Fascinating brain scans actually validate that joy is at the center of God's plan, not a peripheral bonus. See below for more info.
Of course, this truth is obvious in scripture, yet sometimes impersonal church doctrines and joyless church environments may unconsciously teach that relational joy is not central. Brain design disagrees.
Much of this material is commentary from Jim Wilder's important book:
Joy Starts Here and the radio shows below.
Frank Pastore Interviews Jim Wilder
Show 1 (39min., MP3, 18MB)
Show 2 (40min., MP3, 18MB)
Show 3 (40min., MP3, 18MB)
Show 4 (62min., MP3, 28MB)
Show 5 (83min., MP3, 76MB)
Show 6 (40min., MP3, 36MB)
Show 7 (22min., MP3, 20MB)
According to studies of scans:
Your brain is designed to default to joy—that's its normal baseline. Stress, fear, anxiety are all anomalies! Those are protective reactions, but the circuitry is supposed to reset back to joy as the center, not the reverse. That's astounding.
Also, joy is relational, not rational; yet our approach to science, religion, and even relationships tends toward the latter. In fact, the brain experiences measurable growth when there is relational satisfaction. i.e., Love.
Brain scans can even determine who, over their life time, has had a deficit of relational satisfaction, by measuring the amount of brain growth in the joy centers. (Even animals can smell your oxytocin release and tell if you really enjoy their presence.)
In addition, appreciation/gratitude/thanksgiving all enhance brain neuron connections and naturally lead to personal/relational sharing. They go together neurologically. In other words, joyful satisfaction between persons (spirits) is both deeper and more central than mere pleasure satisfaction (bodies). We almost always treat that in reverse.
For example, Jim reports that a polite, social smile and a genuine, authentic smile occur in different parts of the brain, and are not interchangeable. We easily notice the difference between a bad actor's fake smile and a good actor's convincing one. This is because a good actor treats the role from "inside", are not just from "outside" it—and viewers can tell the difference.
Important Distinction: Love's Core vs. Love's Avenues
Note that the core person-to-person connection is not via the will, intellect or emotions. The "I" that says "I will, I think, I feel." In theology this is a key difference between spirit (self/heart/core) and soul (will, intellect, emotions). This backs up I Cor 13, which says love is not merely a good act, knowledge, or a feeling; those are avenues of expression, but not the one expressing. Love is a two-way self-gift. It must be a center-to-center joy.
What is Joy?
Joy then, in this usage, means someone is glad to be with me. They are happy to give and receive presence. In its fullest form it is face-to-face experience, with God and others. They really want to be with you. And what that is authentic, we contagiously share it with others.
Amazingly, brain studies show that this type of core, relational joy is actually required to activate and organize harmonious brain structure. It's true Shalom.
If we don't have the core joy need met, we will experience a deficit, at worst a trauma, and then necessarily go over to the other areas of the brain to fill it, such as the stress centers. This is where addictions happen.
False Joy: Addiction from Trauma
Thomas Aquinas says, "No man can live without joy. That is why one deprived of spiritual joy goes over to carnal pleasures."
When true joy is diminished, trauma results and the brain begins to shut down it's relational circuits, both with other people and with God. This is so important: Joy-less praying will actually trim neurons back, reducing their capacity to function. A certain deadening will result.
When relational circuits are off, then you cannot experience personal appreciation. Note the ways in which our culture, via things like technology, can wall off potential relationship exchange. E.g., Facebook tends to activate the task neurons rather than the relational neurons.
We can protect ourselves by running our lives out of the joy core of the brain; else our lives will be run by habitual (less conscious) stress/fear responses. Over time, this causes illnesses.
In fact, Arthur Burk has identifed this relational emotional joy with God and others as as central (and perhaps the quickest way) to overcoming two unconscious topics: PTSD, and something called "generational memories", which is a transgenerational inheritance of feelings and memories that didn't come for your own experience, but relatives.
So, we need to fill the core need first. When we go to prayer, start with God's love for you, over your love for God. You're a kid approaching the Father. Every other approach fries the wires. As long as I believe someone is glad to be with me nothing can become a trauma. This is really do-able. See the book.
