The Problem of Joy

As an apologist, the “problem of evil” is, without a doubt, the most common and vigorous objection to the existence of the Christian God that I receive. I find this to be a bit frustrating because from a philosophical perspective, it is probably the easiest problem to solve (Thanks, Alvin Plantinga!). After close inspection, there doesn’t seem to be any conflict between a loving God and the existence of evil. Actually, the existence of God is really the only reason why we can call anything objectively evil at all. As the apex of love and goodness, His nature not only provides for us a standard from which to judge what is right and evil, but also a practical expectation for evil itself. He forms creatures capable of freedom and, in that freedom, they go one way or another. If He limits their freedom, He limits His goodness. It is logically incoherent for a good and all-powerful God to use His power to stop all evil. We live in the most viable world He could create. The possibility of evil and suffering in a genuinely good world is inevitable. That, in a very tiny nutshell, is the free will defense.

But that is not what this blog is about.

There was recently a great deed of evil done to someone near and dear to me; it was done to someone that I love more than I love myself. This evil was abhorrent and while it was just one more kick in our crotch from this particular person, it was principally shocking. When it struck me, it was an “Oh my God, dude” moment and guess what? All that in my first paragraph, this cherished free will defense, went out the window. It didn’t really matter once it was happening to us. It became a pseudo-comfort. I ripped my philosopher tag off my chest and got mad at God.

I remember a popular apologist (I think it was William Lane Craig) drawing a distinction between the logical problem of evil and the emotional problem of evil. The first requires some thought and can be settled, the second needs intimate care. And the latter is what I am now writing about.

If you look at the definition of joy in any dictionary, it is usually synonymous with happiness. But if you look in the Bible, they seem to be quite different. On one hand, you could argue that happiness is joy incomplete. On another hand, you could argue that they are two separate things. That could be a false choice, but, either way, at least from a Biblical perspective, they are not, in effect, necessarily the same. Joy seems to “stick”, while happiness doesn’t.

Just a couple of examples: In James 1:2, James tells believers to “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds”, and Paul, in Acts 28:28 says, “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice, yes, and I will rejoice”.

Keep in mind, these guys’ lives were jacked up. Until they were apparently privileged with the opportunity to partake in martyrdom, they suffered immensely. And up to the point when they were murdered for their belief, they kept talking about this radical joy that they found in the risen Christ.

None of this is new information. This is really common in “church talk” but I’m going to call it like I see it: The Gospel seems to be this giant mind game. The whole thing’s crazy. The first are last, the least are the greatest, blessed are everyone that you sincerely do not want to be, etc. There is so much foundation for the goodness of life in the Christian religion, yet when you live it, you look like a lunatic; when you speak it, it sounds like gibberish. With life’s framework so wholly established by the Christian account, how does it become so easy to contrast happiness and sadness, comfort and pain, good and evil, but so hard to individually fathom this Biblical concept of joy?

I’m serious when I say this: this is a bigger problem than evil.

If we find joy, then we can withstand evil that precedes much suffering and even much happiness. How do we find, then, the joy of Christ? How do we connect to God’s way of thinking? What is the bridge between our suffering and God’s Kingdom?

One of my favorite parts of the New Testament is Matthew, chapters 5-6. Jesus just derails every old way of thinking in the Beatitudes, then begins to usher in a new order of things (or fulfilling the law, as theologians say), but then, out of left field, in Chapter 6: 25-29, he says something truly ridiculous:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? . . .So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? ”

This passage always irritated me. It sounds downright irrational. Sorry, Jesus, but that just seems manifestly incorrect. It made me want to shake my fist at God by mowing my yard. “Consider this weed-whacker, stupid lilies!” But not until recently, did I honestly pay attention to verse 33.

“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

I am still not sure about the overall meaning of this passage. The commentaries I read on it afford me little relief. I imagine Paul was a pretty faithful Christian and he talks about hunger and nakedness in his laundry list of problems in 2 Corinthians 11:27. But he couldn’t stop talking about joy. Or God’s Kingdom. Or Christ’s righteousness. Is Jesus even talking about material comfort? I don’t think he was. Paul surely wasn’t.

This passage messed with Soren Kierkengaard’s head, too. But after deep reflection, he saw something special in Christ’s teaching that I was never able to see; we should learn from the lilies of the field a valuable lesson: seek God and be silent.

In his 1849 work, “The Lily in the Field and the Bird in the Air”, he begins with Matthew 6:33 and writes, “Shall I give all my possessions to the poor? No, you shall seek first God’s kingdom. Shall I then go out and proclaim this doctrine to the world? No, you should seek first God’s kingdom. But then in a certain sense it is nothing I shall do? Yes, quite true, in a certain sense it is nothing. In the deepest sense you shall make yourself nothing, become nothing before God, learn to be silent. In this silence is the beginning, which is to seek first God’s kingdom. Thus in a certain sense one devoutly comes backward to the beginning.[1]

Kierkengaard appreciated the backwardness of Christ’s teaching, yet I didn’t.

