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Draw near: Praying for joy

Lynne Baab • Tuesday December 13 2022

Draw near: Praying for joy

“These days I find myself curious about what it means to approach joy as a practice, and to receive it as a grace that God offers. . . . I have been pondering how practicing joy involves asking for it, preparing a place for it, praying to be open to it so that we can recognize it when it appears.”
—Jan Richardson, poet, artist, and Methodist minister [1]

Jan Richardson’s words about joy jumped out at me because I don’t do what she suggests. I don’t ask God for joy, prepare a place for it, or ask God that I would be open to it. The concept of joy has always been troubling for me because I have a hard time untangling it from the hyper-optimism I was raised with. The toxic optimism of my childhood feels like a form of severe denial, and I have wanted no part of it.

I suspect that I have engaged so enthusiastically in the practice of thankfulness because it makes an end run around denial to get to joy, even though I have hesitated to use the word “joy” as I think about giving thanks. For me, thankfulness involves noticing gifts in this specific moment and thanking the giver (or Giver), which builds relationship between the giver and recipient. I have never been interested in an “attitude of gratitude” because those words are often connected to optimism. Instead, I want to notice specific gifts and thank the one (or One) who gave that gift to me.

To my daughter-in-law: “These garlic mashed potatoes are amazing. Thanks for taking the extra steps to make them so special.”

To my son: “Thanks for making the trek to Tacoma to pick up Mom for Thanksgiving dinner.”

To my granddaughter: “These place cards are so thoughtful and cute. Thanks for making them for us.”

To my husband: “Thanks for the countless ways you have loved me all year.”

To God: “Thanks for creating turkeys, potatoes, and pumpkins. Thanks for placing me in a family. Thanks for so, so many gifts over the past year.”

You may think I’ve gotten off track about joy, but as I typed all those words that I expressed at Thanksgiving, I felt joy. Thankfulness opens me to joy.

The Psalms mention joy 54 times. (You can read all the verses here.) As I scrolled through the verses where joy is mentioned, I was surprised by how many of those verses I know by heart. One of them highlights the connection between joy and thankfulness: “You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures for evermore” (Psalm 16:11). In my experience, when we pay attention to the pleasures God gives us and express our thanks, we experience joy in God’s presence.

Here are some other verses about joy in the Psalms, my attempt at a somewhat representative sampling:

“O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!” (Psalm 95:1, 2)

“My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Psalm 84:2).

 “Let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy” (Psalm 96:12).

“Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

The New Testament mentions joy 68 times. (You can read all the verses here.) I am particularly fond of Jesus’ words to his disciples in the Upper Room on the night he was arrested (John 13 to 17), and the word “joy” appears there six times. Jesus describes joy as a result of knowing him:

“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15.11).

“So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you (John 16:22).

When the Apostle Paul lists the fruit of the Holy Spirit in his letter to the Galatians, joy is the second item on the list (5:22-23). Joy comes from knowing Jesus. Joy comes from being filled with the Holy Spirit. Jesus and Paul seem to emphasize the way joy is a natural outcome of being close to Jesus and allowing the Holy Spirit to work in us.

Maybe you, like me, need to approach joy from the side rather than head on, acknowledging the presence of sorrow and sadness in the world, while also being open to receiving God’s gifts each day. However we approach it, we can expect that joy will be a part of our lives in Christ. Jan Richardson encourages us to expect it, make space for it, and ask God for openness to it. I’ll leave you with her words again, so you can ponder how her ideas might stimulate your prayers.

“These days I find myself curious about what it means to approach joy as a practice, and to receive it as a grace that God offers. . . . I have been pondering how practicing joy involves asking for it, preparing a place for it, praying to be open to it so that we can recognize it when it appears.”

(Next week: The freedom not to have words as we pray. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”)

Ironically (for someone who has avoided talking or even thinking about joy very often), my book on communal spiritual practices has the title Joy Together. My editor for that book, Jana Riess, came up with the title. She wanted to communicate the deep joy of meeting God together with others.

Related posts:

[1] Jan Richardson is quoted in “On Art: Jan Richardson’s That We Might Receive This Joy” in Christian Century, December 2022. Rev. Richardson has created two beautiful self-guided Advent/Christmas retreats filled with art and poetry, downloadable as pdfs from her website: “The Sanctuary Between Us” and “A Path Called Solace.”

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