Pleasure vs. Joy (and why the difference is crucial)

Have you ever known joy during the very heart, the deepest part, of your suffering? During high school I had an experience like this. I was dating someone who had become very important to me. We spent hours upon hours every night on the phone. I would drive hundreds of miles every weekend to spend just a few hours in person with her. And then one day, without explanation, she broke up with me. 

Now, I know that the ending of a high school romance doesn't score very highly in the suffering olympics, but anyone who has been rejected by someone for whom they cared deeply knows how it can pull the tears from your eyes. It feels like Darth Vader has the death grip on your stomach. It feels like part of you has been torn away. Well, in the middle of that pain, inexplicably, as I was pouring my heart out to God in prayer, I felt an overwhelming sense of joy. It did not cancel out the sorrow or push it aside. They just...coexisted. Like companions. Joy and Sorrow together. And it made the sorrow bearable.

This is how I know Joy and Pleasure are very different things. There was no pleasure at all in that moment for me, but somehow there was still deep joy. (Some of us know the difference between the two another way...pleasures that were very clearly not joy-filled.) But regardless of your life experience, all of us have an intuition that there is a difference, or else we wouldn't have twenty different emoticons for positive feelings.

But what exactly makes Joy and Pleasure different? And why does it matter?

C.S. Lewis, in his book Surprised by Joy, says that one of the differences between Joy and Pleasure is that Joy "must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing." While pleasure is enjoyed now and ends quickly, true joy points beyond the present, beyond this world, to something, perhaps someone, who calls to us from another place. While the object of our pleasure can be consumed and finished (think food, sex, a hike, a book), the object of our Joy cannot be exhausted. That's why Joy is always longing...because it can never be exhausted.

This is part of what made it possible for an ancient spiritual guide named Paul, who was rotting in prison with the specter of potential execution looming over him, to say:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!...I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Phil 4:4, 11-13)

He didn't live in a glib denial of his hunger or his need. He didn't have to! He knew what it meant to pursue an inexhaustible source of joy, something he could experience in any and every situation...and sometimes even more deeply in suffering: Communion with God. 

Is that feeling, the inner state that you are pursuing, Pleasure or Joy? If the patterns of your life are all pointed at momentary pleasures: the next experience, the next partner, the next pair of shoes, the next restaurant, the next high, the next accomplishment on your resume...I would encourage you to aim higher, for something more lasting, because you were made for so much more. 



*Part of the above image by twemoji on twitter via Creative Commons