What is joy? And how do I find it when I’m grumpy, and circumstances seem to rob me of it?
Paul gives a clue in 2 Corinthians 6:10, when he writes from prison that he is ‘sorrowful, but always rejoicing…’ (NIV). At first glance that seems neither possible nor genuine. Surely being in prison is lamentable – a contradiction? And honestly, I find this paradox hard to fathom!
However, over the past decade or so, I’ve been inching towards a deeper understanding of joy. I know joy is much bigger and fuller than happiness; I know joy is a gift from God and linked to the hope I have in Jesus – a hope of things to come. But feeling joyful, especially in times of hardship, takes a deeper kind of knowing. This deeply known ‘joy’ is based in both knowing and also experiencing God’s love.
If joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit, then it is already here within. All I need to do, is seek it.
But don’t get me wrong… I’m not one for laughter clinics or sugar-coating my circumstances! I know how important it is to fully express, name and work through all my God-given emotions: mad, bad, sad and glad. They are a clue to what is going on inside and I need to pay some attention if I’m to respond well to circumstances.
However, getting a handle on Paul’s ‘joy+sorrow’ paradox has been a long process and one that I’m still working on. Here’re a few insights…
I often like to identify with the human Jesus – to see how and when he expresses his emotions (the full range – not just joy). In Jesus’ life he was able to express authentic joy and anger (and many other emotions) because this reflected his inner soul… that is, he knew that ‘he and the Father were one’… he lived his humanity out of this groundedness in God and the infilling of the Spirit.
In the Psalms, I read expressions of emotion – a rich variety of raw human emotion. It is interesting to note that the Psalms pair the tough stuff with hope: the writers give full vent to their emotions and circumstances, but always end with praise and thanks to God for who he is.
It is worth finding the way to ‘hold’ both joy and pain or suffering, not denying one or the other, not letting one overwhelm the other, but holding each one gently.
I have come to know and understand joy more fully because I have experienced its seeming opposite. Suffering is the other side of the coin, the balance, the deep experience… that amplifies joy. Can I then be thankful for suffering? Maybe not while I’m going through it necessarily… but on reflection I can be thankful for the struggles, lessons and joy that follow. Some examples: after a sprained ankle, I was more thankful for my body (and dancing!) After a tough time in our marriage, I found more appreciation and joy. Following the death of my mum, and still holding some grief… there are happy memories that bring joy.
When I’m ‘down’, restless or feeling a bit like Eeyore, I find practicing gratitude a winner! We can gain perspective, at times (not all), if we lift our eyes and then our heart to what is around us – nature, animals, people, technology, a home, the wind, the sea, the garden… and so on. We might use the term ‘mindfulness’, but I prefer to frame being mindful within a context of thankfulness to our Creator. It lifts the spirit to notice God’s delightful provision, and this creates joy.
Restful Rhythm in Life
Rest is a necessary rhythm for my life. Tiredness and over-work deplete my joy. Reading, walking, prayer, conversations, sitting with a coffee, enjoying the many birds in our garden… and sometimes a nana-nap, can restore my body and sense of joy. God’s gift of Sabbath is his permission to rest!
Self-compassion is not self-indulgence. It is recognising a mistake or stuff-up and being kind to yourself (rather than self-critical). It is saying ‘this too shall pass’ and taking a pause to rest, reflect, pray and have some down-time. It is remembering God’s love, and the love of all those who have loved you over time. It is then moving on, knowing ‘the joy of the Lord is your strength’. Without this self-awareness and processing after mistakes or tough times, I sometimes found myself being angry, irritable and confused. But self-care and humility before God create peace, and the fruit is developing compassion for others.
Practice seeking joy – it’s worth it! It is the Spirit within you and all around you in God’s creation. Sometimes it is as quiet as a sleeping kitten; at other times as exuberant as a roaring lion! As Christians, our joy reflects a deep relationship with a loving God, and this kind of joy is contagious.
Joy is worth seeking!
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If you would like to follow up on joy…
- Read a gospel story and look at Jesus. What is happening around him and how does he respond? When and how does he rest?
- Read a Psalm (or several). Look at the emotions expressed in these… both the venting and the joyful thanks-giving. Use a favourite Psalm as your prayer.
- Watch ‘Inside Out’ – kids animated movie! (…with a redemptive eye)
- Practice gratitude once a day.
- Journal a tough time in your life and list the lessons learnt and what God strengthened in you. Be thankful.
- Find joy: in a child, in playfulness, in God’s Word, in creation, in sharing good food with others, in conversation… At the end of the day ask: where did I find joy today? Give thanks with a joyful heart.
- Ask others where they find their joy?