By IFFP Member David Bigge
This month’s blog post asks a direct question: how do we cultivate joy in dark or difficult times? Our religious traditions, of course, primarily link joy with faith. As Paul writes in Philippians chapter 4, verse 4: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!” Or as Psalm 5 tells us: “let all who take refuge in [God] be glad; let them ever sing for joy.”
Let’s start with that word, “rejoice.” It’s all over the Bible. It’s an odd word – a command. In my experience, particularly in fatherhood, commanding someone to be happy never works, particularly if they are unhappy. But of course, that’s not the intention of the word “rejoice.” Rather, rejoicing is an active verb. The Bible uses “rejoice” in order to emphasize that it’s not enough to feel joy – rejoicing means acknowledging joy and expressing it. Rejoicing is about outwardly showing gratitude. Acknowledging joy and expressing gratitude are themselves ways to enhance our experience of joy.
What do Faith or Religion Bring that Gives us a Reason for Rejoicing?
Judaism and Christianity offer lots of possible bases. I will highlight just two.
First, the faith of both Jews and Christians requires community, and communal events provide or enhance our experience of joy, particularly when times are hard. This faith community, IFFP, is itself a refuge, and a place where we can cultivate joy. Even online, our gatherings create a space for sharing joys we have found during this time, and meditating on their significance. Our gatherings are an opportunity for listening to music and singing. In other words, for rejoicing. The Jewish recognition of community as a cultivation of joy was the theme of the song we sing often at IFFP gatherings, Hineh Mah Tov, which quotes from Psalm 133: “Behold what is good when we come together in unity.” Or as Paul writes in Romans chapter 12: “Rejoice with those who rejoice.” That we create joy together as a faith community is also amply reflected in the lovely prayer Rabbi Debbie provided back in March, as quarantine began: “May we all find within us the companionship and friendship of our shared portion, and may we share our love and kindness with each other.”
Second, both the Tanakh and the Christian Bible tell us that joy comes from adhering to biblical commandments. You’ll recall of course that Jesus quoted from the Ve’ahavta — which we have already recited today — as the greatest commandment: that you should love God with all of your heart, soul, and mind. Jesus then added that the second greatest commandment is like the first: that you love your neighbor as yourself. This second commandment is a clear basis for cultivating joy. Psychologists have identified volunteerism, for example, as a source of happiness and mental well-being. Many of us have experienced the joy over the past few months that comes with service to our neighbors and communities. IFFP has organized some of those efforts, particularly through our Tikkun Olam groups. Our willingness to live out this commandment, and the joy we get from doing so, are an embodiment of our participation in this faith community.
We should also address the Book of Job. Job, of course, has little to say about joy or gratitude, but it has everything to say about difficult times. As you may recall, at the climax of the Job story, after his relentless suffering, Job is angrily arguing with three visitors about the relationship between righteousness and reward. These arguments go on for pages and pages. God suddenly intervenes and shuts this argument down by making clear that Job and his visitors know nothing of which they speak, and that while God is all-powerful, Job was powerless. At this, Job had no response, and was finally silent. He humbly accepted his situation, and this acceptance, according to the story, was a precursor to Job’s restoration.
The point here is that, to the extent faith and joy are linked, we may find inspiration outside of the optimistic faith of the Psalms and Proverbs. One key to cultivating joy in difficult times may be to start with the faith of Job – the faithful humility to acknowledge our own lack of understanding and the relative limits of our power. This is not a suggestion to be passive, particularly in the face of injustice, but it is a suggestion to be humble. It seems obvious that we cannot create joy from a place of anger or arrogance. There’s a reason this very concept is embedded in the Serenity Prayer – it’s a source of serenity to accept that while we must strive to change what we can, we cannot understand or change everything.
We can then move from this humble acceptance to mindful engagement with and gratitude for what we do have. The Bible supports this mindful gratitude as well. In Psalm 118 verse 24 we find the words that we often sing at IFFP: “This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” To cultivate joy, we cannot dwell on past events or worry about the unknowns of tomorrow. This day, today, is the day the Lord has made, and surely God has provided something in it to provide you with peace, joy, or even laughter.