A Few Ways to Nurture Joy

By: Ian Wooldridge

I’m pretty excited about the latest addition to the Wooldridge apartment: a bell.

Yes, a bell.­

Like the one you ring?

Yes, like the one you ring.

But not just any bell: a celebration bell.

It may seem like a weird addition to hang on an apartment wall, but my wife Jordie and I are after something: nurturing celebration.

So, if anything worth celebrating happens in our lives — no matter how “small” — we ring the celebration bell in a moment of grateful defiance against the illusion and apathetic posture that we all can fall into if we’re not careful: that life is anything but sacred.

Blue Bell ice cream usually follows.1

Celebration can seem like a hard word to come across these days, huh? Not that our 24/7 news cycle really had a lot of headlines and news updates that screamed joy and celebration in the first place, but especially now, it doesn’t help. Celebration just feels kind of distant, doesn’t it?

Like it’s something that we’re supposed to do after the pandemic,
orafter quarantine,
or after we can start meeting in big groups again,
or after we can go eat that awesome meal at our favorite restaurant once more.

If we’re not careful, celebration can be squashed right out of our lexicon as we continue to progress in this season. The more that we speculate, and the more that we keep up with the numbers and updates, our human proclivity to bend towards negativity and pessimism can strongly be reinforced. Instead, we have to counter this by nurturing the celebration and joy part of our brain.

Yes, there is a celebration and joy center in your brain. Check out what Jonathan Grant writes — this is too good:

Neurologists have shown that while most brain development stops sometime in childhood, the brain’s ‘joy center’ — located and observable in the right orbital prefrontal cortex — is the only part of the brain that never loses its capacity to grow. 2

Grant continues:

As Dr. James Friesen and his colleagues explain: When the joy center has been sufficiently developed, it regulates emotions, pain control and immunity centers; it guides us to act like ourselves; it releases neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin… without sufficient “joy strength” we spend the rest of our lives trying to fill the deficit. 3

Our brain literally has a “joy center.”

How cool is God?!

And not only that: this “joy center” can be nourished, nurtured, and cultivated, therefore grown and expanded.

Again: how cool is God?! And what an invitation!

But it’s just that: an invitation. Henri Nouwen once said:

Joy is essential to the spiritual life. Whatever we may think of or say about God, when we are not joyful, our thoughts and words cannot bear fruit… Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day. 4

Joy doesn’t happen to us — we get to grow it. So, I want to explore a few ways that you can begin to nurture celebration and joy, right where you’re at; a few ways that you can fuel that “joy center” in your brain.

The Practice: Nurture Celebration and Joy

1. Have a Celebration Ritual

I know the word “ritual” gets a bad rap, but practice and repetition are essential to developing growth of any kind. For my wife Jordie and I, we like to ring our “celebration bell.” It helps keep us on the lookout for God’s hand in our lives, and how to respond with gratitude and celebration.

Like I said in a previous blog, we’re weird — and we love it.

What could your ritual be?

A special meal? A moment to pause, close your eyes, and pray? A dance party with your favorite playlist?

C’mon, there has to be something!

Whatever that looks like for you, pursue that, and get in the habit of pausing to celebrate when God moves in cool ways in your life.

2. Fill Your Mind With the Good, True, and Beautiful

I love what Paul says in Philippians 4: Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him… by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. 5

The legendary N.T. Wright, in his commentary on this passage, writes this:

The command [in Philippians 4, verse 8] to think about all the wonderful and lovely things listed here, runs directly opposite to the habits of mind instilled by the modern media. Read the newspapers: their stock-in-trade is anything that is untrue, unholy, unjust, impure, ugly, of ill repute, vicious and blameworthy. Is that a true representation of God’s good and beautiful world? How are you going to celebrate the goodness of the creator if you feed your mind only on the places in the world which humans have made ugly? 6

It may not be a newspaper for you (what are those?), but what is your newsfeed, news app, or media habits filling your mind with? It may be a wise and healthy choice to not just examine what is filling your mind, but how much of it is filling your mind. Just as the “joy center” can be nurtured, the opposite is true, too: it can be suppressed.

How about trying some good news every once in a while? John Krasinski could help you out with that. 7

Wright continues, with a challenge:

How are you going to take steps to fill your mind instead with all the things that God has given us to be legitimately pleased with, and to enjoy and celebrate?8

Friends, let’s be intentional about what’s entering our minds — not just now, but beyond this season. This is how we nurture that “joy center.” What steps could you take?

