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HOLLOW LAUGHTER, SOLID JOY
‘Even in laughter the heart is sorrowful; and the end of that mirth is heaviness.’—PROVERBS xiv. 13.
‘These things have I spoken unto you, that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be fulfilled.’—JOHN xv. 11 (R.V.).
A poet, who used to be more fashionable than he is now, pronounces ‘happiness’ to be our being’s end and aim. That is not true, except under great limitations and with many explanations. It may be regarded as God’s end, but it is ruinous to make it man’s aim. It is by no means the highest conception of the Gospel to say that it makes men happy, however true it may be. The highest is that it makes them good. I put these two texts together, not only because they bring out the contrast between the laughter which is hollow and fleeting and the joy which is perfect and perpetual, but also because they suggest to us the difference in kind and object between earthly and heavenly joys; which difference underlies the other between the boisterous laughter in which is no mirth and no continuance and the joy which is deep and abiding.
In the comparison which I desire to make between these two texts we must begin with that which is deepest, and consider—
I. The respective objects of earthly and heavenly joy.
Our Lord’s wonderful words suggest that they who accept His sayings, that they who have His word abiding in them, have in a very deep sense His joy implanted in their hearts, to brighten and elevate their joys as the sunshine flashes into silver the ripples of the lake. What then were the sources of the calm joys of ‘the Man of Sorrows’? Surely His was the perfect instance of ‘rejoicing in the Lord always’—an unbroken communion with the Father. The consciousness that the divine pleasure ever rested on Him, and that all His thoughts, emotions, purposes, and acts were in perfect harmony with the perfect will of the perfect God, filled His humanity up to the very brim with gladness which the world could not take away, and which remains for us for ever as a type to which all our gladness must be conformed if it is to be worthy of Him and of us. As one of the Psalmists says, God is to be ‘the gladness of our joy.’ It is in Him, gazed upon by the faith and love of an obedient spirit, sought after by aspiration and possessed inwardly in peaceful communion, confirmed by union with Him in the acts of daily obedience, that the true joy of every human life is to be realised. They who have drunk of this deep fountain of gladness will not express their joy in boisterous laughter, which is the hollower the louder it is, and the less lasting the more noisy, but will manifest itself ‘in the depth and not the tumult of the soul.’
Nor must we forget that ‘My joy’ co-existed with a profound experience of sorrow to which no human sorrow was ever like. Let us not forget that, while His joy filled His soul to the brim, He was ‘acquainted with grief’; and let us not wonder if the strange surface contradiction is repeated in ourselves. It is more Christlike to have inexpressibly deep joy with surface sorrow, than to have a shallow laughter masking a hurtful sorrow.
We have to set the sources of earthly gladness side by side with those of Christ’s joy to be aware of a contrast. His sprang from within, the world’s is drawn from without. His came from union with the Father, the world’s largely depends on ignoring God. His needed no supplies from the gratifications ministered by sense, and so independent of the presence or absence of such; the world’s need the constant contributions of outward good, and when these are cut off they droop and die. He who depends on outward circumstances for his joy is the slave of externals and the sport of time and chance.
II. The Christian’s joy is full, the world’s partial.
All human joys touch but part of our nature, the divine fills and satisfies all. In the former there is always some portion of us unsatisfied, like the deep pits on the moon’s surface into which no light shines, and which show black on the silver face. No human joys wait to still conscience, which sits at the banquet like the skeleton that Egyptian feasters set at their tables. The old story told of a magician’s palace blazing with lighted windows, but there was always one dark;—what shrouded figure sat behind it? Is there not always a surly ‘elder brother’ who will not come in however the musicians may pipe and the servants dance? Appetite may be satisfied, but what of conscience, and reason, and the higher aspirations of the soul? The laughter that echoes through the soul is the hollower the louder it is, and reverberates most through empty spaces.
But when Christ’s joy remains in us our joy will be full. Its flowing tide will rush into and placidly occupy all the else oozy shallows of our hearts, even into the narrowest crannies its penetrating waters will pass, and everywhere will bring a flashing surface that will reflect in our hearts the calm blue above. We need nothing else if we have Christ and His joy within us. If we have everything else, we need His joy within us, else ours will never be full.
III. The heavenly joys are perpetual, the earthly joys transient.
Many of our earthly joys die in the very act of being enjoyed. Those which depend on the gratification of some appetite expire in fruition, and at each recurrence are less and less complete. The influence of habit works in two ways to rob all such joys of their power to minister to us—it increases the appetite and decreases the power of the object to satisfy. Some are followed by swift revulsion and remorse; all soon become stale; some are followed by quick remorse; some are necessarily left behind as we go on in life. To the old man the pleasures of youth are but like children’s toys long since outgrown and left behind. All are at the mercy of externals. Those which we have not left we have to leave. The saddest lives are those of pleasure-seekers, and the saddest deaths are those of the men who sought for joy where it was not to be found, and sought for their gratification in a world which leaves them, and which they have to leave.
There is a realm where abide ‘fullness of joy and pleasures for ever more.’ Surely they order their lives most wisely who look for their joys to nothing that earth holds, and have taken for their own the ancient vow: ‘Though the fig-tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vine. . .. Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.’ If ‘My joy’ abides in us in its calm and changeless depth, our joy will be ‘full’ whatever our circumstances may be; and we shall hear at last the welcome: ‘Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.’
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