How Can Joy be a Divine Command if it is not Within Our Control?

Matthew Kuan Johnson and Rachel Siow Robertson
Monday 2 May 2022
  1. Introduction and Hypotheses
  2. Fields of Study
    2.1 “Broaden and Build” Psychology
    2.2 Positive Psychology
    2.3 Embodied Cognition
    2.4 Ritual in Religious Studies
  3. Discussion
    3.1 Connecting the Psychology of Joy to Studies of Rituals
    3.2 Solving the Puzzle of Joy
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction and Hypotheses

1.1 The Puzzle of Joy

While many divine commands center around regulating behavior, there is a class of divine commands that makes prescriptions about emotions. Joy is one such emotion that is commanded in both the Hebrew and New Testament Scriptures. As N. T. Wright observes, “[Joy] is perhaps best classified as an emotion… But joy can also be commanded. Indeed, Paul even commands the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord always” (Wright 2015, 36). However, the idea that joy can be commanded is very curious. Psychologists have ranked joy the lowest of the emotions on control, suggesting that it cannot be produced voluntarily (Izard 1972). Similarly, both theologians and psychologists have associated joy with freedom from commands, and a sense of “gift” or “blessedness” which comes from outside oneself, rather than resulting from one’s own control (Johnson 2020a, 2020b; Crisp 2015, xiii; Fredrickson 2009; Frijda 1986, 89; Lazarus 1991). At the same time, however, moral philosophers widely hold that moral obligation (such as the kind that comes from divine commands) implies having the ability to meet that obligation (Stern 2014) – this is often associated with the phrase “ought implies can”.[1]

This leads to a puzzle: if joy is not under our direct control, then how can it be commanded and why is it commanded? Difficult circumstances compound this puzzle. It may feel irresponsible or delusional to obey the command to rejoice in the face of ongoing suffering and injustice. Should joy be commanded in difficult times? If so, how might it be pursued?

1.2 Working Definition of Joy

Before we get into our hypotheses and fields of study, we want to first clarify what we mean by joy, which we have characterised in the first place as an emotion. Drawing on the framework provided by Matthew Kuan Johnson (2020a, 2020b), we suggest that joy involves an intense feeling of fulfilment and a deep alignment between some good in the world and oneself. Joy can work at several different levels, from an emotion (a positively valanced affective experience involving a concern-based construal) to a disposition (having a low threshold to experiencing joy, and experiencing joy more frequently and in many different situations – if these experiences are not very stable or long-lasting, then this may be joy at the lower level of a mood), to a spiritual fruit (having a disposition for joy as well as experiences of spiritual satisfaction, especially in the presence of persecution or suffering). Part of the task when addressing the puzzle of joy is to explore how the command to rejoice engages with the different levels of joy, and related constructs such as happiness.

1.3 Hypotheses

We will outline and defend two hypotheses about joy. First, regarding how joy can be commanded, we suggest that alongside commands concerning joy, there are prescribed rituals and liturgies which potentiate joy, such that participation in these rituals enables the joy that is commanded. We expect that the command to rejoice works at the disposition and spiritual fruit levels of joy.

Second, regarding why joy is commanded in this way, we suggest that joy, when cultivated in accordance with divine commands, plays a central role in the building of new cognitive, behavioural, and social resources. The cultivation of joy equips us with resources which are especially suited to facing up to difficult circumstances, allowing us to respond compassionately and constructively.

2. Fields of Study

In this section, we show how work from contemporary cognitive science provides resources for defending our hypotheses about joy. Specifically, we draw from the literatures from the “broaden and build” tradition within developmental psychology, positive psychology, and from embodied cognition. We also consider insights from explorations of ritual within religious studies.

