I recognized the feeling in an instant, and it simply took my breath away… JOY!
The suffering that accompanied a seemingly endless series of life challenges had gradually eroded my joy, so much so that I only discerned glimmers of it, now and again. But this was more than a glimmer of joy, my friends. This was a sustained state of joy, and I suddenly realized I’d been basking in it for days now. Something inside me was different. I felt lighter. Unfettered. My potential seemed limitless! My smile was unforced, my contentment was palpable, and I knew peace.
As I pondered this newfound state of joy, it occurred to me that I’d been journeying through the last few years of life with little of it. Encumbered by the weight of physical and emotional trials that had become increasingly difficult to bear, I’d somehow allowed my joy to be overtaken by a deep sadness. Still, I was sure my joy could be rediscovered, if only I would adhere to the teachings found within the pages of my Bible. Among those?
“Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
“…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” (James 1:2) And also, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
I desired joy, but had I been doing all God instructed in order that I might experience joy? I took a critical, albeit excruciating, look at my spiritual life, and admitted I had work to do. While parts of my day were spent doing just as God instructed, a considerable portion of my time was being wasted on endeavors that only exacerbated my suffering and robbed me of joy. Each day, I expended a ridiculous amount of energy confronting life’s troubles on my own, seldom relying on the limitless strength of Christ or the support of family and friends. When fatigue set in (and it always did), I chose to turn myself over to the care of a noisy TV as opposed to the care of Christ (mainly because the TV successfully drowned out and distracted me from coping with the negative thoughts floating about in my head). When matters I could neither change nor control were placed in my path, I often fretted and complained about them instead of expressing gratitude for and counting as beautiful everything that God had allowed into my world – even the painful.
Fast-forward to that special day – that day when I realized I was no longer glimpsing joy, but rather living in a state of joy. My joy was so overwhelming that I shared news of it with everyone I encountered! Within 48 hours of this day, however, I would experience a betrayal, one so unexpected and agonizing that it would bring me to my knees. The details of this heartbreaking blow matter not; it mattered only how I would respond.
Would I allow hardship to steal my joy?
It's important to mention here that I consider joy and happiness to be two very different animals, especially from a biblical standpoint. Happiness is simply an outward expression of emotion, present when the circumstances of one’s life are good. Joy is an inward feeling derived from one’s connection with the things of God. Joy can exist alongside emotions like sadness, anger, fear and frustration. Joy transcends those emotions and our circumstances, so can provide inner contentment and peace even in tough times. Joy comes when we trust that God loves us, never leaves us, wants the best for us, and is in control of all things.
The more profound our trust in God, the more profound our joy!
Despite the many struggles he faced during his lifetime, the apostle Paul embodied and wrote often about joy. In Philippians 4:11-13, Paul stated:
… I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him (Jesus Christ) who gives me strength.
Paul understood and taught that joy is a learned behavior, rooted in and strengthened by one’s relationship with Christ. Despite being imprisoned, beaten, persecuted, abandoned by friends, and ultimately beheaded for his beliefs, Paul dedicated himself to the practice of choosing joy “in any and every situation.” Perhaps using Paul as its inspiration, a local radio station once ran a Christmas campaign that included the tagline: “When I lose it, I will choose it! I choose joy!” I remember hearing that tagline shortly after enduring the painful betrayal I described earlier, and clearly recall my first response: “Easier said than done, people!” And while it’s true that choosing joy can sometimes be a tricky proposition, we must choose to do something when struggles come our way. Why not choose joy?
Where once I'd choose busyness, distraction, self-reliance, fretting, and complaining as responses to trials, I am now striving to ensure I remain firmly and joyfully tethered to the things of God through practices like prayer, the study of Scripture, and worship. On the most difficult days, a choice for joy must be made often – perhaps even minute by minute. But that’s okay, for that means my minutes are spent in the company of Christ, who is and will always be the Source of my joy.
I choose joy!