I recently saw Pixar’s newest animated film, “Inside Out.” Even if you have not yet had the pleasure of watching it you may already know that much of the action of the story takes place inside the mind of a 11-year-old girl — her “headquarters” if you will. This control room in her mind is operated by five characters who are each the embodiment of their name: Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness. Joy, voiced by the lovely Amy Poehler, is the unofficial leader of the team, who pulls everyone else along by the sheer strength of her positivity and determination in the face of adversity. Those of you who have seen the film know that the dynamics between each of the characters become satisfyingly more complex as the plot progresses, but as I continue to reflect on the movie I keep coming back to Joy.
I have long been interested in the linguistic distinction people tend to make between “joy” and “happiness.” In my experience, people more often use “happiness” to describe a state of mind shaped by context. Happiness can be gained by changing circumstances. A better job, a new relationship, a great meal — these are the things that make us happy. Joy, on the other hand, is the word we use when we want to convey something deeper, that lasting sense of wellbeing that grounds our life.
I find it appropriate that the filmmakers chose to name their character Joy rather than Happiness. The character Joy is not always outwardly happy. Sometimes she is frustrated with her companions. She is often anxious and alarmed when things go wrong. She even feels sad in moments of discouragement and loss. Yet she always remains herself; there is something deep within her that radiates warmth and light even when things in her world are literally falling apart.
If you have ever known someone with that glow of true joy, I am confident they left a lasting impression. These are the people who do not swing too wildly when things go wrong, those people who always seem to be able to draw upon a well of hopefulness and strength in their darkest hours. It is that inner peace, that sense of purpose and grounded spirit that seems to give them a sense of what is really important in life. Yes, they get mad sometimes. Yes, they grieve. Yes, they cry sometimes too, but their resting place is joy.
As a pastor I often find myself distracted by chasing after happiness. It is easy to find yourself thinking, “If only we had a program like that!” or “If only my sermons were just a bit more insightful!” or “If only I could rustle up a few more volunteers!”
I know I’m not alone. Many church leaders get caught up in a search for the perfect pastor who is sure to save them. Many session meetings have been spent longing after that mythical demographic of young families with great jobs and plenty of time to volunteer. It is all too easy to get distracted trying to create the circumstances of a happy church; yet, at the end of the day none of these outward factors can create joy.
Joy is the work of the Spirit among us. Joy is the sense of confidence that radiates from a church that is secure in the promise that no matter what size or shape they are, they are the Body of Christ. Joy is the gift of laughter among children who know that church is a place where they are safe and loved. Joy is the mark of a church and an individual who knows that no matter what each day brings they always know that they belong to God.
My hope is that our churches and their leaders would seek ways to find joy that lasts rather than happiness. For happiness may come and go, but the joy we find in Christ is everlasting.
CAITLIN THOMAS DEYERLE is pastor of Southminster Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, where she lives with her husband James, their cat Calvin and a very rebellious puppy named Molly.