It seems to come so naturally for most children who have their basic needs met – a joyful enthusiastic attitude toward life. Smiles a mile wide at the mere prospect of an ice cream cone, screams of delight at the sight of a friend coming over to “play”, a secure and confident trust that leads to almost instantaneous sleep in the arms of a mother or father – all of these are simply normal reactions to life for a child who is loved and secure. Unfortunately, as the years pass and the reality of the brokenness of our world, our own lives, and the lives of others increases, our joy seems to erode away like a sandcastle on a beach slowly being washed away by the encroaching tide of life. When that tide hits, many of us embrace a cynical pessimism towards life and attempt to substitute momentary “adult” pleasures of many kinds (generally some form of the “big three” – money, sex and power) for the heartfelt joy we may have experienced as a child but which now seems as scarce as snow blowers in the Bahamas.
Yet, I believe this heartfelt joy for a believer is essential…so essential is this quality of joy that God commands it (Phil. 2:4) and the health and vigor of our spiritual lives depends on it (Neh 8:10). So critical and central to the life of a believer is this joy that only love precedes it in the list of fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22)! Many sincere followers of Christ would argue vigorously that we need to be loving, patient, self controlled, kind, and good, etc. but, do we consider a lack of joy a spiritual deficiency? Or do we simply accept this lack of joy as an inevitable part of life? I believe the lack of real joy may be the greatest sin of omission and one of the most debilitating sins that the church is facing today.
So crucial is joy that we need to be willing to fight to get it and battle to keep it. Yet, therein lies the paradoxical problem. As C.S. Lewis has written, “Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.” (Surprised by Grief) How can I fight for something that ultimately is a gift from God that I cannot produce in my own life by my own effort? If it is a gift, why is it commanded? Yet, when you think about it, this is the central conundrum of all the commands in Scripture: I am called to do something that, in and of my own power, I have no ability to do…but I am still told to do it and held responsible if I do not obey! Impossible! Unfair! Yes, it would be were it not for the gracious work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Paul calls me to “work out my salvation” which implies exerting significant effort on my part in order to grow in holiness. But, in the same sentence, states that the reason I can work it out is that God is at work in me for his purposes (Phil. 2:12-13). So is it me or is it God?? It is God in and through me! I am called to obey in faith trusting in the resources I have in the Holy Spirit to enable me to do the impossible. In our fight for joy we need to remember that joy is indeed a gift from God, yet it is received as he enables and equips us to fight for it.
In 1 Timothy 4:7 the old experienced Paul tells his young protégé to “train yourself to be godly”. As we have applied various “disciplines” of the Christian life, I doubt that very many of us have consciously thought about training ourselves to experience joy. We discipline ourselves to memorize Scripture, do our DQT, gather to worship and fellowship, attempt to share our faith. But, if you are like me, the thought of engaging in disciplines to experience joy was not something that regularly crossed my radar screen. Yet, since joy is one of the key characteristics of a life connected with the Spirit, it should be one of the primary foci of my spiritual training/discipline. Recently, I sank deep into the “slough of despond” primarily because I was not fighting for joy…training myself to be godly in this area. Satan is no slouch when it comes to his attempts to weaken us as believers and put us on the sidelines. He knows that since the joy of the Lord is a major component of our spiritual strength (Neh. 8:10), if he can rob us of that joy, then we will be ineffective for the cause of The Kingdom. How enthusiastic and effective are you in sharing your faith, teaching the Word, resisting the temptations of sin, and loving sacrificially those around you when the joy you have in the Lord has waned? Do you see how vital this deep seated joy in Lord is if we are to truly follow Christ and obey all that he has commanded us to do?
Well, how do we fight for joy? I don’t have this all down, as my recent visit to the “slough of despond” clearly shows, but I am learning some things from the heat of the battle that have helped me. I’ll share them with you in hopes that one or two may be used by God in your life as you fight for joy.
Keep short accounts with God! Deliberately holding on to sin when the Holy Spirit is convicting us is a sure recipe for spiritual depression! The gift of joy will not be poured into our hearts when our hearts are full of sin. Read Psalm 32 and Psalm 51 for David’s experience before he was willing to come clean and confess his sin… “strength sapped”, “bones wasting away”, “groaning all day long”. He doesn’t sound like a very joyful camper! David needed to come clean and ask the Lord to restore the joy of his salvation because it had vanished due to his unconfessed sin. I’m sure most of us have experienced a lack of joy in our spiritual life during periods of willful rebellion. If the Holy Spirit is calling you to repent and confess, then get on with it or you will not experience God’s joy. It has been said the most miserable people are believers who are holding on to sin because they can’t fully enjoy the pleasure of sin due to the conviction of the Holy Spirit and they certainly are not experiencing the joy of the Holy Spirit when they are grieving him! Moral perfection is not required for joy but honest confession of our failings certainly is!