2.1 “Broaden and Build” Psychology

The “broaden and build” tradition within developmental psychology (Fredrickson 2009, 230; Fredrickson 2004) compares the adaptive purpose of negative and positive emotions. Negative emotions are about restricting attention and thought and narrowing your mindsets, to focus on the immediate threat at hand. For example, if a tiger jumps out of the bushes, your fear will direct all of your focus toward the tiger and that immediate moment, so you can take action. By contrast, some positive emotions are about broadening thinking, attention, and mindsets, to facilitate exploration and experimentation, in order to build new cognitive, perceptual, behavioural, and social resources. The paradigmatic emotion for broaden and build is joy, which psychologists argue facilitates a state of play in which one feels high levels of psychological safety and freedom, and a broadening of mindset and attention, enabling experimentation with new types of actions, thoughts, ideas, and social relationships.

Importantly, the “broaden and build” tradition introduces a virtuous circle for the production of joy. High levels of psychological safety provide the freedom to experiment and build new resources. Joy both potentiates this state of play and is the product of the experiences of flow, novelty, and security that result from play. In turn, this joy feeds back as increased motivation for even deeper engagement in play. This suggests that although joy cannot be introduced directly, there is an indirect means of production: joy occurs as a by-product of play, and then feeds back into play. Certain kinds of action, therefore, can potentiate us towards joy.

2.2 Positive Psychology

Recent work from positive psychology helps us to build on this suggestion that potentiation for joy may be supported through action. A series of experiments by Emmons and McCullough (2003) found that participants who are made to list things for which they are grateful, report more experiences of positive affect (including joy). This suggests that grateful reflection potentiates subsequent experiences of joy. Furthermore, in a series of studies, Fordyce (1977, 1983) found that by having participants imitate the behaviors and attitudes of individuals high in well-being, the well-being of these participants increased. Importantly, our suggestions here remain somewhat speculative for the time being because the Emmons and McCullough studies and the Fordyce studies are measuring general states of positive affect and well-being, and not joy in isolation. We hope that future work in psychology will investigate the ways that this may happen for joy, in particular.

Further insights come from network analysis, which has shown that those who are surrounded by happy people are more likely to become happy – the effect is so robust that the network analysis has revealed that happiness spreads to up to three degrees of separation (Fowler and Christakis 2008). While this study was on happiness, and not joy, it is plausible that a similar emotional contagion effect may happen through communal action. Even if the individual does not initially feel joyful, by jointly participating in and mirroring the outwardly joyful behaviours of those around them, they may come to feel joyful through emotional contagion effects.

2.3 Embodied Cognition

The framework of embodied cognition also helps to fill out this picture of joy production, especially when it comes to the role of cognitive resources within the virtuous cycle of joy. “Embodied cognition” refers to a movement within cognitive science (Barsalou 2008; Davis and Markman 2012), which rejects a model of knowledge as involving the transmission and possession of abstract, disembodied information. Instead, our knowledge, even of an abstract form, is grounded in embodied interactions we have had with the world. For example, the same facial muscles are activated in contagion avoidance as in the consideration of moral violations (Chapman et al. 2009), and incidental physical disgust can make our moral judgments more severe (Schnall, Haidt, Clore, and Jordan 2008; Eskine, Kacinik, and Prinz 2011).[2] This suggests that our capacity for morality is not abstract but embodied, and scaffolded upon our contagion avoidance machinery. Another example comes from the Outfielder Problem (Anderson 2003; Wilson and Golonka 2013), which considers an experienced baseball player running to catch a ball that has been hit upwards into the air. If cognition is all-mental, then we would expect the player to register the initial conditions of the ball, make calculations to predict where the ball will fall, then run in a straight line to that predicted location. However, studies reveal that players move in such a way as to manipulate the appearance of the ball’s motion – either moving along a curved path towards the ball so that it appears to move in a straight line, or accelerating and then decelerating so that the ball appears to move at a constant velocity. This suggests that the body is not just an object entering into the cognitive subject’s calculations, but rather takes on a cognitive role through its movement.

