Joy Is Fulfillment of Desires
by Lincoln Cannon on 27 September 2015 (updated 18 October 2015)
I’ve written about joy being the purpose of life, using the Mormon authoritative tradition as an example of that idea. I also observed that the idea is most robust if we understand joy, not in any narrowly preconceived manner, but rather broadly in relation to that which we severally and variously and dynamically desire. This may sound excessively hedonistic, and yet we also find this idea incorporated in Mormonism.
Jesus established the precedent with an invitation:
“… ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.” (John 16: 24)
In other words: desire, and it will be fulfilled, that you may be filled with joy. In addition, we find narratives that account for joy as fulfilled desires. For example, when Alma invites converts to baptism at the Waters of Mormon, they express their joy in terms of the desire of their hearts:
“And now when the people had heard these words, they clapped their hands for joy, and exclaimed: This is the desire of our hearts.” (Mosiah 18: 11)
The Preacher in Ecclesiastes writes of the joy he feels in fulfillment of his desires:
“And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from any joy; for my heart rejoiced in all my labour: and this was my portion of all my labour.” (Ecclesiastes 2: 10)
The scriptures even portray the angels of hell as experiencing some measure of joy in the fulfillment of the desires of their master:
“And he beheld Satan; and he had a great chain in his hand, and it veiled the whole face of the earth with darkness; and he looked up and laughed, and his angels rejoiced.” (Moses 7: 26)
Of course, we need not think of all desires as equal, nor of all corresponding joys as equal. Fulfillment of some desires may cause joys that endure for more or less time, penetrate the soul more or less profoundly, or transfer among different individuals within a community more or less successfully. To the extent that joy does not endure, penetrate, or transfer, we might say that misery does. The Preacher acknowledged this:
“Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all [was] vanity and vexation of spirit, and [there was] no profit under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 2: 11)
The scriptures further acknowledge varying magnitudes of joy by distinguishing some joy with terms like “fullness”. Yet, even when describing perhaps the greatest magnitudes of joy, the scriptures do so in terms of fulfillment of desires:
“And again, ye shall not have pain while ye shall dwell in the flesh, neither sorrow save it be for the sins of the world; and all this will I do because of the thing which ye have desired of me, for ye have desired that ye might bring the souls of men unto me, while the world shall stand. And for this cause ye shall have fulness of joy; and ye shall sit down in the kingdom of my Father; yea, your joy shall be full, even as the Father hath given me fulness of joy; and ye shall be even as I am, and I am even as the Father; …” (3 Nephi 28: 9-10)
According to these words, not only does joy result from fulfillment of desires, but fullness of joy also results from fulfillment of desires – although of a particular kind. Thus, in general terms, the scriptures present both the purposes of life and those of God as magnitudes of the feeling of joy resulting from fulfillment of desires.
Some passages of Mormon scripture emphasize desire fulfillment so radically that the message can become counter-intuitive. For example, consider this poignant passage:
“I ought not to harrow up in my desires, the firm decree of a just God, for I know that he granteth unto men according to their desire, whether it be unto death or unto life; yea, I know that he allotteth unto men, yea, decreeth unto them decrees which are unalterable, according to their wills, whether they be unto salvation or unto destruction. Yea, and I know that good and evil have come before all men; he that knoweth not good from evil is blameless; but he that knoweth good and evil, to him it is given according to his desires, whether he desireth good or evil, life or death, joy or remorse of conscience.” (Alma 29: 4-5)
According to this passage, God seeks not simply to fulfill desires, but also to decree unalterable decrees in accordance with desires, even if the results destroy us. Reflecting this paradox, other passages suggest that some of us may better fulfill our desires in damnation or, in other words, when separated from God:
“Behold, I say unto you that ye would be more miserable to dwell with a holy and just God, under a consciousness of your filthiness before him, than ye would to dwell with the damned souls in hell.” (Mormon 9: 4)
As characterized here, those who desire separation from God, miserable as they might be, would be yet more miserable with God. In accordance with that characterization, Joseph Smith described the most expansive and universalist interpretation of heaven with which I’m acquainted. Beyond a simple dichotomy between heaven and hell, he told of a pluralistic heaven that provides degrees of fulfillment to innumerably diverse and even base desires:
“And also the telestial … they shall be heirs of salvation. And thus we saw, in the heavenly vision, the glory of the telestial, which surpasses all understanding; … And the glory of the telestial is one, even as the glory of the stars is one; for as one star differs from another star in glory, even so differs one from another in glory in the telestial world; … These are they who are liars, and sorcerers, and adulterers, and whoremongers, and whosoever loves and makes a lie … we saw the glory and the inhabitants of the telestial world, that they were as innumerable as the stars in the firmament of heaven, or as the sand upon the seashore; …” (Doctrine and Covenants 76: 88-89, 98-100, 103, 109)
As described here, although differing widely from each other, all of innumerable desires would be represented among “heirs of salvation” to varying degrees of glory surpassing understanding. Again, although this may sound excessively hedonistic, it is consistent with the twin ideas that (1) joy is the purpose of life, and (2) joy is fulfillment of desires.
This is the third in a series of posts in which I model a desire-based ethics by drawing on the Mormon authoritative tradition. In the first post, I introduced the model with the observation that desire entices us to embrace ethics. In the second post, I presented the idea that joy is the purpose of life. In my next post, I’ll set the stage for tying desire fulfillment back to ethics by presenting the idea that love is the duty of life.