Joy (and its cognates) are mentioned 476 times in scripture – more than eternal life! But what do we actually know about joy and how do we become ‘joy-full’? Are we able to choose to have more joy? Is it really that simple? (The answer is no, but I run ahead of myself.)
Through many conversations with Christians over the past few years, I have drawn the conclusion that very few of us understand how important joy is, not only in our own development and lives but to God himself.
Throughout the arc of scripture, we see that people engaged with God in the reality of where they found themselves. The Psalms are full of every emotion possible from anger, sadness, grief, frustration through to peace, love, and joy. Jesus in his humanity, fully embodied, experienced the full measure of emotions. He understands us and what we experience, and meets us in each of these emotions and situations we find ourselves in. Yet Jesus gave joy as the reason for His teaching (John 15:11) and said that He came so we may have the full measure of His joy (John 17:13) and that it was joy itself that gave Him strength to endure the cross (Hebrews 12:2).
Within the Old Testament, several themes of joy can be discovered through celebration of everyday events (i.e., births, marriages), celebration of religious festivals, celebration of the birth of a coming king, eating and feasting together, experiencing joy notwithstanding pain (joy being our strength through trials and suffering), joy as a response to the salvation of God, and experiencing joy following mourning.
Joy is a major thread throughout scripture, yet I have discovered a shortage of theology around joy. However, there are a few treasures to be found. In Jubilate: Theology in Praise, D.W. Hardy & D.F. Ford declare: “The joy of God needs to be celebrated as the central and embracing reality of the universe and everything else seen in light of this.”
Dr. J. Capper in his PhD thesis on Karl Barth’s Theology of Joy describes joy in a more relational way: “In God and humanity, the fullness of being oneself (especially oneself with another) is the basis for joy … Joy is being truly oneself.”
It’s clear that joy should be central to our lives and relationship with God and each other. We need to pay attention.
Of enormous importance in an understanding of joy, alongside the biblical view, has been the exponential growth in the field of neuroscience in the 21st century. Key researchers in
this field include Dr. Allan Schore (increasingly referred to as the Einstein of Psychiatry) and Dr. Daniel Siegel, who have pioneered a clear understanding of how our brains are developed and shaped. Additionally, Shepherds House® under the directorship of neurotheologian Dr. Jim Wilder have authored several books based on Schore & Siegel’s work, including an accessible model of human development (Life Model Works) emphasizing the key role of joy.
Schore and Siegel first identified that a baby’s response to external stimuli from their primary caregivers (being held, touched, and fed) is a response of joy. These early interactions shape not only the structure and chemistry of the brain but also the function.
A summation of their work is that we are created for joy, and our ability to experience joy is primarily predicated on how we have experienced joy-filled relationships, especially in the first three years of life. So, we develop our capacity to experience joy within human relationships. It is the fruit of deep connections where we understand that someone is glad to be with me, or as Dr. Jim Wilder et al, describes: “real joy is the sparkle in someone’s eye when they see us that makes their face light up – and I like it.”
It is not joy for joy’s sake, but joy in the presence of others who want to be with us and rejoice with us.
Wilder is very clear that our brains are wired to seek joy and that this is a gift of God to us. We are created to be chosen, to belong, to be special to others and to be celebrated – starting with our family of origin. Our sense of self and ability to grow a strong identity are therefore profoundly shaped by these interactions and experience. With this type of family set-up, our brains will be shaped as God intended – with joy in charge.
Christian Psychiatrist Dr. Curt Thompson emphasizes:“Knowing God requires integration of all parts of the brain. Integration of the left and right system is required to experience being known by someone else”.
It is understood from all these writers that integration in the brain is vital to our experiencing joy, flourishing, and maturity. What is fascinating within this neuroscientific research is that we are now able to identify the pathways and processes in the brain that explain how we experience joy (and how it can get disrupted).
These beautiful and transformative discoveries help us understand how we can develop our capacity for joy. So, to answer the question: ‘Can we choose joy?’ The answer is no, but we are able to make choices to develop our capacity to experience and grow joy, and by doing, enjoy the presence of God in our lives in more deep and profound ways.
This will be the subject of Part Two!
- Jubilate: Theology in Praise by D.W. Hardy & D.F. Ford
- Karl Barth’s Theology of Joy by J.M. Capper (Doctoral dissertation)
- Living from the Heart Jesus Gave You by James G. Friesen, et al.
- Joy in the New Testament by Stephen C Barton
- Joy Starts Here by Jim Wilder, et al.
- Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self by Dr. Allan N. Schore
- The Developing Mind: How relationships and the brain interact to share who we are by Dr. Daniel Siegel