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Happier before?

Recently, I was challenged by a friend. I shared with her how important my faith was to living a life of joy. This observation came in the middle of a conversation where we’d spent a fair amount of time talking about how frequently midlife is punctuated by grief and disappointment. “You’re more joyful as your faith matures?” she challenged me. “I mean, don’t you think you were happier before?”

No, not at all. 

My young faith was built very much on hope — a hope that if I followed Christ, I’d be happy and everything would turn out according to my well-written script where the afternoon of life was full of tying everything up with sweet bows. It was faith, but it was immature faith. It was hope, but it was false hope. It was happy, but it wasn’t joy.

True faith follows Jesus. Jesus came to heal a wounded world. The griefs of this world — the brokenness — cause Our Lord to be sorrowful. If we are to be like him, we willingly join him in the sorrows. We agree to feel the pain as we kneel to bind the wounds. 

When Jesus learned that his friend Lazarus had died, he gathered Martha and Mary to himself, and he wept with them. To enter into his life in faith is to mourn with those who weep. When the religious leaders of his day manipulated truth, served power and greed, and led people away from his father, Jesus experienced righteous anger. He upended the façade of pious productivity and called people to true penance and prayer. So, too, can someone who follows Christ today expect to be surprised and dismayed and even angry by the way people in the church can disappoint. So, too, can we let the burning pain cause us to leap into action.

Deepening faith means that we are increasingly aware that Jesus went places and met people where he was not welcome. Far from a life of ease and acceptance and popularity, a life that follows in Christ’s footsteps is one where we will be called upon to bear witness to his goodness even in circumstances where people are hostile to the message. In step with Jesus on the road to Calvary, we can expect to be scorned and even to be spat upon. 

Mature faith demands steadfastness even in the midst of heartbreak. Jesus mourned over the city of Jerusalem; his Sacred Heart broke for those who stubbornly refused to come to him. The pain of the parent waiting for the prodigal is a pain the mature Christian can expect to feel. Mature faith opens us to the intimate understanding of what it is to deeply love and also to weep for those who turn away from God. 

So where is the joy in this scenario? It is in recognizing that we have nothing and we are nothing without the presence and power of God. A “happiness” outside the Jesus who comes to mend the broken isn’t truly joy. It’s a façade often built on our strength, and shored up by our pride. Sorrow brings us to the end of ourselves. If we allow it to, sorrow breaks down the stronghold of pride. To fall to our knees and acknowledge the sorrows of this life is to be blessed with the opportunity to gain the wisdom to know that it is only by the grace of God that we can be truly joyful.

If we walk through the trials in his presence, we learn about how he fashioned us to live. We see our strengths and our weaknesses, and we let him show us how to repent and to be restored. If we seek him in the sacraments, with every trial and tribulation he draws us closer into his presence. There, in his true presence — even more, in front of the Real Presence — there is authentic hope. There is restoration and redemption in the light of eternity. There is strength for whatever his call on our lives requires. There, his mercies are new every day, and genuine joy floods each morning.

Foss, whose website is takeupandread.org, writes from Northern Virginia.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019