I think that joy is the sign of God’s presence. It is the reliable indicator that He is a part of what we are thinking, doing, or being. Thus joy is a vital sign that we are doing as He would have us do.
Some of the times that I feel joy are predictable. When I come to the sacrament hymn and prayers humbly and earnestly, I feel joy. Sometimes I sit and weep during most of that sacred ordinance from the sheer joy of it.
When people tell stories of conversion or transformation, my joy circuits light up. When people pay tribute to Jesus, I feel it.
But joy also comes unexpectedly. Sometimes I am just walking down the hall at work with nothing particular on my mind and suddenly I feel the warmth of joy. I have wondered if God is seizing on the break in my doings to walk alongside me, put His arm around me, and convey His love.
At times I have wondered how to respond. When I try to turn to Him to enter into conversation, the joy sensation seems to diminish. I have concluded that I should respond in the same way I would if Nancy came alongside me. I would simply continue walking, hold her close, and be grateful for her company. At such times, nothing needs to be said.
Trying to Understand Joy
C.S. Lewis’ relates an experience of joy that was quite unexpected. While standing beside a flowering currant bush, he remembered a time when his brother had brought into their playroom a miniature garden – a biscuit tin filled with moss ( Surprised by Joy , 1956/1984, p. 16).
We might well ask what it was about remembering a simple, homemade, miniature garden that would inspire joy. Was God allowing Lewis to look down on the miniature scene much the way He looks down on us? Was it a testimony of order and the miracle of life?
Often we cannot express in simple words just what joy seemed intended to convey. Maybe the common message of joy is not a group of words. Maybe God’s recurrent message is that life is good and He presides. Maybe He wants us to know that we are safe in His able and loving hands. Maybe He wants us to know that He is mindful of us.
Even though we often cannot reduce joy to a simple message, I believe that its arrival is not random but is richly purposeful. God is not just randomly throwing candy like clowns in a parade. He is sending clues and reminders. It seems to me that if we note and seek to understand and apply each twinge of joy, we travel more directly to God.
A Growing Science of Joy
I have been surprised to find that even respected psychologists are interested in something very much like joy. Jonathan Haidt, a remarkable psychologist, studies scientifically something he calls elevation. See if this definition doesn’t sound suspiciously like the workings of the Spirit – and something we call joy:
- an eliciting or triggering condition (displays of charity, gratitude, or other virtues);
- physical changes in the body (“dilation” in the chest);
- a motivation (a desire of “doing charitable and grateful acts also”);
- And a characteristic feeling beyond bodily sensations (elevated sentiments). (Happiness Hypothesis, Page 195)
How Do We Get Joy?
Some would say that joy is the fruit of righteous living. I suppose that is true – except that none of us is righteous, as Paul said to the Romans (Romans 3:10). All of us have sinned and do sin. We regularly come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). So it does not seem natural to say that joy is the fruit of righteousness. If it were, none of us would have it.
I believe that joy is the fruit of being open to God. What do I mean by openness to God? I think it includes a combination of faith, humility, and mindfulness. Consider each of these elements:
Faith : The stubborn resolve to see God and His goodness in everything that happens
Humility : Living in a spirit of repentance, acknowledging our dependence on Him in all things
Mindfulness : Being filled with awareness and gratitude
These three elements are not really independent of each other. When we have soul-filling faith, we are naturally humble and mindful. They form one great whole. They open us up to God. Then comes joy, the heavenly signal that we are walking with God.
Bruce Hafen tells the story of a young man who had glorious gospel experiences but then, in college, ran up against questions for which he did not have full answers. The questions burdened him and threatened to swamp his testimony. Finally he simply chose to have a believing heart. He chose to honor what he already knew ( Broken Heart , p. 80). Big truths should not be at the mercy of small questions.
Making sense of a lifetime of joys may be somewhat like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. We may have a hard time seeing the picture taking shape, but we have the assurance that God sees the big picture. And He gives just the right puzzle pieces at just the right time.
The art of JoyMapping
Capturing joy is a little like approaching squirrels. When one of our grandkids spots a squirrel, he lunges toward it. Inevitably the squirrel runs away. If we can get the grandchildren to sit peacefully and watch quietly, the squirrels will settle in nearby. They will gather and eat seeds closer and closer. But they are exquisitely sensitive to any move to capture or control them.
When we chase joy directly, it eludes us. When we peacefully and faithfully watch God work, joy comes closer and closer. So joy isn’t something we seek directly. Joy is the natural byproduct of being connected with the Divine.
Joy is also unique in that it operates on a spiritual economy where abundance rather than scarcity is the natural state. And joy is contagious. Your joy does not rob me of mine. Just the opposite. Seeing your experience of joy can fill me with joy.
So, how do we increase our joy? The simple answer is probably the one that emerges from the parable of the talents. If we want more joy, we should make good use of the joy He has already given us. We should not bury it in the ground.
Who would bury joy in the ground? I think we all do. I cannot count the times that I have felt filled with joy in Sunday meetings only to find that, by evening time, I could not remember the ideas and instructions that accompanied the joy. God had delivered a priceless gift and I had lost it the same day.
As my friend Barbara reminds me, we also bury joy when we have a joy experience, appreciate it for a brief moment and then quickly default back to nursing our annoyances and grievances with life. Kind of like children on Christmas morning who are sitting amidst a mountain of wondrous presents and yet spend the bulk of the day pouting because they didn’t get one more thing – the one additional gift they thought they were going to get.
So, how do we become better stewards of joy?
1. Help past truths accumulate and integrate.
Years ago Elder Maxwell gave a talk in which he “inventoried his insights.” He itemized some of the things he had learned over decades of tutoring by God.
The goal is a worthy one. We can review the great experiences and discoveries of our lives. I have taken a page and listed the eras of my life: mission, early marriage, young family, new career, and so on. For each era I have listed discoveries and delights that blessed each period. It seems that God provided just the right truths at just the right time to bless us. This is a vital part of JoyMapping.
2. Record, share, and establish reminders of joy.
Some of us keep record of our daily doings. Even more important than that is keeping track of our periodic joys. I keep a separate journal for that purpose. Even when the joy is merely the flood of warmth attendant to singing “Tis Sweet to Sing the Matchless Love,” I make a note. Sacred gifts should not be taken lightly.
Every Sunday evening I write a letter to family and friends sharing our blessings and joys. I don’t tell about everything we do, just those things that are most clearly a gift from Heaven. I keep a copy of the letters. I call the collection of letters the small plates of Wally. They remind me to be grateful.
We also invite all guests at our Sunday dinner to share their best experiences of the day. God and goodness are unfailingly but subtly tucked into our best experiences.
We also surround ourselves with pictures and reminders of our beloved ancestors and cherished experiences. Every wall in our home testifies that God is blessing us.
3. Be grateful.
Let’s amend a scripture slightly:
“And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies [of His coming to our lives], that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins [and a fullness of joy]” (2 Nephi 25:26).
Our lives and conversations should be filled with gratitude for the Light and Life of our lives.
4. Act on your impressions.
Sometimes as I sit in sacrament meeting I feel an impression to call someone or to do a certain work on our family history. I write down the impression on a card and try to complete the assignment as soon as possible. When we honor the impressions God gives us, He provides more light and truth to us.
Lamoni’s father was willing to ” give up all that I possess, yea, I will forsake my kingdom, that I may receive this great joy” (Alma 22:15). When we adapt our lives to encourage joy and honor its messages, the joy grows brighter and brighter until that perfect day. Joy leads us along the path to God.