Because so much of our understanding and thinking is built upon embodied states, using our bodies to engage our understanding can often be more effective than pedagogical approaches that simply involve propositional instruction alone. To return to one of the previous examples, if much of our capacity for moral understanding is built upon our contagion avoidance machinery, this may help to explain why cleansing rituals are central to many traditions’ understandings of forgiveness and moral rehabilitation. Indeed, since much of our understanding of moral concepts, such as guilt, are built upon the bodily states involved in contagion avoidance, cleansing rituals directly leverage that physiological machinery in order to impart the moral knowledge of one’s “morally cleansed” state. The physiological experience of being cleaned of one’s physical filth grounds the ability to understand the more abstract concept of being released from one’s guilt. Consequently, embodied rituals leverage the physiological machinery on which our ability to understand higher-level, more abstract concepts (such as moral concepts) are built.

In sum, embodied cognition suggests that concepts and knowledge are grounded in our embodied interactions and experiences with the world. Within this framework, we can better understand the workings of the circle of joy. Actions can build cognitive resources, some of which may enable the individual to gain knowledge or adopt a new perspective regarding their circumstances. Such resources will be particularly conducive to joy. The resulting joy then feeds back into further action. We will provide more specific examples of these actions in later sections.

2.4 Ritual in Religious Studies

We now introduce some of the literature on ritual from religious studies, showing where connections have been drawn between action and joy. One suggestion is that formation happens through embodied ritual activity. For example, Dru Johnson (2016) notes that the commandment in Leviticus to practice the ritual of living in booths is issued “so that your generations may know that I [God] made the people of Israel live in booths” (Lev. 23:43, NRSV). Johnson asks, “Why can the generations not know that ‘Israel lived in booths’ merely by telling them?” (2016, 152). Johnson suggests that embodied ritual shapes perception and knowledge in a way not possible through words alone – for example, by a retelling of the story of the Exodus in words alone. Instead, this knowledge comes by building and dwelling in tents, in the same way that the Israelite ancestors built and dwelt in tents. Mark Jordan’s monograph, Teaching Bodies (2016), provides a similar account regarding rituals and moral formation.

It is useful to consider how these themes arise in theological approaches to one specific ritual: the sharing of the Eucharist. The cognitive resources which may be built are mentioned by Kierkegaard, who describes how joy works through the Eucharist to provide new “epistemic flexibility”: the ability to see every situation in life as having the possibility of God’s grace and gifts being revealed (Hough 2015). The social resources provided through the celebration of the Eucharist are explored by Barbara Ehrenreich (2006). She describes how the early church had forms of worship that paralleled many elements of pagan religious worship (especially the forms of worship associated with Dionysus or Cybele) with joyful singing, dancing, and prophesying. She suggests that the reason why the Christian cults survived and the others did not is because the Christian cults managed to build social resources, and therefore a community, that lasted beyond the service, and this came from the fact that the Eucharistic meal was shared. These social resources enabled patterns of remarkable generosity and provision for one another in the community. Ehrenreich considers Jesus’ commands of extreme generosity to others and the early church practices of extreme generosity, and comments that “from a cold, capitalistic perspective, [these commands and practices] look like sheer madness” (2006, 75). However, she suggests that these commands are understandable in the context in which a strong sense of community, identification with the collective, and responsibility and care for the community were all built through communal worship. Ehrenreich argues that when Christian patriarchs sought to suppress these practices of joyful Eucharistic celebration, they suppressed much of how these social resources were built.

3. Discussion

3.1 Connecting the Psychology of Joy to Studies of Rituals

We can bring the two sides of our fields of study together. On the side of psychology, the “broaden and build” tradition introduces the resources built by joy, and provides a framework for understanding how action feeds into a virtuous circle of joy production. Insights from positive psychology and embodied cognition allow us to elaborate on the kinds of action that may be particularly apt for supporting the indirect production of joy: practices of grateful reflection, imitation of joyful behaviour, participation in joyful communities, and actions which build new cognitive resources for approaching one’s circumstances. On the side of religious studies, work on rituals suggests that many resources are built by ritual activities. There is much here that accords with lessons from embodied cognition and positive psychology. Practices such as gratefully recalling God’s grace through the Eucharist are very similar to the gratitude listing activity in the Emmons and McCullough experiments. Similarly, by partaking in a communal ritual and imitating the behaviours and attitudes of joyful individuals, it may be that members of religious communities also increase their own well-being, potentiating themselves to joy. Adding in the study of ritual shows the importance of patterns of behaviour and repetition for formation.

