Most people would generally agree that while related, joy and happiness are two different things. Happiness tends to be dependent on external factors, such as events, circumstances, people, places, and possessions. On the other hand, joy is something we cultivate internally. It runs much deeper than happiness, reaching into the very core of who we are. It is an enduring state of being that remains even when circumstances change.
Ultimately, God is both the source and sustainer of all joy. But we must still do our part. As I have studied joy over recent months and what it means to me, I’ve identified the following six areas that help me cultivate joy in my own life. It is my prayer that they will do the same for you.
1. Embrace Today
In our pasts, we may have been traumatized or hurt and it prevents us from fully experiencing the life we live now. In order to cultivate joy, it is essential that we invest an effort into putting our past into proper perspective.
In Isaiah 43:18-19, God tells us to “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” Naturally, “forget” is meant figuratively. It means that we make conscious choices to not give painful experiences power and authority over us. Further, we are told not to dwell in our pasts, not to live or remain there. Instead, we look ahead with anticipation toward the “new thing” and the “way and the streams” He promises.
Christine Caine, one of my favorite Christian authors and speakers, likens this concept to a trapeze. The flyer must entirely release the swing she is on in order to catch the one coming toward her. What a great analogy. It demonstrates that when we choose to release what lies behind, only then can we lay hold of what God offers us. And God is faithful, my friends, worthy of our trust. He never makes a promise He does not keep.
2. Be Grateful
This isn’t going to be the tired old “attitude of gratitude” lecture, I promise. With a little help from science, I’m suggesting a new twist that I hope will provide fresh motivation to make gratitude a lifestyle.
Dr. Caroline Leaf, a cognitive neuroscientist, has written and spoken extensively about the effects of healthy thoughts vs. toxic thoughts on the brain. In recent years, scientists have determined that our brain does not remain static after a certain age as once believed, but instead forms new neuropathways throughout our lives. Dr. Leaf discusses how toxic thoughts can adversely affect the development of these neuropathways and even cause harm to current ones, whereas healthy thoughts can help form and maintain new ones.
Sometimes, we fall into the trap of thinking about what we lack. This can lead to feelings of negativity, bitterness, discontent, and others. But feelings don’t start in a void. They start with our thoughts. Proverbs 18:21 tells us that the tongue (words we speak) have the power of life and death. Life and death. That includes all words, even those we speak to ourselves about ourselves and our circumstances.
The regular practice of being grateful leaves no room for such ruminating. Gratitude helps us generate healthy thoughts and legitimately benefits our brain function. Think about it. Who has time to entertain toxic thoughts when there is so much to be grateful for? Proverbs 16:24 says that “gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.” How gracious are the words that express gratitude.
Joy is an enduring state of being that remains even when circumstances change.
3. Bless Others
A friend of mine has a saying: “It takes very little to be above average.” When it comes to blessing others, this is especially true in today’s society where common courtesy is believed to be at an all-time low. With the extreme polarization and hostility that exists in our present culture, how much more will even the simplest gestures of kindness stand out.
Corinthians 9:6 explains the spiritual law of reaping and sowing. That spiritual law applies to blessing others. Proverbs 11:25 says, “Whoever brings blessings will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered.” Notice this verse says “will” (twice) and not “might.” And who exactly performs the enriching and watering? God himself. He waters our hearts and quenches our souls with everlasting joy, filling the deepest and most remote parts of ourselves.
Do you want to be watered and enriched? I sure do. Fortunately, there are countless ways to bless others. Write an encouraging note, hold a door open, give a small gift, and so on. Recently, a woman ahead of me in the checkout at an organic market asked about the odd assortment of dairy-free, plant-based “cheeses” I had waiting on the belt. I explained that I have a casein protein allergy and cannot eat dairy. In a good-natured way, she thought it so tragic that I couldn’t eat real cheese (and it is!) that she handed the checkout girl $5.00 toward my purchase. You can be sure that a joyful blessing awaits that sweet lady.
