Reflecting on the Word

Happiness: Do we have the right to be happy when others are suffering?

God’s breath in us is profound joy. When we are happy, we are in harmony with God. But when others suffer, our happiness is not in harmony with their suffering. That is why the apostle Paul writes, yes, “rejoice with those who are joyful” but also “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Joy is certainly what we are made for. But when confronted with the suffering of others, it is by weeping that we are in the truth.

Happiness can wound those who are excluded from it. The satisfaction of someone who has succeeded hurts those who have failed. The rejoicing of lovers is hard to take for those who have been deserted. When, in addition, those who are happy let me feel their malicious pleasure in having taken my place, their happiness becomes downright unbearable. Someone’s happiness can hurt us even if they do not do so intentionally: Jesus in a parable speaks of the happiness of a rich man “joyously living in splendor” without even noticing the poor man Lazarus at his gate (Luke 16: 19-21).

It is better to weep than to have such happiness. But how can Paul write, “Always be joyful” (Philippians 4:5)? If there are forms of happiness that wound others, there are also forms of sadness that hurt. When I am sad and depressed, I do not want my friends to burden me with their own sadness, adding their gloom to my misfortune. What should we do, then, when others suffer? Remain joyful, and run the risk of wounding with our happiness those who are left out? Or be sad, and run the risk of adding to their unhappiness, which is already hard enough to bear?

“Always be joyful.” Paul continues, “Let your affability be known to all” (Philippians 4:5). The joy he is speaking about radiates kindness and gentleness. It is first and foremost an inward joy. Sometimes it is almost imperceptible and no outward sign gives it away. It has a delicate touch. Just as, in the cold of winter, it feels good to stay close to a radiant source of heat, it is good, in misfortune, to be close to someone whose deep-seated joy radiates kindness.

What is the secret of a happiness that does not offend but lifts up those who are suffering? It lies in being a poor man’s joy, a happiness not possessed but shared from the outset.

Refusing to be happy when others are suffering could lead to mutual despair. We have better to do for those who are undergoing misfortune. One of the most precious things we can offer is our hidden struggle to keep alive the joy of the Holy Spirit, the joy that radiates kindness and communicates strength and courage.

Last updated: 16 February 2009