When I was a girl I used to sing a simple song in Sunday school.
I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart,
Down in my heart,
Down in my heart.
I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart,
Down in my heart to stay.
As a child it was easy to sing that song. I had a happy childhood and mostly everything seemed right with the world. But generally, life doesn’t get easier as you get older.
You sustain more loss. Some dreams die. And you realize that this world, and even being a Christian, is not “safe.” Nor does it guarantee happiness. And the joy that comes with being carefree can get lost somehow.
I recently came through a difficult season. Actually, let me rephrase that — I’m going through a difficult season.
It began with my son becoming sick a few weeks before his second birthday and being diagnosed with a rare childhood disease that can cause heart damage. He was treated for the disease, but his symptoms did not go away. What was supposed to be a two- or three-day hospital stay stretched into 12 days, including a full day in the emergency room on Christmas Eve.
During this time, my grandfather died, a friend’s husband — a young father of three — passed away suddenly while jogging, a childhood friend committed suicide, and 27 people died in one of the worst school shootings in our nation’s history.
With worry, weariness and grief compounded so mightily, it began to feel as if nothing would ever be right again. The sense of well-being and control I usually experience was ripped away.
The day after Christmas, I read a friend’s reflection on the feelings of sadness she experiences when the holiday has ended.
I have to force myself to be merry. It doesn’t come naturally. This morning the tears threatened again, and I told myself it was ridiculous. I told myself the same thing that I told my children on Christmas night: Everything that we celebrate on Christmas Day is just as true the next day. We still have Jesus, and we still have each other. I gave myself the pep-talk, but I still felt like I was trudging through the Slough of Despond, an unnamed burden upon my back.
So I grabbed my Bible. I’ve learned that this is the best salve when despondency weighs on the soul.… I visited the chapter in Nehemiah where I had left off last time. Again, the Lord faithfully brought to me just what I needed at just the right time.
“And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them joy” (Nehemiah 12:43).
That’s right. It is God who gives us joy. If we rely on circumstances (as I so often do), then we are sure to be disappointed. But if we acknowledge that God is the source of joy, then we cannot be disappointed.
When I was single, I sometimes felt a lack of joy because of being unmarried and not having a life partner. Something I desired deeply, and had dreamed of for years, was not happening for me. And I had no assurances that it ever would.
Now, four years later, I am married and have two children. I can’t describe how thankful I am for God’s wonderful gifts. Still, at times, I have found joy to be just as elusive as before. In fact, some of my greatest trials have come this side of marriage. And the more trials I experience, the more I am forced to come to terms with whether I believe God is good and whether I can trust Him.
As I walked through some dark and uncertain days — my son spent his birthday in a hospital bed, a rash covering his little body and an IV protruding from his arm — I wondered when and if joy would return. I felt numb and helpless as bad things continued happening to me and those close to me.
I’ve heard it said that joy is not dependent on circumstances — or “happenings” — the way happiness is. Even when happiness is far away, joy can still be present. And though happiness seems to be the preferable of the two — for it is not tinged with pain and loss — joy is the stronger and longer-lasting.
I want to walk in God-given joy, but how? As I searched Scripture for the answer, I discovered that joy isn’t always found in expected places.
Joy comes from being in His presence. David wrote in the Psalms: “You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (16:11).
Each time I find myself in the doldrums, I consider how much time I have spent with my Savior. Soaking in His Word. Listening for His voice. Joining other believers in worshiping Him. Oftentimes when I lack joy, I haven’t been seeking out His presence.
When I focus on my problems instead of God’s presence in my life, it’s easy to become disoriented and miss the joy He offers.
Joy comes from gratefulness. A few weeks ago, during a particularly discouraging week, I awoke to these words running through my mind: “Forget not His benefits.”
The words came from Psalm 103:2-4: “Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion.”
As I meditated on the benefits of knowing the Lord and walking with Him, I immediately felt an emotional weight lift. By remembering what He had already done for me, I was reminded of what my God is capable of. And while I don’t always relish the trials that come my way, I can still experience joy in praising Him.
Many of the emotions that steal our joy can be warded off through genuine praise and thanksgiving.
Joy comes from suffering. Joy in the midst of suffering may seem counterintuitive, but think about the Apostle Paul. A veritable poster child for suffering, he was beaten, imprisoned, ridiculed, exiled and eventually killed for his faith. Yet he speaks of joy liberally throughout his writings — 16 times in the book of Philippians alone.
James 1:2 encourages us: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
Suffering has a way of working out for our spiritual good. Hudson Taylor, a well-known missionary to China, wrote: “We will all have trials. The question is not when the pressure will come, but where the pressure will lie. Will it come between us and the Lord? Or will it press us ever closer to His breast?”
Because joy comes from being in God’s presence, when we allow suffering to press us closer to Him, we experience greater and deeper joy than is possible apart from suffering.
Joy comes from doing God’s will. Even Christ, our ultimate example, was motivated by joy. And He found it in doing the will of His Father.
“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, emphasis mine).
Many of the most transcendent and joyful moments of my life have come when I allow the Lord to use me to accomplish part of His plan. Speaking words of hope to a friend. Teaching the Gospel to a child. Even editing a manuscript that God will use to further His truth and transform lives.
If you’re lacking joy, consider whether you are doing the things God has called you to do. The “good works” He predestined for you (Ephesians 2:10). When I stay focused on doing the things God has called me to do, I open myself up to the joy that comes with serving Him and being a part of His magnificent work.
* * *
I’m walking through some dark days now, and there’s no guarantee that they won’t get darker. But I want joy to be my companion. Like the carefree child singing the Sunday school song, I want joy to overflow in my life and reside in my heart.
The thing about joy is that no matter how bad things get, it does eventually break through, like the dawning of a new day. Psalm 30:5 says, “Weeping may last for the night, but a shout of joy comes in the morning.”
When I seek the presence of God by spending time with Him, praising Him and seeking to do His will — even through hardships — joy cannot be suppressed. It will break through.
Copyright 2013 Suzanne Hadley Gosselin. All rights reserved.