Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Joy

When angels came to announce the birth of the Savior, they proclaimed “good tidings of great joy” (Luke 2:10), and that spirit of celebration always ought to shape our declaration to the world of hope, peace, and love. The gospel of Jesus Christ, or the good news that he and his prophets have been commissioned to share with us, is a message of joy.

On his deathbed, the ancient prophet Lehi spoke to his children, and he reminded them that the pursuit and attainment of joy is the purpose of our lives here in mortality: “Adam fell that man might be; and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). We understood this to be the purpose and privilege of mortality from the very beginning: “When [God] laid the foundations of the earth . . . the morning stars sang together, and all the sons [and daughters] of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:4, 7). Lehi describes the Fall of Adam and Eve as a necessary prerequisite for our acquisition of joy because joy is, in the scriptures, closely associated with two consequences of the Fall: 1) the birth and rearing of children in families; and 2) the use and sanctification of our physical bodies.

1. The birth and rearing of children in families

The Beautiful Mrs. Monk is nine months pregnant and is not over-excited to undergo the exertion and agony that will be required to deliver our sixth child into the world. But the Savior reminded his disciples that these periods of pain and patient struggle are, in the end, eclipsed by the eternal happiness that they produce: “A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world” (John 16:21). Experiencing travail and struggle is necessary in our mortal sojourn, but these challenges are also, in many cases, the very means by which we come to feel joy—especially as we labor to realize our divine “potential for parenthood” (Proclamation). To paraphrase Elder Bednar, “happiness is [not] the absence of a load.” Happiness is found in relying on the merits and mercy of Jesus Christ as we work to create the spiritual traction that will enable our family units to return to “the arms of his love” (2 Nephi 1:15).

I recently read a wonderful book on parenting with the provocative title All Joy and No Fun. The title of this book perfectly captures one of the most pressing challenges we face in a culture that consistently privileges fun—entertainment, pleasure, and play—as the purpose of life. This misguided view of mortality is evident in the prayers offered by my own children and others of Primary age: “Help us to have fun today” or “Please bless us that we will have fun.” It is reinforced, as Brooke Romney noted in a recent op-ed for the Deseret News, by the language we use to communicate with our children: “As they leave our car, we smile, wave and shout, ‘Have fun!’ After they return home from somewhere (school, practice, play date, church), the question is usually ‘Did you have fun?’ and if they didn’t there is often a decent amount of concern about what might be wrong and how we can remedy this un-fun problem.” The Topical Guide, an inspired scriptural study aid, provides much-needed perspective on the eternal insignificance of fun: if you browse the entries beginning with “f” in the Topical Guide you will find an entry for “fulness” (as in “fulness of joy”) and an entry for “funeral,” but there is no “fun” between the two. Prophets have encouraged us to pursue “wholesome recreational activities” as a key to “happiness in family life” (Proclamation), but not all recreation is fun, and not all fun is wholesome. Joy and fun do occasionally overlap, but they are fundamentally different pursuits, and the world’s persistent prioritization of fun threatens to warp our sense of this life’s true purpose.

The proclamation on the family, President Russell M. Nelson declares, “helps us realize that celestial marriage brings greater possibilities for happiness than does any other relationship,” and the apostle John stated, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth” (3 John 1:4). Family life is our surest pathway to joy, and that eternal truth is the reason that Eve courageously accepted the pains and problems of mortality as the necessary price for her—and our—pursuit of eternal happiness. But family life, and especially parenting, is work! Joy is the outgrowth of sustained and sweaty work far more often than it is the result of pre-packaged and purchased fun.

As we ponder the relationship between joy and work, we will come to appreciate more fully the prophet Isaiah’s encouraging words: “The Lord JEHOVAH is my strength and my song; he also is become my salvation. Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:2-3). Drawing water out of a well is a laborious and sweaty business. Consider the Old Testament example of Rebekah, whose entry into the joys of marriage and family life was only accomplished through hard work. Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac, and this servant arrived as
[Rebekah] went down to the well, and filled her pitcher, and came up. And [Abraham’s] servant ran to meet her, and said, Let me, I pray thee, drink a little water of thy pitcher. And she said, Drink my lord: and she hasted, and let down her pitcher upon her hand, and gave him drink. And when she had done giving him drink, she said, I will draw water for thy camels also, until they have done drinking. (Genesis 24:16-19)
This story—hauling water for a train of thirsty camels arriving after a long journey—sounds like all work and no fun. But because it was work in fulfillment of Rebekah’s “premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose” (Proclamation), I am sure that she qualified for and received the Lord’s strength.

Before Isaiah calls on us to draw water out of the wells of salvation with joy, he reminds us that the Lord is our strength and our song. When we “are on the Lord’s errand” (D&C 64:29), as we surely are in every endeavor pertaining to our roles as parents or, like Rebekah, our “potential for parenthood” (Proclamation), we are entitled to the Lord’s help. If we will just try to “be not weary in well doing” in the “great work” (D&C 64:33) to which we are called, he will strengthen and lift us.

