The Discipline of Joy
By Dr. Becky L. Towne, Academic Dean, Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program, and Professor of Christian Spirituality at Houston Graduate School of Theology When I paint a little girl’s fingernails with a rainbow of colors and she thinks that is “so cool” while erupting in laughter, that is pure joy. When my arms are filled with a new set of twin grandchildren and I can’t stop smiling, that seems like pure joy to me too. But when I study James and read the second verse of that general epistle, I struggle with how facing trials of any kind should be considered “nothing but joy.”
The more I studied, the more I understood that joy didn’t describe the trials as much as it did the opportunity to learn endurance, which leads directly, according to the author, to spiritual maturity and completeness (wholeness). I know that joy doesn’t appear in the lists of classic spiritual disciplines, but it does seem to fit. The classic disciplines are things like study, prayer, worship, simplicity, submission, and more. The practice of the disciplines leads to maturity, spiritual deepening, and, yes, even endurance.
I wondered what it might be like to consider joy a spiritual discipline as well. The passage in James is a case in point. “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jas 1:2-4 NRSV). The trials I face may be quite different than the trials of 1st-century Christians. However, men and women throughout time seem to face trials similarly—with fear and dread. What if I practiced looking forward to what the trial might produce—with the “discipline” of joy—rather than allowing fear and dread to rule?
This is a tall order, but one I have been considering. I might not think, “This is so cool,” like the little girl with rainbow nails, when trials are in my path. But it could be a way to do what James encourages his readers to do—to count whatever is learned from the time of trial as pure joy, ahead of time, while the trial is going on! I think I need to learn the discipline of joy.