Because I grew up in a pastor’s home, went to a Christian college, married a pastor, became a Bible teacher, and co-wrote a book on systematic theology for the average Christian, you might naturally assume that I have my spiritual act totally together and have this joy “thing” mastered. I wish I could say that was an accurate assumption, but truthfully, I wrote this book because I don’t always have it all together! You and I share similar struggles and questions, and I need joy just as much as you do.
Joy does not come easily to me; I’m definitely more of a glass-half-empty kind of gal. In fact, I’ve struggled with low-level depression as far back as I can remember. As a little girl I was emotionally intense—I cried easily, agonized over the pain others felt, and carried the weight of the world on my small shoulders. So I’m not talking to you about joy from the perspective of one of those deliriously happy, peppy people who never have a down day. Some days I’m thrilled just to survive!
The Bible gives some commands that are extremely hard to understand and even harder to live out. One of the most difficult commands is to forgive our enemies. In light of the terrible cruelty and evil we can inflict on each other, this seems like asking an armchair athlete to climb Mt. Everest—impossible. The Bible also says not to worry about anything. Anything? Really? Many of us spend a good portion of every waking hour worried or anxious about something. How could God reasonably expect us not to worry? But to me, even harder than either of those two commands is the one found in James 1:2: “When troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy” (NLT).
Are you kidding me? When trouble comes my way, my first thoughts aren’t usually about experiencing great joy. My typical reaction is more along the lines of fear, panic, worry, and even hopelessness. At the very least, I reserve the right to gripe and moan about my troubles. Hardly an opportunity for great joy.
It’s really because of my own struggles to live with joy that I began to explore why my experiences didn’t match up with Scripture. I studied the life of Jesus Christ and observed the way biblical characters such as King David; Mary, the mother of Jesus; the apostle Paul; and James, the half-brother of Jesus, reacted to trouble and sorrow and hard times. For instance, the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 5:
We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert to whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit! (vv. 3–5 Message)
I saw a Grand Canyon–sized gap between their lives and mine, and it began to bother me. It was clear that joy—even in pain—was something the biblical writers expected Christians to experience on a regular basis, but I wasn’t. Wondering what was different about their faith that allowed them to respond to their circumstances with joy launched me on an intensely personal search. Why was there a discrepancy between my experiences and theirs? I needed to know how to bridge the gigantic gap that was keeping me from living a joyful life.
I’ll fill you in on what I’m learning as we go along, but let me jump to the conclusion of the search and tell you the bottom line: Joy is a choice. Nothing I will say in the rest of this book is more critical to the way you live out your years than that small sentence. Joy is a choice. The level of joy you experience is completely and totally up to you. It is not dependent on anyone else—what they do or don’t do, how they behave or don’t behave. Joy cannot be manipulated by the actions of puny human beings. It is not dependent on the amount of sadness or suffering or difficulties you endure. Joy cannot be held hostage to fear, pain, anger, disappointment, sadness, or grief. At the end of any given day, the amount of joy you experienced is the exact amount of joy you chose to experience. You, my friend, are in charge. The sooner you embrace this pivotal reality, the sooner you can begin to live a more joyful life.
The Bell Curve of Joy
Each of us approaches the idea of joy differently. You may remember from a high school or college astronomy class the Gaussian Probability Distribution—yeah, probably not—but in simple English, think of a bell curve. At one end of the bell curve are people who don’t struggle much to have joy. Their natural temperament is optimistic and upbeat—the glass is half full. Sometimes they really annoy me because they never stop smiling and they seem to float through life with a cheerful, carefree, lighthearted attitude. I mutter to myself, I wonder if she’d be smiling so big if she had my problems. Maybe she really is living a charmed life; life hasn’t slapped her around a whole lot yet. But another possibility is that life has slapped her around and she has done some serious spiritual work and learned how to access joy every day. Regardless, some women are on the positive end of the bell curve.
The vast majority of us are in the middle of the bell curve. Life isn’t awful; we’re moderately happy, not too high and not too low. We don’t normally get overly discouraged or depressed. We admit to feeling tired a lot, perhaps a bit bored by the routine, and sometimes even flat. Daily joy? I’m not so sure. But, we hastily add, nothing is really wrong.
As the bell curve moves downward, there is a smaller group of people at the other end. They are hiding—or not hiding—a cavernous well of depression. Getting out of bed every morning is a chore, and the pleasures of life are gone; smiling and laughing are hard to do. Joy has simply evaporated. That might be because of stress in a relationship, a job change, physical illness, or even deep grief or loss. While women with mild depression can bounce back fairly quickly, those traveling the hard road of profound loss often need years to process their grief before they find their emotional and spiritual equilibrium restored. But the accompanying depression can leave them feeling guilty because they know they’re “supposed” to be joyful and they’re not.
Depression might also be present because of a chemical imbalance. We don’t talk about this much, but many Christians battle depression and stress because of a biochemical imbalance. Some women have bipolar disorder, characterized by dramatic mood swings between periods of wild euphoria and disabling depression. Schizophrenia, personality disorders, or many other forms of mental illness—some mild, some severe—plague Christian families just as often as non-Christian families. Physical disability is obvious to the casual observer, but mental brokenness can hide beneath a “normal”-looking exterior. My friend Shannon Royce calls this having a “hidden disability.”1 Unfortunately, because of our innate desire to deny our problems and the hard-line stance of those who believe any psychological disruption is mostly a matter of poor discipleship, Christians are often reluctant to talk about mental health issues. This leaves millions suffering alone, ashamed, and, worst of all, unsupported by the church. The stigma is real, and it hurts.
As this curve continues, there’s an even smaller group of people at the far end who are contemplating suicide. For some of you, you’ve given life your best shot, and it’s just not enough anymore. You’re worn out from the struggle to survive another day, and escaping your painful circumstances has begun to dominate your thoughts.
You may even wonder if your family would be better off without you. You’ve certainly thought that you would be better off without experiencing such pain. Joy is as alien to you as a foreign country. It’s so far off in the distance that you believe you will never reach it again, nor are you sure you have the energy to try. You find your struggle extremely difficult to talk about, especially if you’re a Christ follower; if mentioning mental illness at church is a risky topic, then talking about suicide or suicidal thoughts can be the ultimate taboo in church.
It’s possible you’re reading this book because someone who cares very much for you is aware of the enormous battle you’re fighting and longs for you to experience joy once more. As John Eldredge says, “The story of your life is the story of a long and brutal assault on your heart by the one who knows what you could be and fears it.”2 The enemy of your heart, Satan, does not want you to leave the place of despair, but the lover of your wounded heart, Jesus Christ, has a better plan for you, and it includes joy.
Wherever you are on the bell curve, God has a tender word of encouragement for you: There is concrete, genuine hope for joy in your life. Even if you are in the middle of despair right now, you can experience joy. It is not out of your reach! Happiness in and of itself will never be enough; it’s simply too flimsy, too unreliable, too unpredictable. You were meant for something more. You were meant to experience a life of joy.