The Metaphysical Emotions: Part 4, Joy

Paul's letter to Philippians is famously called his "Epistle of Joy." Why? Because Paul mentions "joy" or "rejoice" sixteen times across four chapters. That's a lot of happiness pouring out. You'll recall the famous refrain from the letter: "Rejoice in the Lord always. And again I say: Rejoice!"

But here's the crazy thing: Philippians is a prison letter. Paul was incarcerated when he wrote his Ode to Joy.

There's lots of ways to define "joy," but my definition is illustrated in Paul's letter to the Philippians. Joy is the experience of great delight regardless of external circumstance. Joy is singing "Rejoice!" while sitting in a jail cell. Paul makes the point well in the letter:
I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for 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. 
Regardless of circumstances, Paul's contentment and joy remains constant: "I have learned the secret to being content in any and every situation."

And what's "the secret"? This: "I can do all things through him who gives me strength."

In short, like gratitude and hope, joy has a metaphysical structure. How so?

Emotions, by definition, are triggered by environmental events. That is what emotions are for, their adaptive purpose. Emotions give us environmental feedback. In the face of uncertainty we experience anxiety and fear. In the face of loss or setback we experience sadness. When facing a violation of our rights or dignity we experience anger. When something good happens we experience surprise and delight. And overall, these feelings help us navigate our world.

The problem, of course, is that this makes our flourishing dependent upon circumstance. Our emotions go up and down depending upon what's happening to us. And this situation has always posed a problem for the wisdom traditions: How can we experience inner peace, calm, and joy if we're so dependent upon and triggered by circumstance?

The answers here vary. Many wisdom traditions suggest some sort of emotional disengagement to achieve internal tranquility. Buddhism and Stoicism are examples. Mindfulness is a good modern spin on this approach. By being present and mindful we put some distance between ourselves and our emotions.

But Christianity isn't going for inner tranquility, Christianity is going for joy. Christianity is going for an emotion.

So how does that happen, how can you get emotional delight that's consistent and constant regardless of circumstance? Well, you have to find and ground this delight in something outside and beyond circumstance. And that, like faith and hope, requires a metaphysical, religious posture:
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.
To be clear, the metaphysical, religious posture required for joy doesn't have to be Christian, but joy does demand some ontological source of delight that exists beyond physical, observable circumstances. Otherwise, joy becomes, like all emotions, contingent upon circumstance, rather than constant "in each and every situation."

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