There is so much in our world that robs us of joy. But, if we care to look, there are so many more things that can bring us joy. Our capacity to notice and experience joy is not dependent on what is happening around us. It is dependent on what is happening within us. And the good news is that we have control over that.
In the EvoFaith Podcast this week, we’re talking about joy and how we can make the choice to live in joy even when our world is less than joyful. Because when we change our inner world, everything changes in our outer world even if nothing changes.
I have a confession to make: I’m a fairly anxious person and joy does not come naturally or easily to me. I have always wanted to be one of those people who laughs easily at themselves or at the wonderful absurdness of the world, but that’s just not me. As a child, I was always told that I was “such a serious little boy.” And I even had a teacher tell me once that I seldom smile and when I do it never reaches my eyes. I’m not sure how true that it is, or if it had anything to do with how frightened I was of him, but the words stuck with me.
In my defence, there is a lot in our world to be anxious about. There is so much sadness that sometimes it’s hard for me to feel ok with being frivolous, silly, or joyful. I know it’s unreasonable to keep myself from joy because others are in pain—my sadness won’t help them, although my joy if shared appropriately could— nevertheless, sometimes the weight of the world gets to me.
For so many people around the world, the last few years have had more than their share of grief. I have been fortunate not to lose any close family members, but I did lose two close friends to COVID. Others have not been so lucky. All around me are people who have lost family members, jobs, livelihoods, homes, and their sense of dignity and self-worth. Others have come close to breaking point because of their loneliness. Many of us feel a deep grief at what’s happening in our world. And too many of us grieve our failure to match up to the standards of beauty, wealth, or charisma that our world seems to expect. We fail to live up to our own social media profiles, let alone those of our friends or the celebrities we admire. There is just so much sadness, and joy can seem like a long-lost friend.
In this week’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel, John the Baptiser was facing his own grief and sadness. Here’s his story:
Now when John heard in prison about the things the Christ was doing, he sent word by his disciples to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
Jesus responded, “Go, report to John what you hear and see. Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them. Happy are those who don’t stumble and fall because of me.”
When John’s disciples had gone, Jesus spoke to the crowds about John: “What did you go out to the wilderness to see? A stalk blowing in the wind? What did you go out to see? A man dressed up in refined clothes? Look, those who wear refined clothes are in royal palaces. What did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. He is the one of whom it is written: Look, I’m sending my messenger before you, who will prepare your way before you.
“I assure you that no one who has ever been born is greater than John the Baptist. Yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:2-11 CEB)
John had given his life to the dream of the Messiah, of someone who would change the game, bring in a new way of being, and lead the world to joy. But then he ended up in prison for his troubles and Jesus wasn’t what he expected. So he sent messengers to ask Jesus what was going on. Jesus responded by showing him all the joy that he was bringing to ordinary people, and especially the marginalised. People were being liberated and healed, relationships were being restored, the poor were being uplifted. None of this was happening in the dramatic, political sense that many Israelites had come to expect. It was all happening in quiet, hidden ways that could be—and were—easily missed by many. Most of Jesus’ work was not about changing people’s outer worlds as much as their inner ones. Because when you change your inner world, everything changes in your outer world even if nothing changes.
There is a tremendous power in joy, even when we face difficult times. It was Nehemiah who said, “The joy of the Lord is my strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10). One of our most healing and empowering abilities is our capacity to find joy even in tribulation. We can make such significant changes to our inner and outer worlds by seeking joy—or by intentionally and constantly seeking the things that bring us joy. The quest for joy is an essential element of any spiritual practice and it’s one of the most fun and life-giving.
If we are willing to look, there is no shortage of reasons for joy. Notwithstanding my confession earlier, I have tried in the last few years to make joy a central feature of my life and spirituality. I’m not there yet, but my wife tells me that I’m doing better. So, in the hope that maybe this may be helpful for you in some way, here are some of the things that help me to be more joyful:
Spiritually and from a Christian perspective, the idea of resurrection—not as a once-off historical event that happened to Jesus, but as a reality of our Cosmos which we can experience and live into every day—is a source of joy, because it reminds me that life and love always win. And nothing can separate us from this divine life and love. What is your experience of resurrection now? And how can you draw joy from it even in the midst of sadness, grief, and struggle?
From an evolutionary perspective, as Helen Keller says, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” This is true not just about people or groups, but of the evolution of the Cosmos. Life is always expanding and life always grows out of death. And within this complex and crazy world there is so much joy just waiting to be witnessed and shared—dogs, and dolphins, and wonder, and beauty, resilience, creativity, art.
So many things that appear unnecessary from an evolutionary perspective are actually essential because they empower us to embrace life and love. And that gives me reason to seek for and embrace joy. How are you evolving into a deeper and more consistent experience of joy? How can you be more conscious and intentional about this evolution?
Globally, somehow in Advent and Christmas, the world seems to become more attuned to joy. Celebrations start happening everywhere. In WW1, there was even a friendly soccer match on a battlefield on Christmas Day—which reveals our capacity to create and find joy even in hardship. For those who care to look, there are signs of joy everywhere in our world—even now in the midst of our struggle. Where do you see joy? And how can you be a more attentive witness for yourself and in showing others that joy?
Relationally, there is no question that, as Esther Perel says, “The quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives.” Bad relationships bring tremendous grief. But good ones bring disproportionate joy. Whether it’s our families, spouses, children, parents, friends, colleagues, sports team members, or any other group in-person or online, our connection with others is one of our greatest sources of joy. So make use of whatever joy-bringing relationships you can—even if it’s just one other person and even you can only connect with that person online. Connect, share, love, laugh together, and drink deep of the joy it brings. Which are your most joy-giving relationships? How can you be more intentional about enjoying them?
And finally, on a personal level, there are infinite opportunities for joy within us. We often don’t do this naturally, but so much joy can be found if we are willing to embrace and enjoy our silliness, our sense of humour, and our creativity. We can find joy in being kind to ourselves. We can find joy when we accept and even enjoy our unique foibles and quirks. And, if we will let go of needing to judge ourselves and shape ourselves to what we believe everyone else expects of us, we can learn to find a simple, quiet, and profound joy in our own company. What about you brings you joy?
Joy can be so elusive. And the quest for joy can feel selfish and irrelevant to the great grief that fills our world. But we easily forget that joy empowers and motivates. Joy connects and heals. Everything about us, our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls, are strengthened and renewed by joy. And when we can learn to nurture and cultivate joy within us, it changes our world in deep and significant ways. Because when you change your inner world, everything changes in your outer world even if nothing changes.
In the next episode, we look at the final quality that is central to Advent—love. And we’ll explore how we can dive more deeply into love and share it more intentionally with others.
But for now, that’s all I have. Thank you for your time and attention. Stay connected to the Sacred. And I’ll catch you next time.
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