The question is whether ritual activity sits well within the full “broaden and build” cycle of joy. Theologians have long noted the connection between joy and play for spiritual formation (e.g. Moltmann 1973). However, one concern is that “play” is not the right concept to apply when talking about ritual. Several contrasts can be made between rituals and play: rituals are put in place to achieve certain purposes, but play doesn’t have a set outcome; ritual is normative, but play is not.

Although we recognize these contrasts, we consider that the important elements which potentiate for joy when it comes to the state of play are also present in many religious rituals. First, there are ways in which rituals themselves involve elements of playfulness, such as creativity, freedom, and imagination. Second, play and ritual involve similar kinds of structures. Play itself is not entirely unstructured – the felt safety and freedom that are so central to the “broaden and build” framework can be supported by the right kinds of structures and norms, such as environments which are safe, and rules which guide the correct use of equipment and constrain potentially dangerous or unsociable behaviour. Rituals are structured by similar kinds of rules and norms.

We can explore these suggestions in relation to the Eucharist. Even in this highly scripted ritual, there is a playfulness about how it is conducted. It involves storytelling and engaging with the imagination. Indeed, a high level of creativity is involved in figuring out how to rehearse and script the events of the Last Supper. How is the story told – is it acted out, sung, or chanted by the congregation? What elements are used and what do they represent? There is also flexibility when it comes to the manner in which the president helps to bring Christ to the congregation. For example, the theologian Sarah Coakley discusses in her book, The New Asceticism (2015), how she has thought a lot about what it means to be a woman standing in the place of Christ as she celebrates the Eucharist, and how this influences how she decides to dress on the days when she will preside over the Eucharist.

Furthermore, the celebration of the Eucharist involves structures which support felt safety and freedom. In the first part (Confession), you stand alone before God, yet amidst high levels of psychological safety, allowing you to face the full weight of your sinfulness and the seeming impossibility of union with God. Then, your focus broadens until you can see God as you take the elements from the officiant or other members of the congregation: Christ given for you, and you see that nothing (not even your sinfulness) can keep you from God’s love, which provides this new ability of epistemic flexibility. Behavioural resources are also built: the congregation must come together to help feed one another. Someone must bring the food, someone must help distribute the food, and someone must help feed those who cannot feed themselves. New cognitive resources are built, as participants come to see their responsibility for one another, and to feed and provide for one another, more generally. These all set in place a behavioural script or schema that will, hopefully, come to be acted out of in contexts beyond the Eucharist. Celebrating the Eucharist potentiates joy, but joy also feeds back into the Eucharist to facilitate freedom and safety in community – a state of play in which new resources are built.

Similar patterns can be observed in other rituals and liturgies which align with divine commands concerning joy. We consider the Festival of Booths to be another good example of how ritual enables obedience to the joy command. Chapters 8-9 of Nehemiah recount a moment in history in which the Israelites are experiencing great sorrow, having returned from captivity in exile but still subject to foreign rule and threats of invasion by enemy nations. The priest Ezra reads the Book of the Law to the people and leads them in renewing their covenant with God, and the initial reaction of the assembly to the reading of the Law is mourning and weeping. However, the people are instructed to put aside mourning, specifically by feasting and celebrating the Festival of Booths, or Sukkot, which involves a Command to Rejoice: “Rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days” (Lev. 23:40, c.f. Deut. 16:14). Through feasting and celebrating the Festival, there is a movement from mourning to joy—even “very great” joy (Neh. 8:17–18).