But what he saw went further than just “be silent”; he saw an outstanding function in stillness before God. He goes on to describe the story of my prayer life, writing, “There was something that lay very heavily on his (the believer’s) mind, a matter that was very important to him; it was very urgent for him to make himself rightly understood by God; he was afraid he had forgotten something in his prayer, and, alas, if he had forgotten it, he was afraid that God by Himself would not remember it- therefore he wanted to concentrate his mind on praying with all his heart . . Gradually, as he became more and more fervent in prayer, he had less and less to say, and finally he became completely silent . . . Indeed, he became what is, if possible, even more opposite to speaking than silence; he became a listener. He thought that to pray was to speak; he learned that to pray is not only to be silent but is to listen, to wait until the one praying hears God.”[2]

Kierkengaard then takes issue with the “poet”, which were those who spoke of the divine as if it were interested in merely the aesthetic; in the expression of the way that one felt. As if it were only interested in their temporary condition and subjective happiness, not joy. This superficial viewpoint towards God, if not redirected to a state of silence, keeps the believer in a false relationship with God.

I get caught up in the poetic outlook on God, hence, a poetic type of prayer. I then, naïvely, pray for passing things, such as happiness, that stand in the way of what’s needed in order to find this concrete resolution to the problem of joy.

As I blabber on to God like the pagan described by Jesus in Matthew 6:7 (or Kierkengaard’s poet) regarding what I want, think I need, feel that I am owed, I am playing a sort of one-sided game with God. All I’m doing is exercising my ability of speech that the lilies can’t offer God, but not learning any meaningful lesson from the ability to be silent, which is a valuable capability by the fact that we can speak, or as Kierkengaard puts it, “The poet says: Speech is the human being’s advantage over the animal- yes, quite true, if he is able to be silent.[3]

This idea is fundamental. I cannot understand joy because I cannot understand God’s Kingdom; I cannot understand God’s Kingdom because I cannot understand suffering; I cannot let God show me the meaning in my suffering because I cannot be quiet.

I have a serious problem with joy because I have a serious problem with silence. Honestly, it scares me more than pain or evil itself. It is my pain and evil.

Kierkengaard stabs me in the front when he later writes, “Indeed, the misfortune in the lives of the majority of human beings is this, that they were never aware of the moment, that in their lives the eternal and the temporal are exclusively separated. And why? Because they could not be silent. The bird is silent and suffers. However heartbroken it is, it is silent . . . even though it stands and suffers as it withers, it is silent . . . What it is, it does not say; it does not complain, does not accuse anyone . . . It seems as if the silence would burst it . . . The bird is not exempt from suffering, but the silent bird exempts itself from what makes the suffering harder . . . from what makes the suffering into what is worse than suffering, into the sin of impatience and sadness.” [4]

Sometimes, especially recently, I have hate in my heart for others; I resent God for allowing them to hurt those close to me. God knows that. He knows your heart, as well. So get it off your chest for your own sake.

You hate God? Fine. Tell Him. You hate others? Fine. Tell Him. Spew your venom. But when you’re done, be quiet. Anything past this can become unhealthy.

Even in Christ’s divinity, he suffered and was often silent. Even in his divinity, he is constantly wandering off to be alone with God (Mk 1:35, Lk 5:16, Mt 14:23). Even in his divinity, he was like the lilies and the birds. As Kierkengaard describes it, it was an approach that “ . . .expresses respect for God, that it is he who rules and he alone in whom wisdom and understanding are due . . . silence is veneration for God, it is worship . . . Even if he does not speak, the fact that everything is silent out of respect for him (God) affects one as if he spoke.”[5]

In his 17th century writing Pensees, Blaise Pascal penned one of philosophy’s greatest insights when he wrote, “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” [6] Kierkengaard would agree. And in that silence, with any luck, there is a solution to the problem of joy.

After all this is said, however, it is not done. I have to practice this. I tried last night, to no avail. I said, “Okay, God, I’ll be quiet”. Not a minute passed before I lost this stillness. But I’ll keep trying. It’s not different from any other discipline.

But as I keep up my effort to simply shut up, I should remember that I’m talking and listening to the ultimate counselor.

When Christ was on the cross, he intimately experienced my exact situation. He personally understands my pain in a way that I cannot even begin to comprehend. So at some point in time, I’m going to have to let him speak. Could it be that the problem of joy can be solved by humbly allowing the most qualified guy in the room to talk? Perhaps.

Shocking, huh?

“I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet I call this to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is his faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him’. The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young. Let him sit alone in silence, for the Lord has laid it on him.” –Lamentations 3:19-28 (NIV)

[1] KIERKEGAARD, S., HONG, H. V., HONG, E. H., & KIERKEGAARD, S. (1983). Lily in the Field, Bird of the Air. Print.

[2] KIERKEGAARD, S., HONG, H. V., HONG, E. H., & KIERKEGAARD, S. (1983). Lily in the Field, Bird of the Air. Print.

[3] KIERKEGAARD, S., HONG, H. V., HONG, E. H., & KIERKEGAARD, S. (1983). Lily in the Field, Bird of the Air. Print.

[4] KIERKEGAARD, S., HONG, H. V., HONG, E. H., & KIERKEGAARD, S. (1983). Lily in the Field, Bird of the Air. Print.

[5] KIERKEGAARD, S., HONG, H. V., HONG, E. H., & KIERKEGAARD, S. (1983). Lily in the Field, Bird of the Air. Print.

[6] PASCAL, B. TRANS. KRAILSHEIMER, A.J.. (1995). Pensees. Print.

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2 thoughts on “The Problem of Joy

  1. Excellent!!!! Very well written.

    Jennifer Proud To Be A Fighting Farmer !! 214-697-0394

    Sent from my iPhone

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    Like

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