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How can I experience inner joy?

Live from St. Mark’s

Feelings come and go don’t they? What we feel today might not be what we feel tomorrow. Feelings are influenced by hormones, life-experiences, medication, drugs, alcohol, vitamins, thoughts, moods, our physical actions, and visual and mental stimuli such as watching or reading the news. Despite being volatile, feelings are important. They tell us something is ‘going on’ in our lives, and, to lead a healthy and functional life, it is vital we  listen to them and find controlled and appropriate ways of expressing them. Bottled up feelings, as we know, manifest themselves in all kinds of inappropriate ways!

Us human beings are made up of three parts. We are body (our physicality), mind (our emotions and intellect), and spirit. We tend to think of our emotions as being located in our hearts and our intellect as being in our minds. When we say we ‘feel’ something we often place a hand over our hearts, and when we say we ‘think’ something we often tap the sides of our heads. But what of that which we experience in our spirits?

There is a special word in Hebrew for where the divine presence of God dwells or rests, and this is ‘shekinah’. Although the word is not found in the Bible, it appears in other Jewish rabbinic writings. As we are temples of the Holy Spirit, we can experience shekinah in our spirits.

The Hebrew word ‘kavanah’ is the state of preparedness of mind (emotions and intellect) that helps us experience the presence of God (shekinah). For example, it is very easy to come to worship on a Sunday, sing the songs, pray the prayers, and receive communion without kavanah. We would call that ‘going through the motions’!

And when we have kavanah, the Hebrew word ‘gilui’ is the process of that spiritual (shekinah) manifesting or being revealed to our minds (our emotions and intellect).

Here’s a highly technical drawing that explains the relationship:

Remember, the mind is where we experience feelings. When we are prepared (kavanah),  the presence of God (shekinah) comes to us, and is manifest (gilui) we can experience calm, happiness, euphoria, gratitude, and all kinds of divinely inspired thoughts and feelings. In fact, any emotion or thought can be God-inspired.

This now brings me to two words which I have purposely not yet mentioned, and these are ‘peace’ and ‘joy’. The secular world describes peace and joy as feelings and feelings only, and we, as Christians, often use the terms to describe feelings, however, Christians also experience what is sometimes called an ‘inner peace’ (peace of God) or ‘inner joy’ (joy of God) which transcends our bodies and minds. This is because they have a spiritual dimension. We recognise that they are in our spirit and as such, a gift from God. The shekinah of God literally brings to our spirits joy and peace. This is why it is possible to experience both joy and peace in the most difficult physical, emotional, or mental circumstances.

The Apostle Paul, writing to the church in the Greek city of Philippi, says:

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4.4-7

Note how Paul states that the peace of God transcends our understanding (what I have been referring to as our minds), and guards our hearts (our emotions) and minds (what I have been referring to as our thoughts or intellect).

As with peace, it is the same with joy. Joy is not just a feeling. Both the peace of God and the joy of God can be manifest (gilui) in our thoughts and emotions, our hearts and minds. Remember, our bodies, minds, and spirits are all interconnected, and our minds are, for the most part, under our control. In other words, even if the Spirit, after being invited, lives in us, and the shekinah of God is with us, longing to bring peace and joy, well, without kavanah, we may never open ourselves to it, and the gilui does not take place and we will not experience the benefits in our hearts and minds.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, sang a song which we call the Magnificat (Latin for ‘magnify’) and it opens with the phrase, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” And now, from what we have learned, we can understand what she is saying!

When she says ‘soul’ she is talking about her heart and mind that experiences and manifests (gilui) the divine presence (shekinah) she is experiencing in her spirit which is joy. Or to flip it around the other way, God has filled her spirit with joy and, as she is open to God, she experiences this in her soul. She is literally a walking, talking, amplifier for God! No wonder she bursts into song! The joy being expressed through her cannot be contained!

This leads me to my final question, how can we experience the presence of God? I know, for some, they long to experience God and feel somewhat ‘disconnected’. Well, I do not have all the answers, but I can make some suggestions which may or may not be helpful.

Firstly, ask for the Holy Spirit to fill you. This can only come through recognising our need to be made holy through Jesus Christ, and accepting him as Lord. We cannot be filled until we are cleansed, and that is a free gift if we are willing to accept it. The Spirit of God does not dwell in a person where uninvited.

Secondly, once we have been filled with God’s Spirit, we need to open ourselves to God (kavanah) and this means being willing to open our hearts and minds to God, to allow ourselves to feel and think. If we repress our feelings or thoughts then we repress the ability to feel divine emotions and think divine thoughts. For some of us, this repression is cultural — we live in a very undemonstrative society, worry about what others will think, and feel very self-conscious in public. For others, we repress our feelings due to past hurts and traumas, and disallow ourselves to feel, in which case, there is some re-learning to do.

What I do know is that God is gentle, and wants to work with us, in us, and through us. God longs to lead us to a place where we experience the joy and peace of Christ. I love the prayer, said by Jesus, that can be read in John Chapter 14. I will leave you with this short excerpt:

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” John 14.25-27

Amen