For many of us, the last few years have been quite joyless for a multitude of reasons. Natural disasters, shifting paradigms, a pandemic, you name it. There’s more than enough reasons to not feel joyful.
But joy is an essential part of our faith. God designed His people to not only experience joy themselves but bring that joy into the world, sharing it with others in a multitude of ways. Of course, it can be difficult to spread joy when you don’t experience it yourself.
Thankfully, there’s more than a few ways to “jumpstart” your joy. With just a few spiritual practices, you can begin to experience joy in the big and small areas of your life, and you can help someone else experience true, everlasting joy, too.
Fasting isn’t one of the more popular spiritual disciplines. While it used to be a very common Church practice, it’s fallen more and more out of favor, becoming associated with a monastic way of living that isn’t exactly compatible with our modern way of living. For one thing, fasting isn’t fun. For another, it seems a little strange. What, exactly, is fasting supposed to do?
John Piper said that “Christian fasting, as its root, is the hunger of a homesickness for God.” While the ancient practice may seem out of step with contemporary living, that’s actually part of the point. Fasting is shaking up your rhythm by depriving yourself of something your body relies on so that you can rely on God instead. By removing a staple from your day, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to fill it with something else — something spiritual.
This doesn’t have to be 40 days. It doesn’t even have to be a day. Start by just skipping a meal and devoting the time you would spend eating to focusing on your relationship with God instead. Use the physical disruption to your spiritual advantage.
It really can’t be stressed just how much fasting was considered a normative part of a healthy spiritual life for the early Christians. If you want to revolutionize your spiritual walk, tapping into an ancient practice just might be the ticket.
If you’re fasting, the number one practice you should include alongside is prayer. But even if you’re not fasting, quarantine is a great time to shake up your prayer life.
Prayer looks like a lot of different things. For you, it might be a quick few sentences before you sleep or eat, or possibly some time you set aside in the morning or maybe just throughout the day. Whatever your habit, why not use this time to shake things up? Consider going under a long time without coming up for air — devoting 30 minutes or maybe even an hour to simply listening to God.
And this is listening to God. Too often, our prayers just look like firing a few wants and needs up towards the ceiling. Instead, consider letting God talk to you. Get somewhere quiet, away from your phone, and just open your mind up to what God might be trying to say to you. If you’re not used to this kind of meditation, even just a few minutes could feel like an eternity. But like any good exercise, you’ll get better at it over time — and you’ll start to see results.
“Lament” is another common scriptural practice — so common that there’s a whole book in the Old Testament named after it. It’s not really part of our spiritual vocabulary anymore since we tend to think God’s got better things to do than listen to us whine and complain, and that’s unfortunate. The great heroes of the Bible — from David to Jeremiah to Jesus himself — were meticulous about crying out to God out of pain, disappointment and depression.
“Why did I not perish at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?” Job asked in chapter three of the book that carries his name. “O my God, I cry out by day, and you answer not; by night, and there is no relief for me” the Psalmist prays in Psalm 22:3. The Bible makes it clear that people who love God don’t have to be shy about their despair. In fact, Paul instructs believers to “mourn with those who mourn” in Romans 12:15. Lamenting isn’t just allowed. If someone you love is sad, you’re commanded to join them.
And plenty of people are sad right now. Many are mourning the loss of a loved one to the COVID-19 pandemic. Others are facing personal and professional disruptions brought on by quarantine. Black Americans are enduring the agony of a justice system that doesn’t treat them fairly while many immigrants live in fear of xenophobia in their communities. None of these tragedies should leave Christians unmoved, even if they don’t feel personally impacted by them. Reach out to the people in your life and listen to them. Ask them questions. Learn where they’re hurting so that you know how to mourn alongside them.
Lamenting is simply another part of your prayer life — the part where you go to God with sorrows you’re feeling in your own life and seeing in the world around you. And as you do so, remember Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
Remember that verse from Romans we talked about earlier? “Mourn with those who mourn?” The first part of that verse is the other side of the coin: “Rejoice with those who rejoice.”
Singing. Dancing. Laughing. Being creative. These are all things that can foster a sense of joy in you, even when there doesn’t seem to be much to celebrate. Nehemiah wrote that “The joy of the Lord is your strength” — meaning that joy can also be part of helping you endure difficult times. This is much more than just “focusing on the positives” or “having fun.” It’s a spiritual discipline of learning to cultivate a spirit of celebration within yourself.
Send notes of encouragement and fun to friends and family. Get up a little earlier just to enjoy a peaceful morning before your day takes off. Think of something you really do love to do, and then set aside a little time to do it — even if it’s as simple as going for a long walk, scratching your pet’s head or listening to a favorite song with no distractions. Celebration is discipline and it’s one you can lose if you don’t practice it regularly. But if you stick with it, the spiritual rewards will make themselves clear.
Serve is last on the list because, in a way, it’s the culmination of all of these things. Serving others is a lot more than just doing nice things for other people. Truly serving your neighbor takes a connection to God and a love of your neighbor that’s been cultivated by time spent in prayer, mourning and celebration. When communing with God is part of your daily routine, you’ll be more open to the ways God might be directing you to help other people. And if you’ve taken the time to mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice, then you’ll be in tune with their needs and how you can best serve them. It could look like meals, money or other resources. It could also look like giving a listening ear. There are endless ways to serve others and the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it.