The last two years have nurtured anxiety, fear, depression, heartbreak, righteous anger. The pain and suffering in people’s lives are palpable and, often times, paralyzing. Amid such suffering, we need to cultivate communities of resilient joy—communities that help people to understand joy and be open to it, and also to rejoice, as my friend Willie James Jennings says, “as a work of resistance against despair.”
In early 2016, I joined a team at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture to investigate joy. As someone who has studied the role of joy in day-to-day life as my job, I believe joy is an incredibly powerful companion during suffering. Yet this has been more than work for me. Less than a year after I was hired to research joy, within a period of four weeks, three of my family members unexpectedly died: my cousin’s husband, Dustin, at thirty, by suicide; my sister’s son, Mason, at twenty-two, of sudden cardiac arrest; and my dad, David, at seventy, after years of opioid use. While studying joy, I was speaking at funerals.
In the months after my family members’ deaths, even thinking about joy felt so absurd that I almost vowed to be anything but joyful. Right now, many people can relate to how I was feeling.
Joy in a Prison Bible Study
It was not until a year-and-a-half after my dad’s death that the team’s work on joy became urgent and meaningful to me again. One Sunday night at church, amid the fog of profound grief, I volunteered to join a team leading a Bible study at a women’s prison. It made no sense. I was at the end of myself, so to speak. But I said yes, and it changed my life, my faith, and my perception of joy.
During my first month of visits to the prison, I learned that our team primarily served the women in the mental health ward and the women on suicide watch. The majority of the women in the Bible study were serving time because of an addiction to heroin or crack cocaine. The building we served is largely a mental hospital and sober house, filled with women who have felt the sting of indescribable pain again and again (for most of them) beginning in early childhood.
My family’s suffering, my faith (and doubt), the suffering of the women I met, and my study of joy collided in that prison Bible study.
Suddenly, I began to understand joy, most especially joy amid suffering.
As I met with these women week after week, I realized they had an incredible capacity for welcoming joy. Many of these women were able to rejoice and to experience joy, even as they were living in dehumanizing conditions. There was something about the community we created together, a community without shame, where people were regularly invited to tell their stories, to speak truth to one another, to honestly and constructively work through grief, anger, and fear that made all of us more open to joy.
In The Gravity of Joy, I write about singing with these women:
At first, singing was my least favorite part of leading Bible study because I was incredibly self-conscious. Over time, it became my favorite part of the evening. The women would sing loudly and unashamedly, even if not on pitch, and I began to mirror them.
I guess one Wednesday night along the way, I realized that they were not insecure. Why did I need to be? We do not usually recognize that we enjoy having permission to be ourselves until we get that permission. When we do, it is incredibly freeing.
It is ironic for me to describe “finding freedom” behind so many locked doors. It is likely because I walked out at the end of every Wednesday evening.
Another reason I grew to love singing was because I stopped leading it most of the time. As it turned out, other women in the room had incredible gifts for leading music, and some had remarkable voices. I could just sit back and enjoy being led.
And I also learned to love it because of the transformation that happened in the room when we sang. We all came alive. It is as if the music was revival water for the dead parts of our souls.
We frequently sang a song called “Spring Up, O Well.” I sang this song many times, first as a child at camp, then at youth group, and then as a camp counselor while a college student. I bet most of you have sung it many times too. But of course, the line where we sing, “I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me . . . opens prison doors, sets the captives free,” has a different tonality, a far different meaning, when you sing it with exuberance together with women who are literally in prison.
One evening, we sang “This Little Light of Mine” especially passionately. We had begun the tradition, started by one of the women, of having different people in the circle create their own line to the song and then we would join in. For example, a woman might call out, “All up in this place,” and we would chime in, “I’m gonna let it shine!”
This particular night, everyone was out of their seats, and we were jumping and dancing and singing “This Little Light of Mine” so loudly that one of the corrections officers came into the room. She watched what was happening with amazement. She joined us and started clapping her hands and smiling.
As we sang, our ashes seemed to become crowns of beauty, our mourning turned to joy, and our spirits of despair transformed into praise.
Our music became an act of resistance to all of the forms of death that had happened and were happening in our lives. Our singing turned into embodied opposition to our fear, anger, and profound loss. Our joyful noise opposed the imprisonment of bodies, minds, and hearts.
Suddenly, we were rejoicing in what ought to be.
Our dancing, jumping, clapping, and singing together pushed against voices of despair that declared “You are alone,” “You are worthless,” or “There is no hope.”
The louder we sang and declared new truths, the more the voices saying to us, “You do not matter,” “Your grief will never lift,” or “Your struggle will never be overcome” were quieted.
It was healing joy.
In the very act of gathering—of committing to rejoice and to recognize what is good and true, and to declare our meaning and dignity through God’s love—we were participating in the very joy of God.
Joy Amid Suffering
Joy has grit. It does not break easily. Unlike happiness, it is not swayed by circumstances, by the conditions of our lives—whether excellent or heartbreaking. It can stare life’s most brutal moments down and live because it is made and sustained by those things that always remain, even when we cannot see them—truth, meaning, beauty, goodness, connection—God. We can be lamenting, and we can also be open to joy. In fact, I think it’s important that we remain open to joy in grief, that we trust that joy can find us in our suffering. Also, since joy is the recognition of the things that sustain us and make life significant, joy is not shallow or trivial. This is why joy is in fact the counteragent to despair.
We need a deeper understanding of joy in the workplace, in religious and educational institutions, in our families and friend circles because joy is not simply a good feeling. I truly believe it saves lives, because relationship, meaning, truth, beauty, goodness, these are things that make life worth living.
I’d love for you to consider along with me, “What if? What if we dedicated ourselves to nurturing communities of resilient joy?” If joy is “the tonality of Christianity,” as priest Alexander Schmemann contends, what would it take to make joy the way Christianity sounds?
