John P. McNamee’s 1995 memoir, Diary of a City Priest, traces a year of his parish ministry in inner-city Philadelphia. It’s a tough read. McNamee does his best to minister spiritually and physically to parishioners and neighbors alike, aware at all times that his efforts don’t begin to budge the needle of intergenerational poverty and its attendant problems. The work, meanwhile, is taking its toll: keenly, sometimes poetically, McNamee records his struggles with fatigue, doubt, and frustration with an institutional Church that’s apparently out of touch with the realities of life in his parish. 

It’s clear that while the author hadn’t counted on an easy ministry, he also hadn’t expected quite so much exhaustion and even numbness. Early in the book a fellow priest asks, “Where’s all the promised joy, Mac?” and while Diary gives a moving account of a faith that endures in the modern world, it does not provide any simple answer to that question.

And a disconcerting question it is. Joy — a profound, consistent sense of well-being — is a fruit of the Holy Spirit and our source of strength. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” Paul exhorts the Philippian believers, not so much as a moral duty but because they (we) need to. A life dedicated to the service of Christ, it seems, ought to be characterized by the experience of joy. 

So what does it mean when it’s not? The usual suspects come to mind: unconfessed sin, perhaps, or allowing our attention to be consumed by our problems. None of that is necessarily wrong. Like laundry, repentance is never fully done — and heaven knows most of us could stand to get out of our own heads a bit more.

At the same time, however, a problem arises when we try to grade the quality of our Christian lives based on our experience of joy, or lack thereof. Joy, per se, is not the goal of the Christian life any more than righteousness is. Elsewhere in Philippians, Paul judges a righteousness apart from Christ as not worth having (Phil 3:9), and I think he’d say much the same thing about joy. “Knowing Christ” is not the means to some further goal of joy (or righteousness or emotional stability or …). It is the goal. 

by atomicity; Creative Commons

In his poem East Coker, T.S. Eliot prays that he might “wait without love / For love would be love of the wrong thing.” Here he offers insight into the mercy hidden in our apparently dreary internal states.  Maybe, sometimes, God protects us from joy in the wrong thing — that is, joy that would satisfy us while our relationship with Christ is still maturing. God often rescues us from the good so that we can experience the best — that is, himself. 

On the other hand, the most honest answer to the question “Where is the promised joy?” is most often “I don’t know.” Joy is the intermittent byproduct of some deep commitment. Excellence in an artistic or athletic endeavor is a long, hard slog punctuated by moments of transcendence. Parenthood is comprised of sleepless nights, an impressive variety of frustrations, anxiety — and some of the deepest satisfactions available to a human being. 

In the case of the Christian life, though, joy is the intermittent byproduct of God’s commitment towards us. That commitment, demonstrated and sealed by Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection in which we participate, is anything but intermittent. And one day, when we love the Right Thing, and love him perfectly, our joy will be just as permanent.

Featured image: Lerone Pieters on Unsplash (modified)