“In Him we were destined by His will that we might exist for the praise of his glory (Eph 1:12).” The joyful girl in the photo seems to know that instinctively.
But it doesn’t always feel that way, does it? At the very least, a grayness can creep into our existence. Weariness, and for many, physical, mental, or emotional pain. Loss. Disappointment. There are so many temptations in this fallen world, in our fallen hearts, temptations to not experience the joy of praising his glory.
So how do they do it?
St. Cecilia, legend has it, sang as she was being martyred. 2 Maccabees describes the martyrdom of Eleazar. “When he was about to die under the blows, he said: ‘The Lord in his holy knowledge knows that I am enduring terrible pain in my body from this scourging, and suffering it with joy in my soul because of my devotion to him.’”
St. Faustina endured decades of being misunderstood, hated for her gifts and her weaknesses, and disappointed in her most earnest efforts. And yet she wrote this: “Act in such a way that all those who come in contact with you will go away joyful. Sow happiness about you because you have received much from God.”
St. Dominic was known for his extraordinary joy, even as he prayed and wept for sinners in his nightly vigils.
We exist for the praise of his glory. We know God isn’t a tyrant who wants everyone praising him for his own ego. So there must be something in it for us to praise God’s glory even when we’re in pain or feeling blah.
What’s in it for us?
St. Augustine says that “there is a joy that is not given to the ungodly, but to those who love You for Your own sake, whose joy You Yourself are. And this is the happy life, to rejoice to You, of You, for You; this it is, and there is no other.”
So, according to Augustine, what’s in it for us to praise God’s glory is joy.
Psalm 104 says, “I will sing to the Lord all my life. I will sing praise to God while I live… truly I will rejoice in the Lord.”
We exist for joy
So our joy comes from praising the Lord—living out the reason for our existence. In a way, we can say that we exist for joy.
Joy is not only our most exalted experience in this world, but joy is the word Scripture uses for our experience in heaven itself! Matt 25:23 “His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your lord.’”
To the extent we can, in this fallen world, open ourselves to joy by praising God, we can experience some of the joy of heaven on earth.
Joy is the ultimate human experience. St. Paul says, “Rejoice always!”
Rejoice always? Well, honestly, I don’t. The command to rejoice always can make us feel a little left out or “what am I doing wrong?”
And we all know people who don’t care whether there’s eternal joy in store for us or not because they figure playing a harp in a white landscape for all eternity doesn’t sound like a lot of fun—if that’s my reward, I don’t think I want it!
Are they right? Is “rejoicing always” an exhausting bore?
How to rejoice always
After seeming to give us an impossible task, to rejoice always, St. Paul then helps us out in Colossians 1:9: “May you attain full knowledge of God’s will through perfect wisdom and spiritual insight.” He’s naming nouns that require our participation. “Then you will lead a life worthy of the Lord. By the might of his glory you will be given the strength to endure joyfully whatever may come.”
So joy is far from boring. According to Paul, joy is certainly a gift, but we have to engage with God, do our part, to attain knowledge and wisdom and spiritual insight into God’s love, which causes us to rejoice.
Is there room for sorrow?
The psalms also help us understand the place of joy in our lives. Psalm 31, for example, expresses the deepest woe:
With grief my eyes are wasted
My life is worn out by sorrow
My bones are consumed
I am like a shattered dish.
But without fail, psalms that begin with woe always end like this:
How great is your goodness, Lord
Stored up for those who fear you.
Blessed be the Lord, who has shown me his wondrous love.
Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord.
For the believer, joy is the touchstone we always return to. I think we can interpret Paul as meaning “make rejoicing your touchstone, your goal”—because it is our ultimate goal—even though the expression of joy may be temporarily drowned out by a cry of anguish that eventually gives way, as it must, to an expression of joy.
Because sorrow is passing away, but joy is eternal.
But how do I rejoice always?
Paul gives us a handy tip to help us do that—a tool we can use to become joyful. He says, “give thanks in all circumstances.” That I can do. I can’t feel joyful in all circumstances, but I can give thanks. I have found that thanking God when I burn my finger cooking or can’t find my keys helps put the pain in perspective and brings joy closer to the surface of the suffering. A habit of gratitude is a powerful bulwark against being overwhelmed by pain or sorrow.
So if joy is our goal, what is joy?
According to Galatians 5:22, joy is a fruit of the Spirit. The Catholic Catechism says that each fruit of the Holy Spirit is “a perfection that the Holy Spirit forms in us as the first fruits of eternal glory.” Wow! That means I can enjoy a little bit of heaven here on earth.
In heaven we’ll enjoy God’s goodness to the fullness of our capacity. But the feeling of incompleteness, the longing for “more” will be gone. We will rest in the joy of his love because we are satisfied.
So, although we get only glimpses of the joy of heaven, those of us who think heaven may be boring have not enjoyed God’s goodness enough to have a conscious desire for it (a desire that is nurtured by prayer). Gratitude and praising his glory with joy are ways to develop a greater desire for closeness with God, which will be satisfied in heaven.
Jumping for joy
Advent is the season of John the Baptist. What did the unborn John the Baptist do when Jesus, his salvation, entered the house in the womb of Mary? He leapt for joy! Because the hope of all Israel, of all mankind, had finally come.
No one is more joyful than the Blessed Mother. “My spirit rejoices in God my savior,” she says. The Mother of God rejoices in her own salvation and that of her children.
The great things the Almighty has done for us, the promise of eternal joy in him, a joy that we have tasted, but not fully seen or imagined—and the confidence that his promise is faithful—this gives us the joy that Mary sang and John leapt for 2000 years ago.