It's about a lot more than a feeling.
I'll never forget the morning I came into work before the sun came out. Rarely were my eyes even open before the light of day appeared. But this morning, I had a lot to do and felt strangely motivated to get moving early. So when I entered the parking lot, I was surprised to see another car already there. I could also see a light on through one of the office building's windows. I wondered who else would willingly come into work at 5 a.m.
To my surprise, I saw my coworker, Dave, in the conference room. He held his head in his hands, and he looked like he was sleeping. But as I peeked in closer, I realized he was praying. He must have heard me because he looked up right at me and said, "Hello."
"Oh, I'm sorry, Dave," I replied awkwardly, feeling a little like a stalker. "I didn't realize you were in here, uh, praying."
"Hey, no problem, " he said, totally unphased. "I come in early every morning to pray."
"Wow. Really? That's amazing," I said, genuinely impressed. "You never mentioned this. Is everything OK?
Then he began to tell me some things that he and his wife were going through — some awful things. A lawsuit was being brought against them wrongfully for some property issues and tens of thousands of dollars were at stake — basically everything they owned, and then some. He mentioned other hardships also, and I recall wincing for him as he listed them off, one by one. I was stunned. He was going through so much, and I didn't even know it. I asked him how he was managing to hold up so well.
He told me something I'll never forget. He said he and his wife were compelled to focus on joy.
"Huh?" I asked, "Joy? You mean, like, joy — as in rejoicing?" I honestly couldn't comprehend, and wondered if I missed a segue or something.
"Yeah," he replied, completely confident. "We believe the Lord is calling us to choose joy in these situations."
Choose joy. I repeated the words over in my head. But, there was no joy in these situations to focus on. There were no silver linings. There was no way you could look on the bright side of things. It was all dark. I could understand him saying, "Well, we're just choosing to trust in God that He'll take care of us, etc." But to say, "We're going to choose joy...." That was something I'd never heard of before. Let alone thought of doing.
But I started thinking about it.
I've always been a glass-is-half-full kind of person. And I consider myself to be pretty joyful. But my friend Dave was choosing to wear joy like he chose to wear a certain necktie. For him, choosing joy was an act of the will. Yet, the more I thought about it, the more I realized his choosing joy wasn't about him — it wasn't a "crutch" to help him feel good through a lousy situation. He was choosing joy because he wanted to glorify Christ.
Which made me think about the apostle Paul. There he was, in chains and jailed like a criminal — and yet full of joy. He could rejoice because he knew that what was happening to him helped to advance the Gospel.
"Good for Paul. But what about me," you wonder. So did I. How can my car breaking down, for instance, advance the Gospel? What I've learned through my friend Dave and through my own walk with Christ is that my reaction to my car breaking down can indeed advance the Gospel. My witness to the mechanic may just cause him to scratch his head and inquire why I might have so much peace.
But choosing joy over bitterness doesn't mean slapping a silly grin on your face. And it's not about being bubbly, perky or giggly. Let's face it, sometimes happy people can be a bit annoying. Joy goes much deeper than any facial expression. And it's more intense and real than fleeting happiness. In his play Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare understands this solemn quality of joy, writing, "Silence is the perfectest herald of joy." How perfectly said.
Author and teacher Gary Thomas raises the question that perhaps God is more concerned with our holiness than He is with our happiness. That the real purpose of the Christian life is to make us holy — not happy. The first time I heard this concept I was actually a little relieved. Personally, I'd rather not measure my life by its moments of happiness, but by knowing that the Lord will never give up on trying to make me holy. For I know that He who has begun a good work in me will complete it.
I guess that's why experiencing true joy requires faith, not a cheerful situation. It's best expressed in people who have faced extreme hardship or struggle, yet who have decided to choose joy in the midst of it. These are the people who can say, "I don't know what tomorrow will hold, but today I will choose to rejoice in my salvation." Or even, "If tomorrow I lose everything, I will still have the joy of knowing God loves me." What faith.
In My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers writes about such decided faith that can lead to joy:
Faith is not intelligent understanding, faith is deliberate commitment to a Person where I see no way. Are you debating whether to take a step in faith in Jesus or to wait until you can see how to do the thing yourself? Obey Him with glad reckless joy.
Joy definitely doesn't make perfect sense sometimes. It's not a scientific equation that states: If you do this and that, it will always equal joy. Not always. There are times where I obey out of fear. Even with a little bitterness. But when I choose to follow Christ with joy, I know it blesses Him ... and me.
For those of us who find ourselves in circumstances right now where joy is the last thing on our minds, let us be encouraged by the life of Christ. "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:2).
When I really looked at the Bible to see what it said about joy, the more I came to believe that joy is a decision of the will. Happiness may be something you feel. But joy is something you do. Throughout the Bible I saw action phrases like "shout for joy," "sing for joy" and "cry for joy."
I guess that's what my friend Dave decided to do. Shout for joy when he wanted to worry. Sing for joy when he wanted to complain. Cry for joy when he just wanted to cry. I'm sure it was a leap of faith, this jump for joy. But he simply let the joy of the Lord be his strength.
You may be wondering what was the outcome of his decision to choose joy through difficult and stressful circumstances. Truth is, I'm wondering, too. He moved across the country, and I lost touch with him. I know we all love a happy ending, and I wish I could tell you there was one. But perhaps better yet, is knowing Dave experienced real joy in the middle if his story.
Copyright 2005 Kara Schwab. All rights reserved.