For example, Jesus gave and received relatoinal joy; it culiminates in a Pentecostal eruption!
Biblical Emphasis on Relational Joy
- Jesus: These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made complete. John 15:11.
- "Don't let the sun go down in your wrath" (Eph 4:26) is shown on brain scans to prove true:. If you return to a state of joy before sleeping, your body switches off the codisol stress hormone that taxes your system.
- When thankful, even during challenges, you are strengthening yourself neurologically. "In all things give thanks." (I Thess 5:18). "I have learned the secret to be content whether in lack or plenty -- Christ. (Paul in Phil 4).
- Cast you cares on God; 1 Pet 5:17. "Do not worry" Matt 6:31.
Gratitude actually makes one's synapses fire together and you think clearer, and strengthens good character.
Good News from Scans
Since the front part of your brain gets stimulated with the habit and practice of joy, the good news is that you can never get too old that it cannot re-grow again. Brain design allows for neglect of your greatest need. Amazingly, it's actually the one part of the brain that will continue to grow through out your life span—all it takes is genuine joy.
Easy Action Item: Remember Joy Memories
The quickest way to activate joy is simply to bring to mind joyful memories of God's happiness with them—those memories actually strengthen brain neurons. "Focus on what is good, true, noble, beautiful, etc. and the God of satisfaction will guard your heart." (Phil 4) So surround your environments with good movies, photos, testimonies of God's goodness, etc. We move toward and become what we focus on.
If you think of things that you brought you joy, you can have the same joyful feeling in the present moment, just as you would with trauma. (This is like a piece of music you heard years ago, that you can always return to. )
If we practice this, then a high-joy environment becomes our natural state. Jim recommends trying this for at least three weeks.
A few notes from Ed Curry (from the same ministry): a.) King David remembered God's goodness often in the songs (Psalms). b.) A "five bar" moment with God is a joyful memory that brings a good connection with Him in the present. c.) Those moments pre-heat your relational brain circuitry, helping set up encounters in the present. d.) Even if when you can't remember the good times, God does. It's good to be Keeping a Prayer Journal. Or just ask Him to bring them to mind.
The brain is coded to naturally mirror another person's emotions and amplify them. So in prayer see the face of God—His countenance—and amplify His emotion!
Remember How God Sees You Right Now
Joy is means someone else is glad to be with you. It is presence. And Jesus would rather die than be without you.
Also, to get joy, we must go where people's eyes sparkle to see you. E.g., good Fellowship. Any church environment missing good fellowship is depriving you at your core. Watch for the lie.
Sometimes joyless churches may think "but we have the right doctrine, knowledge, rituals, sacraments, etc." And then that becomes the foundation rather than the relational presence of God. If you have the former without the latter, then it's backwards, and we will then unconsciously worship the rituals and then wonder why God isn't showing up more. It's really because His heart it's being connected with—and that is actually going against what Christ has for us: the Pentecostal, joyful experience of the God's love. So start with joy in God. (In fact, that's what it means to Praise—to really celebrate.)
Experiential charismatic prayer is famous for joy as it's hallmark. The Holy Spirit authenticates where we are going.
Joy is the natural climate of Heaven. Does your prayer time bring you freedom and release you to joy? Or does it create deeper worry and concern? Prepare your heart as you come to Me, knowing that I am a loving God who awaits your plea. “…for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” (Hebrews 11:6)
Like the father of the prodigal (Luke 15), I am looking out for you, expecting your arrival. And once I see you, I will come running to you, My beloved.
Trust that I am your God. Trust Me to be your God. Let our time of communing be one that brings light to your darkness, joy to your heart, hope for your journey.
I am looking for you to lead in with your spirit. Let your soul be refreshed; walk away with renewed vision into the life of victory I have called you toward.
Whatever your trials, you can still rejoice and find joy in My presence. Know that I walk before you and beside you at all times. Your thoughts are incomplete glimpses of the true spiritual, heavenly life and need constant submission to prayer. Let Me be your guide and I will sustain in you My clear vision for truth and life.