Joy: Our Chief and Highest End
When they had heard the king, they set out;
and there, ahead of them went the star that they had seen at its rising in the east, until it stopped over the place where the child was.
When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. Matthew 2:9-10
“Jesus, get out of here,” I say. “I have work to do, prayers to pray, fears to nurture, pain to bear, miles to go before I sleep.”
He just grins, riding down the back of the willow leaf. You bet,” he says, “who do you think is in charge here anyway? I came that you might have life abundant.”
“Yes, but there is so much suffering and sorrow in the world. I have survivor’s guilt.”
“Deal with it, sweetheart, joy is your burden to bear.” Then quoting scripture, “‘Do not be like a horse or a mule without understanding, who must be curbed with bit and bridle, or else they will not stay near you.’ (Psalm 32:9) Daughter, you are forgiven for being happier than some of the others. In your joy is my joy made complete.”
What is the chief and highest end of humankind?” asks the Larger Catechism.
Humankind’s chief and highest end is to glorify God and to fully enjoy God.
A friend of mine died after a long debilitating illness. Before he died he told me, “Life is funny. You know, I used to say life is messy. Now I say life is funny. God must be laughing his head off at us, saying, ‘Don’t they get it?’ I have no complaints. Life has been very good to me. I just try to enjoy.”
To enjoy: to put into a state of or to be in joy – to indwell rejoicing. Joy is the emotion provoked by well-being, success, or possessing what one desires.
How strange that little teaching in the church has to do with helping us to be faithful to our highest end. We know how to read and interpret scripture. We understand the dynamics of church growth. We can conduct things decently and in order. We can do mission. We are even beginning to understand our spiritual life and prayer. But how many of us can state precisely how it is that we glorify and enjoy God as individuals and as a community of faith? When many of us start to enjoy we feel guilty. To claim that anything I might do actually glorifies God may sound arrogant. To seek enjoyment of God seems hedonistic and wrong.
It takes courage to risk joy. The older we get, the more we know of the ravages of life and sin, and the woeful limitations of the flesh. My dying friend, weak and suffering, says, “I just try to enjoy.” Perhaps that is when joy is born the truest, when we are firmly fixed in the limits of humanity, held by the teeth of our extremity with no illusions. Maybe you won’t get better. Maybe your friend will die. Maybe your heart will be broken. Maybe the divorce will be final. Maybe the worse that can happen will happen.
Now here, just when you thought it was all over
where the star has stopped and let joy in.
It will take a mile if you give it an inch. Watch how it eases a hand and foot through the crack – pushing in a shoulder and hip, and flinging the door wide open on bliss.
What did you think would make the star stop, if not the sad song of mortal need?
A lot depends on the way the yellow willow leaf swims like a slim minnow downstream to rest in the musty shallows of earth.
Now it turns, spins in circles, now it dips and glides, now stops, still in the air, then drops like a sigh.
A lot depends on such surrender, but even more depends on someone noticing.
Jesus, help us to love you
more than the search for you.
Give us hearts of merriment and gratitude.
Teach us to tolerate goodness, to stable delight.
And Merciful Savior of loss and defeat,
bestow upon us the wit to trust
and to consent to contentment
that your joy and our joy be made complete.
Excerpted and adapted from Letters from the Holy Ground – Seeing God Where You Are, Loretta Ross (Gotta), Sheed & Ward, 2000, chapter 23.