

Such an admission might have once flooded me with shame. After all, joy is a basic requirement of being a good Christian, right? And yet, if I’m honest with myself, my life has lacked joy among all other emotions. Although I don’t always have a name for them and my face doesn’t always show it, my internal array of feelings can resemble the emoji usage of a preteen. Happiness, I’ve experienced in abundance. Exhilaration, satisfaction, pleasure, wonder, and bliss—sometimes all at once—have visited me throughout my life, along with their less-desired counterparts: boredom, restlessness, discomfort, confusion, and grief. 

I’ve experienced a lot of grief recently, in fact, as my paternal grandmother died alone in a nursing home in April, a causality not of Covid-19, but of the isolation it has bred out of necessity. Nearby family members negotiated who could attend the graveside service with its maximum of ten people. A cousin kindly filmed the eulogy and took a couple of pictures of grandma in the casket for all the rest of us scattered across the U.S. and abroad who couldn’t be there to say goodbye. Then, my last remaining grandparent—my mother’s father—died two weeks later and a new wave of grief compounded the first.

But joy?

I don’t relate to Bible verses enjoining me to rejoice. I console myself that joy is a fruit of the Spirit so it’s his job to manifest joy in my life. Even David puts the impetus on God when he begs to have the “joy of your salvation” restored to him in Psalm 51:12. Most days it feels like I’m making an excuse, though, so I double-down and tell myself that joy probably isn’t the pinnacle of emotions. Furthermore, is joy even an emotion or is it more a state of being? A condition of the soul? Based on what I’ve gleaned from nearly forty years of sermons and Christian culture, many people believe joy is an intense contentedness welling up from some deep place inside.

If that’s the case, then a lack of joy might be a problem.

It all makes me pause. Maybe I have felt joy before and just didn’t recognize it for what it was. Perhaps the cloud of other emotions accompanying an event in my life (like my baptism or my wedding), overshadowed my ability to tease out a sense of joy in particular. Also, churches often consider expressions of positive emotions (like joy) as evidence of healthy faith and the converse (doubt, depression, and anger toward God) as not. As a people-pleasing first-born, I fought to manufacture joy and suppress anything that might shadow it. While the evangelical church is beginning to recover the practice of lament and to accept doubt as a necessary part of faith, I wonder if the church’s past over-emphasis on being joyful fostered my distrust of it. 

Unless I experienced an intense form of joy, I was predisposed to discount it.

While the evangelical church is beginning to recover the practice of lament and to accept doubt as a necessary part of faith, I wonder if the church’s past over-emphasis on being joyful fostered my distrust of it.

Sorrow and Joy

Over the last two years, joy (or rather its lack) has haunted me. My husband and I celebrated the conception of our second child, only to endure a miscarriage eleven weeks later. The ensuing grief alternated forms between a searing cavity and a gentle bleakness. We muddled through the sorrow only to learn there is no end to it in this world—only learning to live with it.

Exactly one year later, I stared at another positive pregnancy test, hope and fear both warring for my allegiance. Again and again during the next nine months, fear of losing the baby—of losing even faith itself—taunted me. I wrestled to choose hope. Hope that God would keep the baby safe because I knew I couldn’t go through another pregnancy again if we lost this one. Hope that he would somehow redeem the events surrounding the birth of our first child—the one in which I survived the most hellish pain I hope to ever bear on this earth only to discover immense challenges feeding my baby. Not only did my daughter have severe tongue ties and a ridiculously high palate, but my breasts were not conducive to normal feeding. After a Christmas Eve emergency frenectomy to release the ties when she was a week old, my daughter repeatedly refused to latch. Many lactation consultants, special devices, and frustrated weeks later, I gave up and fed her donor milk until I was able to pump all the milk she needed. 

That was my life for a year.

I’m now seeing that joy has visited me in the past and regularly manifests in small ways in my normal routine.

Yet, this is not a tale of grief and hope; rather it is about finding joy. And maybe the three experiences are linked. Just after Christmas last year, I welcomed our second-born child, a son. As I nestled his warm, red, flailing body against my chest, a powerful light burst out of my soul that I can only name joy. Later, I reveled again in that joy as my son assertively latched on and nursed. I’ve returned to the touchstone several times over the past five months since the birth—during bleary night feedings and moments of postpartum anxiety.

I’m now seeing that joy has visited me in the past and regularly manifests in small ways in my normal routine. Even in the midst of these crazy times (cue the Jars of Clay song), joy lands on me with the gentle weight of a quilt as my family takes short drives into the countryside to escape the tedium of quarantine. It pounces on me when my sunshiny son stares at me adoringly coaxing me to join his perpetual, zany fits of laughter. 

Is joy an emotion or a state of being? I’m not sure. It might be both. Regardless, it is a gift from God. My breakthrough came when I recognized God’s redemption of my previous anguish. This entanglement of grief, hope, and thanksgiving paved the way for my first identifiable taste of joy. I can’t create it, but I can seek it. I can intentionally choose to dwell on God’s past faithfulness during times of despair and to cultivate a mental environment where joy can sprout. I can use my tears to nurture these tender shoots into strong vines of that deep sense of contented rest that endure after the flower of happiness fades.

Abigail Dunlap
After growing up on both coasts and in-between, Abigail married a Virginia boy and put down roots to raise their two children. Besides doing normal mom things, she's a seminarian focusing on New Testament backgrounds. She loves stories and writes about the intersection of faith and family heritage in how we choose to define ourselves at her blog.

Cover image by Gustavo Centurion.

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