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The Definition That Changed How I Experience Joy

I like to ask people the question, “What does joy look like in your life?” Sometimes they think I’m asking for a definition of joy and they’ll parrot back something like “Joy is a feeling of happiness” or “Joy is a state of being successful and knowing all is well in your life.” But when I press a little further—when I emphasize that I want to know how they, personally, experience joy in their own life— that’s when the answers get interesting.

One of the most insightful responses I received to this question was from a widow I was interviewing. In our interview, she had expressed that she was still able to experience joy, even while wading through grief and sorrow. I couldn’t understand how both of those things—suffering and joy—could coexist, so I asked her, “How do you experience joy?”

After a few moments of careful thought, she said slowly, “Joy, for me, is the Holy Ghost changing my heart. Yes, that’s what joy is—my change of heart.”

Why Joy Could Be a Change of Heart

This interpretation of joy resonated deeply with me, especially when I applied it to an oft-quoted scripture about joy: “Adam fell that men might be, and men are that they might have [a change of heart]” (2 Nephi 2:25, emphasis added).

I found that slight word change thoroughly delightful, and I began replacing the word “joy” with this phrase in some of my favorite quotes:

“There is a change of heart guaranteed to the faithful.”—President Henry B. Eyring

“The change of heart we feel has little to do with the circumstances of our lives and everything to do with the focus of our lives.”—President Russell M. Nelson

“A change of heart comes from and because of Him.”—President Russell M. Nelson

Okay, I might have gone a bit wild with my search and replace, but I just couldn’t get over this new concept of joy! I also began to see how this interpretation was not far off from the way the scriptures, prophets, and apostles talked about joy. For example, in a 2018 BYU devotional, Elder David A. Bednar said:

“The Guide to the Scriptures describes joy as ‘a condition of great happiness [that results] from righteous living.’ Interestingly, our gospel perspective helps us to understand that joy is more than a fleeting feeling or emotion; rather, it is a spiritual gift and a state of being and becoming” (emphasis added).

By understanding joy as a change of heart, I suddenly saw how even in my deepest sorrows and most distressing trials, joy was still accessible to me. And that joy was possible because progression was still possible—and progression was possible because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

The Source of Joy

In 2 Nephi chapter 2, right after we are told that “Men are, that they might have joy,” we are immediately reminded in the next verse of Christ’s central role in making that joy possible: “And the Messiah cometh in the fullness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall.”

Later in his 2018 devotional, Elder Bednar said, “Joy comes from exercising faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, worthily receiving and faithfully honoring sacred ordinances and covenants, and striving to become deeply converted to the Savior and His purposes.”

A meaningful change of heart is a sincere return to the path that leads us home to our Heavenly Father, and it is Christ who leads us along that path—in fact, Christ is the path, being “the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto Father, but by me” (John 14:6). With this in mind, an understanding of joy and progression would be incomplete without the Savior, who makes it possible for us to change and repent that we may someday experience a “fullness of joy.” 

And we don’t have to guess what that fullness of joy looks like—the scriptures lay it out:

"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; and the Father and I are one" (3 Nephi 28:10).

Joy Is Attainable, Even Now

Even though a fullness of joy comes from being in the presence of God and becoming “even as [He is],” joy is still accessible where we are now. I know this because of Lehi’s vision, which allegorically outlines the way in which we receive joy. 

In 1 Nephi 11, the angel explains that the tree of life was a representation of the love of God which is “most joyous to the soul” (vs. 23). Taking it one step forward, the tree represents Christ, who embodies the love of God (see John 3:16). Yet again, we see that the fullness of joy comes from our loving Savior, Jesus Christ.

But other parts of the vision also represent Christ. For example, the rod represents the “word of God” (vs. 25). We know that Christ has also been described as the word of God, as we see in in the first book of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). With that in mind, joy is accessible even on our path towards the tree of life because the Savior, who represents the iron rod that we cling to, is there to help us along. Christ embodies that love and joy that we seek, and His being on the path with us provides access to that joy—to that change of heart.

However, sometimes I find myself walking in complete darkness with seemingly nothing to cling to, feeling totally lost and joy completely unattainable. But even Lehi, a prophet of God, experienced those times, describing in his dream that he found himself in a “dark and dreary waste” and that he “had traveled for the space of many hours in darkness” (1 Nephi 8:7-8).

Who brought Lehi to this dark and dreary path? Lehi says it was a man dressed in a white robe who “bade me follow him” (1 Nephi 8:6). I imagine that this man, too, represents Christ. Sometimes my following Him leads me to a place that is seemingly devoid of joy, and it can be confusing because I may be doing “all the right things” and yet still find myself in a dark and dreary wasteland. However, if we are following Christ into those difficult experiences, we are ultimately following joy—and experiencing a change of heart—because we are moving forward with Him as our guide, going back to the path and the iron rod. In these instances, our hearts are changing and preparing for an even fuller realization of joy further along the path.

My Experience of Joy

When I view joy as being a change of heart made possible through Jesus Christ, it looks a little like what Elder Uchtdorf describes:

“The Light of Christ enlightens and saturates the souls of all who hearken to the voice of the Spirit. The Light of Christ fills the universe. It fills the earth. And it can fill every heart. . . . . God will open your eyes. God will give you a new heart. God’s love, light, and truth will cause dormant things to spring to life, and you will be reborn into a newness of life in Christ Jesus.”

The newness of life that can only come from following Jesus Christ is what joy looks like to me. If joy is, as Bednar earlier described, a “state of being and becoming,” then a change of heart is essential to experiencing joy—that change is joy—and brings us closer to our Heavenly Father, who offers a fullness of joy.

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