“These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” Jesus (John 15:11)
Is there someone in your life who lights up when you walk into the room? Or perhaps a person in your past that was happy to be with you and you knew it? After this paragraph, pause reading and take a few minutes to think about a time in your life when you had an experience of knowing someone was glad to be with you. Don’t worry, I’ll remind you. If it helps, sit in a comfortable chair, close your eyes, and think about it for a few minutes remembering as many details as you can about the experience. The sights, sounds, maybe smells? Hopefully good smells. Where were you and who were you with? What were you talking about and what were you doing?
Now that you are back, what word would you use to describe how you feel? I’m guessing it’s something like—happy, joyful, calm, or peaceful.
Those who know me well, know that I have been “geeking out” recently on the intersection of brain science and the Christian faith reading many books over the last several months on these subjects. They know this because I won’t shut up about it. Since they won’t listen anymore, I decided to write this blog. Now they’ve stopped reading. For those who are still here, thank you. Read on. I really think this stuff can transform the way we love and serve each other in small group life and life in general.
I’ve learned that brain science defines the word joy or relational joy as “the experience of knowing someone is glad to be with us; likewise it is the experience of being glad to be with someone or remembering these moments.” Joyful Journey by Wilder, Kange, J. Loppnow and S. Loppnow. Jim Wilder says, “Our brains desire joy more than any other thing.
We will either get genuine joy through God and others who are glad to be with us or we will resort to what I’ll call fake joy like our phones, our social media, our guilty pleasures, and our entertainment that draw us in with dopamine hits and empty promises of fulfillment. Hey, I’m as guilty of falling for fake joy as much as the next person. But I’m learning how much better genuine joy is, as slow as my learning may be going.
Recently I came home from an evening meeting and heard my mom loudly say “Is that my baby boy!?” with excitement in her voice as she walked up the steps to greet me. As a fifteen-year-old punk, I would have been embarrassed. As a twenty-five-year-old prideful attorney, I would have been slightly embarrassed and certainly wouldn’t have written about it. However, as a forty-five-year-old guy obsessed with brain science books, I must admit—I felt joy! My mom was happy to be with me and I with her.
I hope there was at least one person from your past who brought you relational joy and pray that there is at least one person in your life right now who lights up when they see you. We need more of it in the world. You likely need more of it in your life. I was talking to a friend recently on brain science and the definition of joy when he asked “Are there many people in your life who are happy to see you?” I quickly responded “Yes, I feel very blessed that there are people at home, at work, in my neighborhood and at church who are glad to be with me. But…” I continued, “…there are those who I know aren’t happy to be with me or see me.”
My stream of thought expressed in conversation made a quick transition from those who produce joy to those who don’t—before I really realized what I was saying. And this is the opposite side of the proverbial joy coin—those who aren’t happy to see us and we know it. The controlling co-worker, narcissist neighbor, or fear-fueled family member who prefer to give you stink eye, side-eye, or no eye (ignoring you) rather than being relational. Someone is likely coming to your mind now who fits this category. Now how do you feel? Instead of joy, you are likely feeling fear, stress, anger, or anxiety. Brain science and scripture offer us clues on how to love these people despite their disdain for us. How to stay in joy with difficult circumstances or difficult people. We are called to love and be relational with our enemies and those who persecute us as Christ followers even though it’s not easy.
My hope is that you have more joy filled people in your life than fear fueled people. And, may I add, a joy inducing animal or two around. Whether I leave for 7 minutes or 7 hours, my dog Gracie greets me at the door with a look in her eyes and a wagging tail that screams “I’m happy you are home, happy to be with you, happy, happy! Now, are you ready for a hike?” What a joy to be greeted this way.
People and pets who are happy to be with us give us joy. Did you know the God of the Bible is happy to be with you in a similar yet way more profound way?
“The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.” (Numbers 6:24, NIV)
This verse seems to say that God lights up when he sees you! He turns his face toward you and shines on you which will produce joy and shalom in your life. If people can give us joy in this way, how much more so the God of the universe? The very one who created you in his image. As my Grandma Menke used to say and write on cards, “Smile, God loves you!” We can smile with ease at God and others because he first smiled at us! My grandparents were two people who would light up when I walked into the room. I can still hear my grandpa’s raspy voice saying “Heeeyyyyy Tiger!” when visiting him in Hinckley, Ohio as a young child. Oh, how I miss them and yearn to hear him say that in heaven some day! Although I have a strong hunch that my grandma won’t need to remind me to smile anymore when I’m there. It will be automatic. We won’t need to work on joy anymore.
Whether you are a person of faith or not, I’d like to challenge you this Holiday season in several areas. First, memorize the Numbers Bible verse above and picture God smiling at you every day for a week. Smile back. Even if you don’t believe in the God of the Bible, or God at all, try it just for fun. I promise, it won’t hurt. It may, as the verse says, even give you peace. Second, light up when someone you love walks into the room. Make eye contact and show them you are happy to be with them. Do it regularly, especially when you don’t feel like it. Watch how it begins to transform your relationships. Third, read or listen to a book on the amazing things we’ve learned about the brain in recent years and how this can help us love each other, even our enemies as Jesus commands, rather than operate in the enemy mode growing more common day by day. An easy and practical one is called The 4 Habits of Joy-Filled People by Marcus Warner and Chris Coursey. For those who love their local church and want to actively bring more joy to it, I recommend The Other Half of Church by Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks who beautifully write about brain science and overcoming spiritual stagnation in the Christian faith. I have many more recommendations in this area, including the science behind the enemy mode our brains get into, if you end up really getting into it like I have. It’s ok, really. I’m totally fine. Just ask my family or friends. On second thought…
I named this article “Joy to the World” in part because I believe the intersection of brain science and genuine Christianity has much to offer on just that. The title is also a reminder of the famous Christmas song bearing the same name sung in churches around the world this time of year. We learned in a recent sermon from Pastor Jeff that a careful study of this song reveals that it is not about the first coming of Jesus that we celebrate at Christmas. Instead, the song is about the second coming of Christ that will happen one day soon. One last challenge. What can you do from this Christmas season until Christ comes again to bring genuine joy to your world and the world? You know we need it.
Director of Adult Ministries