There is an inherent playfulness to the Festival of Booths, which involves constructing tents (experimenting with building), the retelling of stories of God’s faithfulness that could happen in inventive ways, and experimentation with new types of social bonds (the whole community is involved and shares and feasts together). The Festival also plays a role in providing supporting structures for felt safety and freedom. In Nehemiah’s time, usual routines would have instilled a sense of mourning, as living in the rebuilt city and activities like the reading of the Law would have been a reminder of past unfaithfulness to God and the trauma of exile. The prescribed action of dwelling in tents and ceasing work physically relocates the people away from spaces and activities that would cue these thoughts and feelings. Freed from these things, they are enabled to adopt a new perspective and build new cognitive resources. Specifically, the ritual is given to provide the Israelites with knowledge of their covenant relationship with God: a deeper understanding of the events of God’s faithful dealings with their forefathers in the events of the Exodus. The Festival of Booths thus brings its participants into deeper knowledge, allowing them to reorient their current perspective on their city and the words of the Law. There is a strong link between the formation of new cognitive resources through embodied ritual, and the promotion of the state of joy. Importantly, the joy command then plays out beyond the Festival in Nehemiah, as the people renew their commitment to the Law-governed life of the nation (from the end of Neh. 9 onwards). Obedience to the joy command creates a virtuous upward spiral into further obedience.

3.2 Solving the Puzzle of Joy

Now that we have our resources in place, we can respond to the two parts of the puzzle of joy. First, how can joy be commanded if it is the lowest of the emotions on control? The normative ethical principle that “ought implies can” suggests that if joy is divinely commanded, we must be capable of joy. We propose that it is through faithfully engaging with prescribed rituals and liturgies that we hold ourselves in a potentiated state for joy. Even though joy can’t be directly controlled, we can hold ourselves in a state of potentiation toward it through observance of prescribed ritual activities. Work on “broaden and build” psychology, the psychology of gratitude, scripted behaviour and trained attitudes, and emotional contagion through social activity can explain the power of religious rituals for potentiating joyful experience. The cognitive component of joy (and joy-apt rituals) is particularly important for this potentiation. The rituals discussed above build epistemic resources, enabling participants to see where God’s hand might be at work in their circumstances. This may make participants more open to joy, even in difficult situations. This solution brings us back to the Kierkegaardian notion of “epistemic flexibility”, and also resonates with Karl Barth’s suggestion that the divine command to rejoice to mean that, “It is certainly required of man that he should continually hold himself in readiness for joy” (Barth 1961, 377).

Second, why is joy commanded? Our contention is that joyful religious engagement builds new cognitive, perceptual, behavioural, and social resources, and is commanded so that the individual will be able to build these resources. These resources include those which potentiate for joy, as well.

Answering the second part of the puzzle returns us to the issue of joy in difficult circumstances – how and why can people be commanded to rejoice, especially in dark times? We suggest that joy is incompatible with two other very tempting options when it comes to difficult times. First, there is despair, which involves facing up to circumstances, but in a way which overwhelms us and leaves us feeling like there is nothing that we can do to change things, or perhaps even moves us to fearful self-protection. Second, there is indifference, which involves ignoring what is happening and distracting ourselves, perhaps by focusing on good news or fun activities.

The difference with joy comes when we face up to real life events within structures which support safety and freedom. In the case of the Festival of Booths, for example, people are given support in a way which rules out despair, because they are provided with knowledge that God has acted and will act for good and justice. There is also no room for indifference, because while living in booths the people cannot ignore the transformative nature of being gathered into God’s people and the call to obey God’s commands together. Consequently, their joy is compatible with mourning and facing up to difficult circumstances, without leaving them hopeless or searching for distraction. Almost paradoxically, a community which cultivates joy should actually be equipped to enter more deeply into mourning and to respond more compassionately in difficult circumstances.

We suggest this is why there is a command to “rejoice”, rather than commands concerning related concepts such as “happiness” or “fun”. Although we do hope that a life of flourishing will frequently involve those elements too, in the darkest moments it may be impossible to feel happy and inappropriate to have fun, but joy can still break forth in transforming ways.