Honest prayer is required! “Why are you downcast, O my soul,” is David’s repeated honest statement in Psalm 42. Life throws us curveballs and it is inevitable that we will be “downcast” at one point or another. What do we do then? Do we merely accept the reality? David here talks to himself and to God…in other words he actively fights for joy. Prayer is an essential weapon in our fight for joy. After describing our spiritual armor in Ephesians 6, Paul urges us to pray. Cry out to the Lord. Admit to him that you lack joy. Ask him daily for the strength to overcome the temptation to be joyless. It will do no good simply to paste on a plastic smile and tell everyone you are doing “fine”. Joy is a deep seated happy confidence in Christ and his love for you. If we lack it we need to be honest and ask the Lord to supply what is missing. See Paul’s prayers for his fellow believers in Eph. 1:18-23 and 3:14-21.
Develop a perceptive thankfulness! We tend to focus on what God has not given instead of perceiving and then rejoicing and giving thanks for all he is giving us. It started at the beginning with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. An awesome, amazingly perfect environment with huge joy producing potential was ruined because the couple focused on the only thing God had not given. This was a key feature of my recent time in the “slough of despond”. I was terribly ungrateful for the many, many ways God has shown himself faithful and became fixated on one area where God has not performed to my satisfaction. We can do this in a marriage, in a job, in a church, with our kids.
Lose the “Christmas Letter Life” myth! In a culture that panders to our selfish whims and a Christian sub-culture that constantly markets self-help books “guaranteed” to make our marriage, finances, children, jobs, relationships, and spiritual lives work perfectly, it is very easy for us to develop unrealistic expectations of what this life owes me and how it should work. Life is NOT like it is in everyone’s Christmas letter. The perfect picture where even the dog is smiling – what you don’t know is that they took 2357 digital shots to get the one they included with the letter. The kids are perfect and on their way to Harvard right after they compete in the Olympics and finish the calculus class they are taking in Pre-K! We are broken and live in a broken world and much of life will be difficult this side of eternity. God promised us his presence in the midst of trouble not the absence of trouble altogether – that comes later. A wise older mentor told me, “If you know the road ahead will be rough, then every bump along the way just confirms you are on the right path.” Our joy is in Him, not our circumstances. If we are depending on sunny circumstances to provide us with joy then the inevitable and necessary rainy days of life will quickly put us into a tailspin. Joy from the Spirit runs deeper and can even enable us to sing God’s praises in prison! See Acts 16:23ff also Ps. 73; Hab. 3:17-18
Resist regret! “If only…” is the way some of our most joy destroying thoughts begin. “If only I had married a different person.” “If only I had taken a different job.” “If only I had more kids (less kids, no kids).” “If only…..(I’m sure you have filled in this blank before)” Paul had all sorts of issues from his past that could have seriously robbed him of his joy in the Lord (running into a relative of a Christian you had killed would tend to suck the joy out of you!). Yet, he learned to “forget what was behind” and press on toward Christ and what was ahead for him (Phil. 3:13-14). God in his sovereignty can and does even use our sinful mistakes and poor choices to get us where he wants us to be (Eph 2:10; Rom 8:28ff; Gen. 50:20). Letting go of the guilt and regret will help us immensely in our fight for joy. Memorize Rom. 8:1
Eat Right! What is my mind feeding on? If I am giving it a constant diet of media and depressing news coverage, is it any wonder that I am feeling my joy drain away? If I am feeding on a constant diet of glossy magazines, catalogs and drug store novels, is it any wonder that my actual life does not meet my unrealistic expectations and my joy evaporates? God’s Word is nourishment. It is life. It is hope. By the time George Mueller (the famous English orphanage director) was 71 he had read through the Bible over a 100 times. He said this to a group of young believers, “I saw the most important thing I had to do was give myself to the reading of the Word of God, and to meditation on it…What is the food of the inner man? Not prayer, but the Word of God; and…not the simple reading of the Word of God, so that it only passes through our minds, just as water runs through a pipe, but considering what we read, pondering over it, and applying it to our hearts.”
Rest Right! My joy will fluctuate wildly until I come to the place where I develop a strong confidence in God’s sovereign control over every aspect of my life (Eph. 1:11). When I mistakenly think that I am in control and I need to “make it happen”, the weight of that responsibility crushes the joy right out of me. I need to make every effort to enter that place of confident rest in the finished work of Jesus on the cross and the fact that he will guide me exactly to where he wants me to be ( Heb 4:10-11; Eph. 2:10). Then, like a child, I can fall asleep joyfully and confidently in his powerful arms.
Warning: I realize that there are those who struggle desperately to experience joy. I also realize that we are all fallen and broken people. Some of us must deal with broken thyroid glands, some with broken insulin regulators, some with broken brain chemistry. If your brain chemistry is not as it should be there is absolutely nothing wrong with availing yourself of modern medicines that allow you to function at a “normal” level. One of the greatest preachers of all time, Charles Spurgeon, would often spend Sunday afternoons, after delivering a powerful message and seeing many come to Christ, crying like a baby on his wife’s lap. I have no doubt that he was dealing with a brain chemical imbalance and would have been helped greatly with modern medicine. A pill will not eliminate the need to fight for joy but it may place you in a position where you can wholeheartedly engage in the battle.
As with any training program, I advise you to consult your physician (the Great Physician) for specific guidance and direction as to how you should approach your fight for joy.
Good Resources for the fight: The Bible – all others pale by comparison. Desiring God and When I Don’t Desire God by John Piper; Spiritual Depression – Its Causes and Its Cure by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones