Joy is dangerous.
Flannery O’Connor understood this. A southern Catholic novelist, O’Connor earned renown as one of the most compelling American storytellers of the 20th century. Her fiction sweats with realism and the striving for meaning and joy. O’Connor, like her contemporaries Dorothy Sayers, Graham Greene, and C.S. Lewis, criticized the militant secularism of the 20th century and spoke life into literary culture’s slough of despond.
In a famous letter to her friend Betty Hester, O’Connor defended the moral imperatives of Christianity by arguing that they were not tools of slavery but weapons of joy. She writes,
Always you renounce a lesser good for a greater; the opposite is what sin is. . . . [W]hat you call my struggle to submit [is] not struggle to submit but a struggle to accept and with passion. I mean, possibly, with joy. Picture me with my ground teeth stalking joy — fully armed too as it’s a highly dangerous quest.
Always you renounce a lesser good for a greater. O’Connor might as well have been prophetically paraphrasing Jim Elliot: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” More likely her imagination was captivated by the apostle Paul, who counted everything he had gained in a life of privilege and distinction “rubbish” when compared to the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8–9).
What O’Connor, and Paul, and Jim Elliot all meant is that the struggle in our souls is not the struggle to want to be happy. We are born with that desire, and we die with it (even in suicide). The struggle is to see the true worth of everything, and in seeing, to give ourselves headlong to what is supremely worthy and satisfying: God.
But that’s dangerous.
Hunting Is Hard Work
O’Connor’s word picture in this paragraph is striking. She imagines that quest for joy in Christ is like the long, hot hunt of a game animal, a creature that may lead its stalker into harsh territory. No buck will leap willingly into the waiting arms of the hunter. The hunter’s desire is for the buck, but that desire won’t be satisfied arbitrarily or accidentally. Thus, he stalks and stalks and stalks: waiting, sitting, crouching, treading through thorn and thistle for the opportunity to close in on his prize. It’s exhausting, dirty, and risky.
Is hunting really an accurate description of pursuing joy in God? I think so. Part of the reason it may not sound accurate is that when modern people hear that God commands us to be happy in him, we interpret that as a command to do what’s easy and passive because we instinctively think of happiness in that way. Alternatively, we fear being unhappy, and by “unhappy” we often mean a life of struggle, danger, or suffering. But these conceptions are wrong. Happiness is not semiconscious inertia.
A few years ago, I saw a government-sponsored advertisement for birth control from England. On one side of the advertisement was a picture of a video game controller, and on the other side was a pacifier. The advertisement asked its readers, “Would you want to give up this [the video game controller] for this [the pacifier]?” It was an effective advertisement, not because it communicated truth (quite the contrary), but because it cut to the chase. “Your happiness is at stake here,” the ad whispers. “The hours of games and freedom and commitment-free sex are the secrets to happiness, and that will end if you have a child.” In other words, you don’t have to stalk joy. Eat, drink, be merry, and joy will come to you.
Very Costly Quest
But passivity will not yield delight in God, as the saints in the Bible show us.
Consider Moses, who “[chose] rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” because “he considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward” (Hebrews 11:25–26).
Consider Jeremiah, who stalked joy even when everything around him reeked of death and desertion: “He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is. . . . But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:16–17, 21–23).
Consider Paul, who lost nearly every earthly privilege and pleasure he had and said in the end that a life of pain and suffering and danger was as nothing compared to the “surpassing worth” of “gain[ing] Christ and be[ing] found in him” (Philippians 3:8–9).
And consider Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2).
Jesus, Paul, and Jeremiah were not closing their eyes or watching sitcoms or scrolling through Instagram to help themselves forget the danger and suffering in front of them. Theirs were joy-at-all-costs quests. And their quests were costly and dangerous — and worth it all.
Where Righteous Stalking Begins
So, how do we stalk joy? It must begin with believing God’s good news: that although we are sinful, selfish, broken people, Christ has regarded our helpless state and has taken our sin upon himself. Believing in the justifying power of the gospel is essential to stalking joy. Unless we are convinced that God is really for us and not against us, our souls will veer again and again toward the distracting trifles of the world. In many cases, the worst enemy of lasting joy is not sadness but distraction.
Screwtape knew this. In one letter to his nephew and underling, Wormwood, Screwtape exhorts the junior demon to attack his “patient” with “a whole vague cloud of half-conscious guilt.” Unlike true repentance, this “dim uneasiness” will keep him perpetually unwilling to come near anything with the aroma of God, and therefore he will be ruthlessly at the devil’s mercy to distract.
As this condition becomes more fully established, you will be gradually freed from the tiresome business of providing pleasures as temptations. . . . You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday’s paper will do. You can make him waste his time. . . . You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. All the healthy and out-going activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at last he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here, “I now see that I spent most of my life doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.” (The Screwtape Letters, 58–59)
Biggest Threat to Joy
For me and millions of Western Christians, the single biggest threat to stalking joy is neither crushing despair nor ravenous, carnal hedonism, but a middling spirituality that adds Christian jargon to an emotionally comatose existence, tossing hours into mindless social media and Netflix while congratulating itself on avoiding “big” sin.
But stalking joy is radically different. Stalking joy means doing anything necessary to be glad in God and in love for others. It means tired hands opening up the Psalms at midnight after a punishing workday. It means making that phone call you’ve been dreading to a trusted friend to ask for prayer and accountability. It means getting up earlier on Sunday to serve in the nursery. It means having a godly ambition.
To stalk joy is to overcome the hypnotic consumerism of modern life. It’s not safe, and it’s not easy. As Flannery O’Connor reminded us, it is a quest, and a highly dangerous one. It’s also the only one that reverberates with God’s glory into eternity.