Indeed, our approach shows why joy and having space for communal practices leading to joy is vital for resistance. People need new cognitive and emotional resources and energy to keep going in their projects to bring about communal flourishing. Practices of joy allow us to imagine and retell histories and futures beyond current oppressive structures, instructions, and narratives.

A remaining question is whether potentiation is enough to solve the divine command issue. After all, there is still a gap between potentiation for joy and the experience of joy. Ritual constitutes a potentiation and readiness for joy rather than a guarantee that the experience of joy will immediately follow. Moreover, we need to leave it open that not all rituals and commands lead to joy, and that joy is a state which seems difficult for people to maintain constantly in everyday life even if they do participate in joy-apt rituals. Joy is still characterized by a sense of gift and the unexpected, and much of our lives can be structured by joyless routines largely outside of our own control.

There are a few ways to begin to respond to this question. First, it may be that the gap between potentiation for joy and the experience of joy points to the need for divine assistance. Rather than trying to overestimate our capacity to fulfil the joy command (by arguing that joy is under our control, when the empirical work suggests otherwise) or trying to reduce the joy command (by arguing that it cannot in fact be obligatory), we instead argue that the “moral gap” between the divine command and our ability to fulfil it on our own points to the need for divine assistance (Hare 1996). While fulfilling the command is not possible on our own, it may be possible under the conditions in which we ask for divine assistance. This reflects the way in which joy has a higher level than just a disposition – it is also a spiritual fruit, one in which our capacities, dispositions, and behaviour involve letting the divine agency work through us. The practices and rituals that potentiate for joy, therefore, may well also be those that potentiate us for divine assistance.

Second, the gap between potentiation and experience can sometimes open up because of the lack of external conditions for joy, such as being stuck in joyless daily routines. This means that the command to rejoice has special weight for those in control of routines ordering daily life for others, leaving no room for leadership by oppressive command. For example, the leaders in Nehemiah had the wisdom to bring in a ritual of joy, before returning to the reading of the Law and mourning. If leaders cultivate joy, their joy will in turn motivate them to set routines and develop safe relationships which allow others in their sphere of influence to find joy.

4. Conclusion

We have suggested that it is through faithful participation in prescribed, embodied ritual behaviours that new forms of understanding and various resources for perception, action, and cognition are built, and these resources include those which potentiate for joy. This enables us to obey the joy command, even though joy is not under our direct control.

To conclude, we want to point to some further directions for research coming out of our approach. There are a class of other commands about emotions (e.g. “do not be anxious”, Mt. 6:25; “do not fear” Is. 41:10) which may also be explainable through the approach taken here. In other words, perhaps faithful observance of prescribed rituals and activities also potentiates individuals away from these emotions that are commanded against. Indeed, numerous studies have shown that training participants to follow certain prescribed behaviors and to adopt certain attitudes significantly reduces negative affect (Fordyce 1977, 1983; Gillham, Reivich, Jaycox, and Seligman 1995; Emmons and McCullough 2003). We also echo recent calls that identify the relatively little attention paid to joy in psychology, and which point to the fruitful potential for more interdisciplinary work between religion scholars and psychologists to expand the field of the study of joy (Emmons 2020; Johnson 2020a, 2020b).[3]


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[1] See also Aristotle (2014): “…voluntary feelings and actions are praised and blamed, while the involuntary ones are pardoned and occasionally even pitied…” (NE 1109b30-32); “But no one is urged to do what is neither in our power nor voluntary; people assume it to be a waste of time to persuade us not to be hot or in pain or hungry or anything else like that…” (NE 1113b27-29).

[2] For a defence of the reported findings of this literature amidst criticisms arising from the “replication crisis”, see Johnson (2020c, 52-54).

[3] The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: The authors’ work on this publication was made possible through the support of grants from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.

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Johnson, Matthew Kuan, and Rachel Siow Robertson. 2022. “How Can Joy be a Divine Command if it is not Within Our Control?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 7).

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Matthew Kuan Johnson
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Rachel Siow Robertson
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