How do we find joy? Joy is not automatic. A life free from trouble is no guarantee of joy, and a difficult life does not prevent it.
From 2002 to 2005 we lived in the Philippines. In spite of widespread government corruption, crippling poverty, oppressive heat, and high unemployment, we found Filipinos to be some of the happiest people we've ever met. They can fall asleep anywhere, turn a 1-year-old's birthday into a wedding-sized celebration, and laugh in the face of trouble. They are among the poorest in Asia, but arguably the happiest. Clearly, joy does not depend on circumstances. So how do we get there?
If we imagine a pathway to joy, forward movement depends on three deliberate choices. (There may be others; I'm addressing three here.) The first comes at a gateway, the second at an intersection, and the third at a bend in the road. To enter the gateway we need to choose honesty. To navigate the intersection we must choose gratitude. And to lend perspective for the bends in the path, we need faith.
We make the first deliberate choice at the gateway of honesty. We will never arrive at true joy by pretending to be happy. Denial is the enemy of joy —a closed door to joy's garden path. We cannot bypass grief and pain, guilt or unforgiveness and expect to find joy. That thing that robs us of joy must be faced head on. We must look it in the eye and name it.
In fact, psychologists tell us that when we avoid honesty, we invite poor health, both emotionally and physically. In the words of one scholar who has studied this phenomenon (Brent Strawn, on James Pennebaker's study, in Brueggemann, From Whom No Secrets Are Hid, xix), "Inhibition is hard work, and that work eventually takes its toll on the body's defenses." So you want real joy? Step one is to grieve your losses. Admit your fault. Express your anger. Own your failures. Voice your disappointment. Forgive those who have let you down.
This is a bit awkward to say in church. Most churches have lost the art of making space for this kind of honesty. We give the distinct impression that "putting on your Sunday best" always includes a bright smile. We rarely confess our sins, name our failures, face our fears, and grieve our losses in community. And so our unexpressed emotions become roadblocks to joy. One way to recover these practices is to pray the Psalms together. The Psalms let it all hang out. Every ugly emotion you can imagine. It's like reality TV, minus the TV.
God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer! By night, but I find no rest! (22:2)
Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help! (22:11)
Break the arm of the wicked man; call the evildoer to account for his wickedness (10:15)
All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears (6:6)
Heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long? (6:2-3)
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight. (51:4)
Troubles without number surround me; my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see (40:12)
Let evil recoil on those who slander me; in your faithfulness destroy them (54:5)
Through prayer, all these raw and gritty realities are brought into the presence of God and given over for Him to handle. The Psalms are proof that God invites us to come as we are. To say it like it is. And by doing so, to find a new way forward. There's no way around it.
So we begin our journey to joy by choosing to be honest.
Then we come to an intersection, and we have to make our second choice: gratitude. I'll talk about that intersection in my next post on joy.