3. Work Gratitude Into Everything

In an article called Learning from Jesus’ Jewish Prayer Life, Lois Tverberg describes a Jewish pattern of prayer that encourages people to gratefully “bless the Lord” at all times and for any occasion:

What was this wonderful style of prayer? It is the habit of “blessing” the Lord. It is an attitude of continual thankfulness toward God that expresses itself through brief prayers that acknowledge him as the source of every good thing. It ultimately comes from the Scriptures, when Moses admonished the Israelites not to forget the Lord [Deuteronomy 8:10-11]. 9

This “blessing” is the Hebrew word barak, which, Tverberg continues, is “a brief ‘prayerlet’ that reminds you to stop and praise God for every good thing.” 10 The prayer — from before the time of Jesus, during the time of Jesus, as He would’ve practiced it, and even to now — begins with this line: “Blessed are you, oh Lord our God, King of the Universe.” For short, it’s often prayed “Blessed is He…” and then you continue with what it is that you’re pausing to thank God for; and it’s meant for any and all occasion. 11

What could that look like for you? Where could you stop and bless the Lord throughout your day? Maybe it’s when…

We see an open parking space:
Blessed is He for this parking space.

(When we thank Him for the “small” things — like an open parking space — we begin to see His hand in our lives more; His hand that was there all along.)

When we have a good meal:
Blessed is He for this food and for this flavor.
 
When we catch a stunning sunrise:
Blessed is He for this sunrise.
 
When we notice a bird and hear it sing:
Blessed is He for that bird over there.
 
When we’re caught up in a beautiful melody:
Blessed is He for good music.
 
When the rain comes and refreshes the earth:
Blessed is He for the rain.
 
When we’re with people we love:
Blessed is He for the people in my life.
 
When we’re enjoying that tree, or that view, or that mountain, or that park:
Blessed is He for nature.
 
When we drive our cars or ride our bikes:
Blessed is He for this means of transportation.
 
No matter what, no matter when, no matter where:
Blessed is He…

I think there’s a lot that we can learn from the “Jewishness” of Jesus, here. Again, how could you be more intentional with regularly thanking and blessing God for the good, true, and beautiful throughout your day?

Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:18 to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 12

The more that we look for things to be grateful for in our lives, the more that we’ll see God’s hand, His beauty, and His presence in our lives — even for something as “small” as that parking space.

John Mark Comer once said, “Work gratitude into the fabric of your being, practice it constantly — all day long!”

You’ve probably seen it to be true: deeply joyful people tend to be deeply grateful people.

So, there we have it:

a celebration ritual,
filling your mind with things to celebrate instead of things to curse,
and being on the lookout for things to be grateful for.

A few things that will help nurture that “joy center” in your brain.

A few invitations to keep in mind that will, overtime, help us to become the kinds of people who are filled with celebration, and joy, as naturally as a tree bears fruit13 — who deeply enjoy life with God, even when it’s hard.

 

NOTES:

  1. Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough all the way.
  2. Jonathan Grant Divine Sex: A Compelling Vision for Christian Relationships in a Hypersexualized Age ( Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015).
  3. Ibid.
  4. https://henrinouwen.org/meditation/joy/, emphasis mine.
  5. Philippians 4:4,8. MSG.
  6. Tom Wright Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters – Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon (New Testament for Everyone) (United Kingdom: SPCK, 2011).
  7. You can find the Some Good News YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCOe_y6KKvS3PdIfb9q9pGug. They’re pretty fun!
  8. Wright, Paul for Everyone.
  9. https://ourrabbijesus.com/articles/blessings-everywhere/
  10. https://ourrabbijesus.com/articles/a-blessing-for-every-occasion/
  11. https://ourrabbijesus.com/articles/blessings-everywhere/
  12. This is from the NIV.
  13. See Luke 6:43-45, and then check out Galatians 5:22-23. Notice that joy is a fruit of the spirit. Joy isn’t something that we necessarily should try really hard to have; it’s a natural result — like a tree that naturally bears fruit — over time, of rooting ourselves deeper and deeper in the soil of life with Jesus (that is, abiding in Him, to use Jesus’ language in John 15:5).

2 Responses to “A Few Ways to Nurture Joy”

  1. Rebecca Colbert says:

    Thanks, Ian, for a new perspective on Joy! Always learning!

  2. Like!! Thank you for publishing this awesome article.

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