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When Joy is Wrong – According to St John of the Cross

September 1, 2016 by  
Filed under Joy, Marriage Spirituality, Matthew Leonard

When Joy is Wrong
According to St John of the Cross


We’re all aware we shouldn’t take inordinate pleasure in earthly/temporal goods (which remains a problem for most of us).

Affected by the original sin of Adam and Eve, we tend to focus too much on the things of this world. The clichés of women craving shoes and men drooling over cars is rooted in reality. We like stuff.

Again, it’s not that any of these things are intrinsically evil. When God created the world, he called it “good” [cf Genesis 1]. The problem is that these earthly things can easily distract us from heavenly matters. We know that.

KVLemohParentsJoyChildrenFamily2But what is John talking about with regard to other, less “worldly” goods? Isn’t marriage always good? Aren’t we always to be proud of our children (except, of course, when they start screaming at the top of their lungs after you’ve settled into the front row of a packed Mass).

In one sense, the answer is yes. Marriage is good. Children are good. They’re amazing gifts from God.


But John makes a very important distinction in his masterpiece The Ascent of Mt. Carmel:

“One should rejoice in them if they are serving God…It would be vanity,” for example, “for a husband and wife to rejoice in their marriage when they are uncertain whether God is being better served by it.”

JohnOfTheCrossDetailOfJuanRodriguezJuarezTheVirginOfTheCarmenWithSaintTheresaAndSaintJohnOfTheCrossGoogleArtProjectEarlier in this passage, he says there is no reason to rejoice in children “because they are rich, or endowed with natural talents and gifts, or because they are wealthy.” True joy in them comes only when they are serving God.

In other words, whatever isn’t giving glory to God needs to be worked on or helped along until it does, because that’s what life is all about. How do we do that? The basics. Prayer, fasting, instruction, etc… St. John is basically encouraging us to take a hard look at ourselves, our family, and our relationships, so that all areas of our lives bring more joy to ourselves and Christ.

Like all the saints, he desires nothing less than the best for all of us.

God bless!




Editor’s Note: For more of Matthew Leonard’s practical Catholic wisdom, check out his book: Louder Than Words – The Art of Living as a Catholic.


Art: Parental Joy, Karl (Kirill) Lemoh (1841-1910), undated, PD-US; Detail of St John of the Cross from The Virgin of the Carmen with Saint Teresa and Saint John of the CrossJuan Rodríguez Juárez (1675-1728), undated, PD-US published before January 1, 1923; both Wikimedia Commons.

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About Matthew Leonard

Matthew Leonard is an internationally known speaker, author, podcaster, blogger, and Executive Director of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology (founded by Dr. Scott Hahn). A convert to Catholicism and former missionary to Latin America, Matthew is a frequent guest on radio and television programs across the country appearing on SiriusXM, EWTN, CBS, and the Magnificat. He formerly hosted his own program on Radio Maria titled “The Art of Catholic”, before migrating to iTunes. Matthew hosts the popular Journey Through Scripture video series and is a featured speaker by Lighthouse Catholic Media. He also holds a Masters in Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. In addition to numerous articles, he is the author of Louder Than Words: The Art of Living as a Catholic and Prayer Works! Getting A Grip On Catholic Spirituality, and contributed to The Joys & Challenges of Family Life: Catholic Husbands and Fathers Speak Out. Matthew lives in Ohio with his wife Veronica and their five children. Learn more about him at

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  • The Shepherd’s Daughter

    Good article. As Blessed Mother Teresa (Soon to be Saint!) says, We will be the happiest people in the world if we belong to God, if we place ourselves at his disposal, if we let him use us as he pleases. To be this happy, we must belong to Jesus fully without reservation. He alone is worthy of our love and total surrender. Once we really belong to him then he is free to use us, to do with us whatever he pleases.” (Thirsting for God) I pray every day to God and the Blessed Mother to show me how to rid myself of things that may hinder me from being totally His. Each day as I add more of Him to my life, I find life does get easier. Not necessarily trouble free, but easier to cope with what I face each day and to have a calmness remain in me. Part of an examination of conscience for me is to ask myself, “Where did I put Jesus in my life today?” God bless.

  • Karen Howard

    Can you tell me from where in the Ascent to Mount Carmel you are quoting? I’d like to read more. Thank you.

    • LizEst

      That would be Book 3, Chapter 18, paragraph number 4 (numbered paragraph number 4).

      God bless you, Karen! Happy reading.

      • Karen Howard

        Dear LizEst,

        Thank you for the citation. Question: Are you in the BC area? If so, so am I and I would love to get together to chat about the work of RC Spiritual Direction. It’s a great website!


        • LizEst

          Thanks, Karen. To God be the glory. We’re so happy when we can help folks get closer to the Lord. Sorry, we’re not in the BC area.

  • jfahy

    This was excellent! Convicting

  • John

    It is ok article but too family centered, like there are no other life situations. No concrete examples, but it is ok for first aid situations.

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