Being happy seems to be a bit of a holy grail in our world today. Like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, it seems ever desirable but equally elusive. Everyone seems to be chasing it, and hoping to find it in the next job, relationship, house, or vacation. But so many are unhappy. Deeply, painfully, unhappy. Yet we are commanded in the Bible to rejoice. How is this possible if we’re feeling miserable? You can’t just switch emotions on like that, can you?
Not only can God instruct us to rejoice, but He has given us everything we need to do it. Understanding this is a wonderful treasure. What better time to consider these things than Feast of Sukkot, the Season of our Joy!
Season of our joy
At the Feast of Tabernacles (also known as the Feast of Booths, or Sukkot in Hebrew) God makes it plain that misery is off the menu:
“You shall keep the Feast of Booths for seven days, when you have gathered in the produce from your threshing floor and your wine press. You shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are within your towns. For seven days you shall keep the feast to the Lord your God at the place that the Lord will choose, because the Lord your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you will be altogether joyful.” (Deuteronomy 16:13-16)
“You shall rejoice”, He says, and be “altogether joyful”. Well alright then! So how is this done, if we’re feeling glum?
Happiness (or the lack of it) tends to be related to what is happening around you, things we cannot necessarily control. The death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a family disaster, a terrible mistake or failure… such things will inevitably impact our emotions. Similarly, happy circumstances can put us on cloud nine—finding something you thought was lost for good, a new romance, the long awaited arrival of a baby, an exciting adventure, or a promotion… but equally inevitable is the fact that the delight doesn’t seem to stick around for long. A newer, better version of what you finally got suddenly comes on the market, bills arrive, diapers need changing, your beloved’s habits drive you nuts. Disenchantment soon sets in. Happiness comes… and then goes. It seems fickle and uncontrollable. So how can we possibly generate it on command?
Perhaps our wise God is talking about something slightly different to the world’s flimsy version of happiness.
Joy and happiness are not unconnected, of course, but rejoicing and being joyful are things we can always do, if we have learnt how.
Joy is superior to happiness in many ways. Unlike happiness, it doesn’t depend on what is happening but is sturdy and long-lasting. We are not subject to its mysterious comings and goings like the elusive Gandalf but instead we can learn the secret of true contentment. And yes, the kind of satisfaction that puts a broad smile on your face and a spring in your step. Emotions are important, but experts are now discovering that we have more say over the engine that pulls those carriages of emotion around than many realize. Emotions are pulled by our thoughts, and the good news is that even though it’s hard to control emotions, we can control our thoughts. With consistency, we will see real changes as we direct the way we think. Our minds and thought life are key, and over time, healthy decision-making will have an inevitable effect on our emotional life. We can, with practice, choose to be happy.
Believing brain experts like Dr Caroline Leaf and Dr Daniel Amen found in their research that—surprise surprise—God was right! If we choose to forgive, dwell on good things instead of bad, choose faith instead of fear and anxiety, if we believe the best, live in gratitude, and look out for others before our selves, guess what: we will be much happier people. These statements might sound easier said than done, but research shows that even within 90 days significant change can be made to the structure of the brain. Their happy findings and practical recommendations can be easily found online and in your local bookshop.
Secular experts are also making the same discoveries: we can alter our disposition with simple practices and disciplines.
Psychologist, Shawn Achor, explains in his TED talk1 that we have been thinking about things backwards—instead of waiting to be happy before we can really get going, there are practical things we can do to make ourselves happy. Academic research led him to make these five recommendations to literally rewire our brains to become happier people:
Think of three new things to be grateful for each day (Emmons & McCullough, 2003)
Journal your thoughts and experiences (Slatcher & Pennebaker, 2006)
Exercise (Babyak et al., 2000)
Meditate (Dweck, 2007)
Do random acts of kindness (Lyubomirsky, 2005)
Handbook to happiness
These findings are not new. It’s all been in the Bible for thousands of years. Thanking God is something we are commanded to do repeatedly throughout the Scriptures (eg. Ephesians 5:20), but did you know it actually changes the structure of your brain? Neural pathways are trained to look for positive things to be grateful for, so we become accustomed to seeing the good rather than the bad. This inevitably makes you a happier person over time. God knew this. And that is why He tells us to give thanks.
Journalling is a great way to obey God’s command to remember all the good things He has done for us. When we forget, idolatry sets in, as ancient Israel showed and, if we’re honest, we probably see it in our own lives too. Psychologist Jordan Peterson says that people who invest time writing about our lives “become happier, less anxious, less depressed, and physically healthier”. Reflecting on what has happened, both good and bad, taking note of our walk with God and answered prayers is a great way of keeping us on track emotionally, as we remember God’s faithfulness to us… and don’t forget all His benefits! (Psalm 103). Achor said that the reason exercise has such an affect on our mental wellbeing is that it trains us to know that what we do with our bodies is important. Self discipline worked out in action is evidence of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives (Galatians 5:22-25). We are to act out our faith, and take care of our bodies which are temples for God’s Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
While secular academics might have a different idea of meditation, the Bible tells us how important it is to meditate on the word of God. As it is written in Joshua 1:8,
This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.
Similarly, Psalm 1 shows that the one who meditates on the word is happy, blessed, and full of delight! The Bible cleans us and trains our brains for right thinking. Lastly, we are to be His vessels of mercy to others, seeking to love and bless wherever we go. As believers we are to walk in good deeds as a way of life!
While God commands us to rejoice at Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, He has also graciously embedded the very tips that will help us to be full of joy within the instructions for the occasion. It’s a time for gratitude, a time to remember traveling with God in the desert, and His miraculous rescue and provision so we don’t forget and take it for granted. Sukkot a very active holiday that involves building a physical structure—a hut to eat and even sleep in for the week-long festival. It’s designed to provoke meditation on the temporary nature of this earthly tent, and contemplate the Promised Land, the permanent city to come. It’s also a time for generosity and hospitality. All five top tips from Shawn Achor for happiness are written into the Levitical instructions for “The Season of our Joy”.
With a God like this who knows how we are wired, is it any wonder that even persecuted believers in prison are able to rejoice? We are no longer subject to the events of life but if we are ready to follow our Father’s instructions, can have joy even in very trying circumstances. God has given us great weapons against the fear and despair all around us and we can live in an oasis of peace that passes all understanding as we keep our minds fixed on Him. Regardless of what’s going on, if we are in the Messiah, we are forgiven and free. Our destiny is secure and our future is glorious! This joy of our salvation can carry us through all manner of challenges in this world, when we remember they are only temporary. Like a sukkah. But we are headed to the City of the Great King.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonablenessbe known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7)
Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash