A few years ago, I read an article about a book (which is clearly better than reading a book, right?) called “All Joy, No Fun.” The book was about parenting, specifically about how people without kids rated every indicator for happiness (going out to eat, sex life, hobbies, etc.) higher than people with kids, as you’d maybe expect. The only thing was that on the final indicator, which was actual life satisfaction level, people with kids rated themselves significantly higher than people without them, which of course came as a huge, counterintuitive surprise. Fast forwarding, the researchers came to the conclusion that in the end, for people with children, despite having lost so many of the things we think of as making us happy, they experienced a joy through their children that was so much more than the sum of its parts.
Look, this isn’t a screed about how everyone needs to have kids RIGHT NOW, don’t worry. Life is too complicated for anyone to make the choice for anyone else when or if they should have kids (or at least, it should be, but that doesn’t stop people). But what I realized just recently, all these years later, is that the same principle that leads bored, sleep-deprived, sexless parents to feel joy from their children leads us to find joy in Christ despite the fact that, well, being a Christian is not always fun. In fact, it’s often the opposite
To be clear, if it’s not already obvious, when I say “joy,” I don’t mean the kind of almost material sensation of happiness that comes from so many of the activities to which we devote ourselves in the modern world. I don’t mean the dopamine hits that we get every time someone RTs something we Tweeted (I say, pointing a finger directly at myself). I mean “joy” in a sense similar to what C.S. Lewis refers to in the book “Surprised by Joy,” a kind of spiritual hope, longing, peace, and Godly comfort in the face of an absurd and often brutal world. The joy that comes from Christ isn’t dependent on our “happiness” because it comes from a connection to God that cannot be severed in the same way that we can never cast off God’s love, no matter what efforts we make to that end. It’s a feeling and a concept that’s difficult to define, but that you absolutely understand if you have felt it or even sought to feel it. It’s a feeling accompanied as often by tears and pleading as it is by laughter or praise.
There’s a misconception that exists sometimes in the church and which I think is largely an osmosis-received taint from the all-conquering American Gospel of Wealth that following Christ will make you happy. If you follow Christ, things will go your way. Sin leads directly to material downfall, righteousness has a one-to-one correlation with every kind of success. This material interpretation of the Gospel is often stretched to practically Satanic lengths where one’s goodness becomes measured purely in terms of temporal blessings despite plenty of scriptural evidence to the contrary. We are promised blessings for following Christ, but none of those blessings are designated specifically as material. The sun shineth on the wicked and good, and if the modern world isn’t absolute evidence of that, then I suppose nothing can be. We have created Mormon-specific ways to interpret the Gospel of Wealth, too: pay your tithing and you’ll never want for anything, for example.
I mean, it’s not that God does want us to be that kind of happy. It’s not that He doesn’t care about our temporal well-being. If God didn’t care about physical suffering He wouldn’t have commanded us to serving others to relieve that suffering. And yeah, there are plenty of scriptural examples of people living righteously reaping material rewards and of sinners finding out the hard way that “wickedness never was happiness.” But there’s a big giant neon sign blinking “BUT IF NOT” above that entire storyline because there are no guarantees that ticking every box won’t result in a Job situation (the bad part) and that people who seem like they have completely abandoned any semblance of trying to do good won’t be swimming through vaults filled with money in a Scrooge McDuck style glut of facsimilistic “happiness.”
But the story of the Gospel is, over the course of world history starting with Adam and Eve, reaching its apex with Christ himself, and being reiterated in no uncertain terms in 1844, one of violence, oppression, persecution, and hardship. And it’s likely that at some point, it will be again. Was Peter, as he died an excruciating death on an upside down cross, suffering the material consequences of his spiritual failings? Seems unlikely. Did Peter feel a joy in Christ as he died, a longing for home, a hope in his Savior and the Atonement. I have no doubt whatsoever.
And here’s the truly, absolutely magnificent thing about joy through Christ: no one can regulate it, no one can take it from you, no one can excommunicate you from it, no one can define you out of it, it is not dependent on your sexuality, your status in the institutional church, your “activity” rate, your appearance. It’s a joy that comes from our direct relationship with Christ and from our desire to follow Him. Alma felt that joy so deeply it caused him pain and that was when he was in the absolute throes of evil in a way that most of us simply can’t imagine. If Alma can feel that joy as he begins his journey from the depths of sin to the heights of goodness, then that joy is certainly accessible to all of us in whatever state we find ourselves.
God willing, none of us will die on an upside down cross now or in the future. For some, the hardest cross they’ll ever have to bear is three-hour church (and some of us bore that cross so, so badly). But living the Gospel isn’t always fun, even when life is generally going well. It’s not all munches and mingles (this is the correct pluralization) and it’s not all beautiful, perfect spiritual experiences with our perfect spouses, perfect children, perfect lives. Sometimes it’s just work and rules, or at least it feels that way. Even (especially? I mean, the life of even a modern day apostle sounds like hell on earth to me) for the most righteous, life can be a slog. But Christ died so that that joy could always be in reach, because no trial, no mishap, no tragedy can take away our hope in Him, our longing for home, and our faith that as miserable as things are right now, Christ has provided a path to eternal joy.