Postured for Joy
In a world riddled with anxiety and depression, it is tempting to focus on mitigating mental distress. However, it is more important and beneficial to invite people in our communities to focus on being ready and prepared for joy. The aim of our lives, the goal of our affections, activities, and hopes matter deeply.
Nurturing communities of resilient joy begins with encouraging the community to seek to recognize and participate in God’s joy. From a theological perspective, joy is a far worthier aim than happiness (which is what many people in the US are seeking).
Adam Potkay traces the roots of happiness in his book The Story of Joy (Cambridge University Press, 2011). Potkay explains that eighteenth-century writers described public happiness in terms of “civic, social and material conditions for widespread individual flourishing.” Therefore, public happiness could be determined by “a calculus of material conditions.” Happiness tends to be the pleasurable feeling we get from having the sense that life is going well. Whereas happiness is generally the effect of evaluating our circumstances and being satisfied with our lives, joy does not depend on good circumstances. Joy can be related to current circumstances but does not have to be.
Nurturing communities of resilient joy begins with inviting one another to actively seek joy and teaching one another how to become more open to joy. We cannot manufacture the feeling of joy, but we can become postured for joy. We can live with open hands to receive it. Although joy is a gift, it has both a dynamic and receptive quality to it. So, in addition to preparation, we can also look, listen, and be open to the awareness that any thing, any person, any idea could unexpectedly seize us with joy. The thing is most of us are not consistently invited to live open to joy. Like anything else we become proficient at, we need to practice looking for joy.
One way to become more open to joy is to meditate on joyful experiences. Ministers are often trained to be witnesses to people’s pain. Many people in helping professions are qualified to help people reflect on and navigate crisis. In Joy and Human Flourishing (Fortress, 2015), Mary Clark Moshella writes about the importance of ministers also being equipped to help people to recall and meditate and learn from joyful memories too. We have to work hard to recall the good. The brain likes to remember the pain so it can protect us. What if part of our ministry was pastoral care for their joyful experiences? What if we regularly asked people to tell us stories about times when they felt unspeakable joy? What if we asked them to describe every detail, to take us back to that moment, and rejoiced with them?
I often lead people in joy meditations where we get into a comfortable position, close our eyes, do deep breathing, and bring to mind moments, stories, and thoughts that nurture joy. For example, I ask people to think about a time when someone was good to them or to reflect on something they know to be true about themselves, about God, about their community. Patrick Reyes outlines an incredible meditation in his new book The Purpose Gap Westminster John Knox, 2021), which helps people to imagine someone who has loved them speaking into their life. Nurturing communities of resilient joy looks like creating regular opportunities for the community to meditate on meaning, truth, goodness, beauty, and their relationships.
Digital and Physical Spaces for Joy
Nurturing communities of resilient joy also looks like creating literal space for joy.
Similar to a stadium where people anticipate jumping up and down in excitement when their favorite sports team wins, I hope people will enter into the digital and physical spaces you cultivate expecting to experience joy. At first, it would likely mean telling people regularly, “This is a space where you can express joy deeply. When you feel joy in this space, feel free to feel it openly.” Joy needs room. Joy needs freedom. And people need permission (from others and themselves) to express emotions.
We can literally design physical spaces for joy. I can imagine a joy wall in your community where people can use spray paint or markers to write their joys. There are a number of ways a joy wall could be an interactive, dynamic physical memorial to joy. For example, I can imagine inviting people (over time) to draw lines between various people’s joys that have been put on the wall to show how people’s experiences are connected to one another. In digital spaces, we can create memorials to joy too. I can imagine web pages that are beautifully designed odes to joy that our individuals in our community have shared.
In digital and physical spaces, we can also invite people to engage in practices that can elicit joy, practices that I describe as gateways to joy. Jürgen Moltmann says, “Hope is the anticipation of joy.” In other words, hope is one such gateway to joy. At the joy retreats I lead, I invite participants to make lists of their hopes. If we are meeting in person, they make them on flipchart paper that we hang around the space. If we are meeting online, they create their list on a shared Google document. Participants start with their hopes for the retreat weekend and then describe hopes they have for their personal lives, their households, their friend circles and neighborhoods, their states, nation, and the world.
Tactile activities like singing, dancing, shouting, and creating can be gateways to joy too. I imagine worship services happening in physical and digital spaces where people are invited to engage in embodied activities that help them to open up, to let down their walls so to speak, to move freely, and to literally become more open to joy.
Choosing to Rejoice
We cannot make the feeling of joy, but we can choose to rejoice over moments, people, circumstances, objects, truths. During in-person and online gatherings, people could get into breakout groups and talk together about things in their life they are grateful for and rejoice together over what has been named. In community, people can explore why joy is a work of resistance against despair, why joy is a subversive act in a culture that constantly nurtures entitlement, discontent, frustration, and pessimism.
Habakkuk 3:17–18 reads:
Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
Nurturing communities of resilient joy looks like developing communities that regularly rejoice as an act of love, of hope, of trust. We can rejoice in what has been, what is, and what ought to be.
Joy is the very being and presence of God ministering to us (Andrew Root, The End of Youth Ministry? [Baker Academic, 2020]). By being postured for joy, meditating on joyful experiences, expressing joy in physical and digital spaces, and rejoicing, we can cultivate communities of resilient joy that have eyes to see this loving God ministering to us, even and especially in suffering. And as communities embody God’s joy, they also embody the light that Jesus describes in Matt 5:14–16. It is the light of such communities that draws others in and provides a more hopeful and helpful way of navigating the difficulties of being human. In a world that can feel overwhelming and painful and cause people to look forward to death, it is a way that invites us to live and even more to live awake, and ready for joy.