When my inner radar detects a storm cell forming in my circumstances, an icy blast of arctic air on the way, I fear. Beneath the fear, if I dare to look, lies rebellion, a digging in of my soul’s heels in refusal of what I sense is coming.
Orienting myself toward celebration, the present moment, and the extraordinary ordinary fuel delight in God; that rebellion strangles it, like plaque on spiritual arteries restricting the flow of joy and praise. The converse is also true, though: surrender and obedience energize celebration. As we grow in holiness, which Elisabeth Elliot used to define in her radio talks as “a whole-hearted ‘yes’ to God,” our countenances as well as our characters and actions are transformed.
Celebration and transformation are dance partners of sorts. Celebration and praise can prove means as well as results of our deliverance (2 Chronicles 20); celebration can be an instrument as well as the song of our transformation. Richard Foster notes that obedience leads to joy, but joy also lubricates the gears of obedience. Instead of a vicious cycle, we have a gracious cycle; instead of a downward spiral, an upward.
Celebration may begin as a practice, a choice to obey the call to gratitude and delight in God, before it becomes an orientation. In this sense, spiritual practices are not unlike a musician’s scales and arpeggios, prerequisite to the grand works of repertoire we want to play. Just so, we have to choose to exercise our faith muscles before our hearts will sing. However, Christian spiritual practices are just that: spiritual, or should I say Spiritual? God’s Spirit in us prompts, enables, and sustains what seems to begin with our choice.
As I practice turning from rebellion and towards obedience, as I accept what Providence brings and choose praise and trust that God is good and gracious in the hard as well as the happy, grace moves me to a place of readiness to receive Jesus’ promise of joy unlike the world’s joy. His Spirit produces His fruit in me, including joy.
Foster describes the process this way:
Joy is found in obedience. When the power that is in Jesus reaches into our work and play and redeems them, there will be joy where once there was mourning. To overlook this is to miss the meaning of the Incarnation (Celebration of Discipline, p.193).
I am still very much a kindergarten student in this, practicing daily and stumbling often. Remembering to celebrate the small moments and smooth days builds the holy habit for the harder celebrations. That’s why I keep a gratitude journal; noticing the small ways God loves me and remembering them long enough to write them down focuses my attention on good. Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer also helps me, especially in the shift from rebellion to obedience: “Not my will, but Yours be done.” Lifting my voice can help my heart to feel what I believe: “Give thanks to the LORD, for His lovingkindness is everlasting.” I say it out loud, sing it, listen to others sing it, and counter the lies that kill delight in God and His gifts. Like Jehoshaphat, I, too, can send the worship team ahead of the army and watch the Lord fight for me.
As I practice and grow in celebration, turning my face to the Lord and learning to delight more in Him, He will transform and produce more celebration as His joy, the joy of Christ Himself, grows in me. This is the witness of those wiser in the discipline than I, and I believe it will be so. Right now, though, I’m still practicing.
May the Son of God who is already formed in you grow in you—so that for you he will become immeasurable, and that in you he will become laughter, exultation, the fullness of joy which no one can take from you.
-Isaac of Stella, quoted in Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, p.26