Aquinas on Christian Joy
I have often felt a tension in my theology when it comes to the concept of joy. On the one hand, in Galatians (5:22) Paul counts joy among the “fruit of the Spirit.” I take it that this means joy is to grow in the life of a Christian under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and that joy is to be something like a steady, stable, even permanent experience of the Christian as she matures. I have often heard pastors describe such Christian joy as something that persists despite negative or difficult circumstances.
On the other hand it seems the Christian is not to be inured to life’s pains and disappointments as a Stoic might be. Indeed, Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:28-37), and he fretted at his impending death in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46). If Jesus is the Christian’s example (and he is), then it seems appropriate for the Christian to feel the pain and disappointment of life.
Are these two teachings at odds? They have often seemed so to me. My experience has been that the degree to which I am emotionally available to life’s painful vicissitudes is the very same degree to which I lack joy. In other words, at times my joy (or lack thereof) has seemed to ride on the ups and downs of life and has lacked the steady, stable, permanent character of a fruit of the Spirit. And, importantly, it has seemed that this instability has been a function not of my immaturity in Christ, but of my emotional openness to life’s vicissitudes. At times like these, assertions from the pulpit that Christian joy is “deeper” or “abiding” or “present regardless of circumstance” have not really helped (even if they are true). They have only added to my confusion.
More recently, I have found Thomas Aquinas’s teaching on Christian joy in his Summa Theologica to be very helpful in dispelling the confusion. In the Secunda Secundæ, Question 28, Article 1, Aquinas says the following:
For joy is caused by love, either through the presence of the thing loved, or because the proper good of the thing loved exists and endures in it; and the latter is the case chiefly in the love of benevolence, whereby a man rejoices in the well-being of his friend, though he be absent. On the other hand sorrow arises from love, either through the absence of the thing loved, or because the loved object to which we wish well, is deprived of its good or afflicted with some evil. Now charity is love of God, Whose good is unchangeable, since He is His goodness, and from the very fact that He is loved, He is in those who love Him by His most excellent effect, according to 1 John 4:16: “He that abideth in charity, abideth in God, and God in him.” Therefore spiritual joy, which is about God, is caused by charity.
Here Aquinas claims that joy is brought about in two ways: (1) by being with someone you love, and (2) by the well-being of someone you love. So, it brings me joy to be with my wife, my children, or my friends, but it also brings me joy to know that they are doing well, even if I can’t be with them. Conversely, as Aquinas says, sorrow arises from the absence of those I love, or from knowing that they are not doing well. So, in this way, joy is a function of the status of those we love and our relationship to them.
(As an aside, I take it that Aquinas would say that our joy and sorrow when things go badly for ourselves works similarly. There is a proper love for self implied in the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” So, assuming I love myself, when things go well for me I have joy, and when they go badly I have sorrow. Similarly, we might say that when I’m at one with myself—a kind of “being with” myself—I have joy, and when I am alienated from myself—a kind of estrangement from myself—I have sorrow. There is obviously a lot more to be said, here.)
Now, consider the case of God, says Aquinas. First, if we love God, then God abides in us, according to 1 John 4:16. But, God’s abiding in us is just a kind of “being with” someone you love, which, Aquinas told us, is a source of joy. Second, God’s well-being is never in question. As Aquinas puts it, God’s “good is unchangeable.” So, our assurance that God is doing well is another source of joy. What’s more, both of these sources of joy are as stable as our love for God is. To the extent that we experience love for God, to that extent Christian joy is available to us, since God is with us and doing well.
And we can also see that such joy is compatible with genuinely experiencing the pain and difficulty of life. While I might suffer sorrow because one person I love isn’t doing well (namely, me!), I can still experience abiding Christian joy because my beloved God is with me and is always doing well. This is something like the joy of being with a friend even when other circumstances of my life are going poorly. There is genuine joy, because of my friend, alongside genuine sorrow, because of my circumstances.