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The habits of joy

“Joy is the serious business of heaven,” wrote C.S. Lewis in a letter to a friend. It ought to be our serious business, as well. Joy is every believer’s birthright. Scripture assures us of this through repeated promises, and Christmastime underscores the fact. The angel who announced Jesus’ birth did so with the words: “I bring you good news of great joy . . .” (Luke 2:10).

Why then is joy so elusive? Why, for so many Christians, does joy remain tantalizingly out of reach, like a vapor that vanishes the moment we try to grasp it? I believe that part of the reason is that we expect joy to arrive like a bouquet of flowers on an anniversary when, in fact, it is more like bed of flowers that needs to be cultivated in order to flourish. Joy comes through discipline rather than serendipity. Joy comes, in other words, when we make it our serious business.

Misunderstanding joy
Anyone starting a journey should know where he or she is headed before they set out. This is true of the journey toward joy, as well. It is possible to miss the destination of joy because we don’t know what it looks like to arrive. 

Most of us know that Biblical joy is not the same as happiness – happiness is rooted in fortunate circumstances, while joy comes from a deeper place within. Nonetheless, many Christians persist in believing that if we have God-given joy we should be able to float with zen-like detachment over all our circumstances. 

This is a misleading picture. The Bible never promises us an escape from complex emotions. Joy may indeed be experienced in the midst of circumstantial happiness, but it can – and often does – coexist alongside of inner struggle. Paul informs us that Christians are not immune to physical pain or mental perplexity (2 Cor. 4:9-10). The apostle was experiencing both when he described himself as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10). He had joy but not joviality. 

To seek joy is not to aspire to bliss; rather it is to foster a certain attitude toward life. It is a set of heart — like the set of the sails on a ship that allows it to keep going in the right direction no matter which way the wind is blowing. This is the destination we are seeking when we journey toward joy, and to arrive at it will require a steady development of our character and an increasingly habitual trust in God. 

With that in mind, I propose the following seven habits of joy.  

1. Talk to yourself:  We are inclined to think that people who talk to themselves are strange.  Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church begs to disagree. He says that, in fact, most of us spend far too much time listening to ourselves, and not enough time speaking to ourselves. We routinely listen to negative self-talk and entertain despairing voices that tempt us to fear and doubt, but sometimes we need to take ourselves firmly in hand and say to ourselves: “now hear this!” 

Among the things we need to tell ourselves is just how deeply God loves us. He sent his Son to secure our place in his family, and he didn’t invest that much in us only to leave the job of saving and sanctifying us half finished (Rom. 8:32).  Nothing can separate us from his love. 

Talking to ourselves is not the same as giving ourselves a pep talk. It means listening to our deepest concerns well enough that we can reason ourselves back to a place of faith. David models this kind of self-talk in Psalm 103. Its introductory words, “Bless the Lord, my soul.  All my inmost being bless His Holy Name” mark the whole psalm as an address to self. The author of Psalm 42 similarly speaks to himself when he asks, “Why are you downcast, my soul?” (v. 5).  

2. Rest:  God created us both soul and body, and he prescribed a Sabbath as a way of stewarding our physical and mental resources. Do you live in a healthy life-rhythm that includes both activity and rest? When was the last time you got eight hours of sleep? Taking care of our physical bodies is a spiritual matter. Our level of physical well-being will affect our sense of God’s nearness. Many people who feel joyless and disconnected from God are really just tired.

3. Praise:  Praise forces us to refocus our attention from our problems to God. We should praise God regularly even if we don’t feel like it. This will seem inauthentic to some because our culture puts a high priority on feelings, but it isn’t. We should praise God because he is worthy of it, not because we feel like it. When we praise God just because of who he is, and thank him regularly for what he has done, feelings of joy frequently follow in the wake of our obedience. The alternative to praise and thanksgiving is joylessness, bitterness and complaining. These are joy stealers of the worst kind.

4. Love:  Have you noticed how, when you are down, your thoughts seem to circle endlessly around yourself? We may be sad because we are disappointed in ourselves or because we have been wronged or because we don’t have the blessings others seem to have. Do you see how self-focused each of these statements is? 

Love, like praise, takes our focus off ourselves and puts it on God and others. That is why love is so important to joy. When our thoughts are orbiting around planet Me, joylessness will be our constant companion. It has been said that humility is not thinking less of ourselves but thinking of ourselves less. Humility puts God and others first and in this self-forgetfulness we find joy.     
 
5. Lament:  Scholars estimate that two-thirds of the psalms in Scripture contain some form of lament. In these psalms the song-writers wrestle for understanding and deliverance.

The Biblical character Job is a model lamenter. A notable feature in the book that bears his name is that the suffering, combative Job is the only person who actually talks to God. All his comforters only talk about God. Yet in the end it is Job, despite all his incautious and caustic words, who ultimately receives God’s blessing. That is because friends can be honest with one another.

Ironically, for some of us, talking to God is the last thing we think about doing when we are downcast. Could our lack of joy be telling us, “we have not because we ask not”? Or, perhaps we have not because we do not trust God enough to prevail upon him to the point of testing the bounds of our relationship with him as Job did?

6. Fight:  The apostle Paul reminds us that our warfare is not against flesh and blood (Eph. 6:10). The devil has an interest in keeping Christians joyless. He knows that “the Joy of the Lord is our strength” (Nehemiah), and that joy is also a powerful witness to others of God’s power and love. So the devil will be happy to deprive us of it, if he can.While not every occasion of sadness is the result of a satanic attack, I have personally experienced times when I prayed for God’s deliverance – or spoke directly to dark powers on the authority of Jesus – and shortly after experienced a parting of the clouds of gloom.  

7. Think:  Paul instructs us: “. . . brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Phil. 4:8).  What is playing in our minds will affect our level of joy.

Paul’s exhortation tells us to consider carefully the things we read and watch and the places we allow our minds to go. Sinful, unbelieving thoughts drain away energy. Wholesome thinking promotes a lightness of heart. If we are serious about finding joy let us carefully discern what is trending in our minds.

Have a joyful journey
Call these the “Seven Habits of Highly Joyful People,” if you will. Think of them as tools in your toolbox.  God has made them available to you because he really does want you to have joy. He is like any Father who loves to see his children smile.  

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  • Tom Baird is pastor of Bethel Community (Christian Reformed) Church in Edmonton, Alberta. Tom previously pastored churches in Kincardine and St. Thomas, Ontario before moving to Edmonton with his wife Janet in 2012.

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