Joy Abounds in Gratitude


December 05, 2019
Bunji McLeod, Office of Mission and Ministry

Joy—a short and simple word that attempts to hold every feeling of good in our lives. Each of us has different experiences of the word joy—memories of its euphoric buzz, a warm thought of loved ones, a fleeting feeling we want to chase—and I’m sure we all can think of a caricature of what joy looks like or a person we think of when we hear the word. Disney’s Inside Out even gave us an explosively sunny character we can picture among the other emotions running the control center of our body. Whether academic or informal, everyone from talkative bartenders to the Dalai Lama have theories about how to find happiness or what to do to become more joyful. It’s no secret that the pursuit of happiness is characteristic of every human on earth, nor is it a secret that finding joy—a concrete, describable, and tangible feeling—is one of the hardest challenges that the modern era has for us.   

In the context of Scripture, the word “joy” or “happiness” (without getting into the difference between the two words) is used throughout the Bible spanning the thousand years from the Psalms of David to the teachings of Jesus. However, upon some quick Google searching, I found one of the central scriptures of the third Sunday of Advent to be from Philippians 4:4—a writing from Saint Paul to the Church of Philippi. The passage reads, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” Just in case you missed it, that’s twice in a 10-word span that the Church is called to rejoice in Christ.

I’ll be the first to say that while some would describe me as joyful, I do not always feel like rejoicing. As we all know, there are plenty of small, personal things that can weigh down the many things that could be considered good in our lives, and there are equally as many enormous, existentially overwhelming questions and issues within our world that leave us trying to emotionally stay afloat. In those times where I feel lost in the depths of hopelessness and mental turmoil, I have heard people say that we need to “choose joy” and to go do what makes me happy. While I know they mean well and they might be right to an extent, it’s that answer that irks me the most; while our mindset often precedes how we feel and how we act, we can’t always just will ourselves to be joyful, or else we would just do that whenever we feel down. But is rejoicing the same as being joyful? Saint Paul in the next lines in Philippians writes this:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things
Philippians 4: 6-8, ESV

Paul is pointing to here is not just rejoicing in times of joy and in times where we feel grateful, but also in times where we are not. Paul lays out a form of prayer and practice of gratitude as a gateway to rejoicing in the Lord, not just telling Christians to be joyful or to feel grateful.

So how do we approach joy and rejoicing as a practice and not just a byproduct of how we feel? I think it’s worthy to point out that Paul isn’t calling us to be grateful relative to others. We are not only to be grateful for the roof over our heads because others may sleep outside tonight, or to feel grateful today because we get full plates of the Cog’s Sunday brunch while others will have to skip breakfast. We are to pray with Thanksgiving, thinking about whatever is inherently worthy of praise, seeking the peace and presence of God, because the blessings of God are beyond material wealth.

It’s possible you read this and your soul already feels joyful and grateful right at this moment—that’s great! Life is worthy of celebration. But life is a roller coaster, the seasons change, and we are subject to the imperfect world we live in. So even if you do not feel joyful when they light the one rose candle, know that you don’t have to feel joyful. You can rejoice in the Lord with thanksgiving for He came to this world to the poor shepherds for the same reasons he came to the Three Kings who could give him gifts in return, and that is a reason we can be joyful.