2. The use and sanctification of our bodies.
The primary purpose of both the Fall and our collective organization into family units during mortality is to provide each of our Heavenly Father’s children—each of our spiritual brothers and sisters—with a physical body. When we experience aches and illness and allergies, and sometimes all three at once, it may seem that the primary purpose of our bodies is to ensure that we are constantly conscious of what Nephi calls “the weakness which is in me, according to the flesh” (1 Nephi 19:6). But the Lord assures us that a physical body is an essential aid in our quest for joy.

Joseph Smith was taught that “man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy; and when separated, man cannot receive a fulness of joy” (D&C 93:33-34). The fulness of joy that is our eternal destiny comes, not before “funeral,” as in the Topical Guide, but after the separation of our spirits from the mortal bodies in which they are currently housed, when the Lord Jesus Christ will raise each of us in a glorious resurrection that will inseparably connect spirit and element in a perfect and immortal body. We should look forward with joy to the promise of the resurrection. But as we patiently await that foretold bodily perfection, we have been instructed to seek after the fulness of joy that comes when body and spirit are united here and now, in mortality.

Prophets ancient and modern have promised that we will experience a foretaste of that joy as we discipline our bodies and exercise restraint, bringing spirit and element into a unity of purpose. When we faithfully follow Alma’s counsel to Shiblon and “bridle all [our] passions,” we impose a mental or spiritual order on our physical flesh (Alma 38:12), and the late President Packer testified that “[t]hrough the righteous exercise of this power [to create life], as in nothing else, we may come close to our Father in Heaven and experience a fulness of joy.” When we exercise our faith in the law of the fast, we likewise discipline our physical bodies by refraining from food or drink for twenty-four hours so “that [our] fasting might be perfect, or, in other words, that [our] joy may be full. Verily, this is fasting and prayer, or in other words, rejoicing and prayer” (D&C 59:13-14). We can only receive a fullness of joy when our spirit and our flesh are in perfect harmony with each other, when they are inseparably connected and united in purpose. Faithfully observing the law of the fast offers us that opportunity and ought to be a joyful experience as we qualify ourselves to receive a greater portion of the Spirit; as the apostle Paul teaches, “The kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Romans 14:17). Currently, the flesh or “natural man is an enemy to God” and our spirits (Mosiah 3:19); we are engaged in a struggle to “not choose eternal death, according to the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein, which giveth the spirit of the devil power to captivate” (2 Nephi 2:29). But when we bridle our passions; when we fast; when we exercise faith in Jesus Christ and subject the flesh to the spirit we win that battle and experience—if only briefly—the fullness of joy that will characterize our existence as exalted beings with perfect, immortal bodies inseparably connected to our spirits.

Fasting, like prayer, “is a form of work and is an appointed means for obtaining the highest of all blessings” as our wills and bodies are aligned more fully with the will of the Father. Elder Holland has borne “witness of the miracles, both spiritual and temporal, that come to those who live the law of the fast. I bear witness of the miracles that have come to me. Truly, as Isaiah recorded, I have cried out in the fast more than once, and truly God has responded, ‘Here I am.’ Cherish that sacred privilege at least monthly, and be as generous as circumstances permit in your fast offering” (October 2014). As we do so, we can come to know for ourselves that fasting brings a fulness of joy and sanctifies our souls. Learning to discipline our physical bodies is one of the primary purposes of mortality, and fasting places our feet more firmly in the path of life, so that we can return to our Father’s presence wherein, the Psalmist says, is fulness of joy (Psalms 16:11).

Enjoying, not Enduring

Mortality is rife with trials and tribulations, with pains and persecutions, but we can and should find joy in the journey back to our Father; he intends for this life to be enjoyed and not merely endured. Even with burdens that seem cumbersome, as we internalize the word of God and act on principles of the gospel, “it will become a tree, springing up in you unto everlasting life. And then may God grant unto you that your burdens may be light, through the joy of his Son” (Alma 33:23). James exhorts us to “Count it all joy when ye fall into [temptations and afflictions]” (James 1:2); Paul urges us to be “exceeding joyful in all our tribulation” (2 Corinthians 7:4); and the Lord Jesus Christ pleads with us to rely on his strength: “If thou art sorrowful, call on the Lord thy God with supplication, that your souls may be joyful” (D&C 136:29). “Adam fell that man might be; and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). Joy is our destiny and our birthright. That birthright, like Esau’s, can be forfeited but never taken from us; we are “free to choose liberty and eternal life” and joy “or to choose captivity and death” and misery (2 Nephi 2:27). As the Savior instructed his apostles, “Your joy no man taketh from you” (John 16:22). Joy is not some remote, future reality; it is a present possibility, a choice we can make each and every day as we turn to the Lord and rely on his strength in faith.

In considering this glorious truth, we might feel to ask again the question posed by Ammon, “Now have we not reason to rejoice? Yea, I say unto you, there never were men [and women] that had so great reason to rejoice as we, since the world began” (Alma 26:35). “Therefore, let us glory, yea, we will glory in the Lord; yea, we will rejoice, for our joy is full; yea, we will praise our God forever. Behold, who can glory too much in the Lord? Yea, who can say too much of his great power, and of his mercy, and of his long-suffering towards the children of men? Behold, I say unto you, I cannot say the smallest part which I feel” (Alma 26:16).

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