4. Set Limits
Jesus is a prime example of someone who knew how to set healthy limits. In today’s world, we call it setting boundaries. We could also say that some of his actions look a lot like what in today’s terms is called self-care.
Jesus was a man under enormous pressure. Religious leaders wanted to kill him, the sick and broken constantly cried out for help, demons required banishing, and his preaching ministry took him all over the countryside. But Jesus had no qualms about taking care of himself. When he needed solitude, he took it and often (Luke 5:16). When he needed rest, he rested, even sleeping on a boat in the middle of a storm (Matthew 8:24). He even said “no” initially when summoned to the bedside of his dying friend, Lazarus, which ultimately resulted in one of his most spectacular miracles (John 11). He said no and yes when he needed to. Yet never once did he fail to carry out his mission perfectly.
Ephesians 5:29 tell us: “For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church.”
You have God’s permission to nourish and cherish yourself—in a God-honoring way. When we have a healthy love for ourselves, only then can we truly love others well. If we don’t make time to care for ourselves, we can become resentful, angry, run down, grumpy, and most importantly, ineffective Kingdom ambassadors. As Christians, we are taught to love and sacrifice for others, but it must be in proper balance. Self-care is nothing to feel guilty about. Read a book, go for a walk, get a massage, study Scripture, pray. You’re not being selfish. You’re cultivating a joyful heart.
Feelings start in our thoughts.
5. Get Creative
On the tack board next to my desk at work hangs a little pendant inscribed with: “If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.” For me, that describes my general sense of frustration and uneasiness when I don’t regularly exercise my creative ability to write. Does that sound anything like you when it’s been too long since you’ve been creative? Well, here’s why.
Genesis 1:26 explains that we bare the image of the Supreme Creator. God himself, in His own likeness, has endowed every person with creative gifts. Exodus 35:31 says: “And He has filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding and in knowledge and in all craftsmanship.” When we neglect our creative gifts, we are contrary to our design and purpose. God has made us for good works (Ephesians 2:10).
Theologian Abraham Kuyper beautifully explains our creativity this way:
“As image-bearer of God, man possesses the possibility both to create something beautiful and to delight in it. … The world of sounds, the world of forms, the world of tints, and the world of poetic ideas, can have no other source than God; and it is our privilege as bearers of his image, to have a perception of this beautiful world, artistically to reproduce, and humanly to enjoy it.” (Abraham Kuyper; Calvinism, pp. 142,156-157)
6. Have Fun
Sometimes we can forget that the people in the Bible were actually, well, people. Just like us, they enjoyed life and had fun. They sang and danced. They enjoyed listening to music and poetry. There were feasts and festivals that lasted for days. King David had a blast leaping and dancing before the Ark (2 Samuel 6). The prodigal son’s father threw a fabulous party (Luke 15:11-32).
Jesus himself attended a wedding. Because he was fully human, he very likely enjoyed good-natured horseplay and comradery with his friends and followers. People invited him to their homes for dinner. In Luke 13:32 he wryly referred to the cunning Herod as a “fox.” He loved interacting with children. They, in turn, scrambled to climb into his lap, drawn to his warm, playful personality. After all, are kids drawn to grumpy people?
In James 1:17 we read, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” This includes the gifts of fun and entertainment. We enjoy having fun and laughing because God created us exactly that way, just like Himself. If you can’t picture God as humorous and fun-loving, think platypus!
Make plans to do fun, God-honoring things regularly. This is God’s desire for us. As Ecclesiastes 3 tells us at length, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” Fun—yes, fun—has a purpose under heaven. So go out there, have some fun, and up your joy quotient.
How gracious are the words that express gratitude.
As I have sought to cultivate joy in my own life, I have found that these six concepts have made a difference. My prayer is that they might help others do the same.
Looking for more articles about a grit + grace life? Check out:
When Bearing Their Burden Breaks You
3 Ways Positive Self-Talk Can Improve Your Life
Overcoming Shame in the Grit and Grace Life
Establishing Healthy Boundaries in the Grit and Grace Life
Building Faith: Growing in Your Relationship with God
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