There was a knock on the door of our small, third-floor seminary apartment. My wife and I had moved into the on-campus dorm a couple of months earlier and had not had much interaction with our neighbors, so the knock was uncommon.
We were not prepared for what met us on the other side of the door. A couple, newly moved-in a few doors down, enthusiastically greeted us and introduced themselves. They were very friendly. Suspiciously so for my skeptical personality. We introduced ourselves, shared a little about who we were, what we were studying, etc. The other couple stayed incredibly up-beat and chipper the entire time.
After several minutes of chit-chat we closed the door. “Wow,” I remarked to my wife. “Someone’s working hard to appear really happy.”
I Was The Problem
My skepticism over the overly friendly couple proved false. A few months later I found myself working alongside the husband on campus. Our wives became friends. We spent a lot of time together. They weren’t trying to appear happy. They were just joyful.
And they were joyful in everything. Their joy didn’t shrink in the face of hard things. They weren’t blindly optimistic. One of the more amusing moments of my life was watching her cheerfully get upset when she felt her husband had been mistreated.
It took a little time, but our friendship with this couple made me re-consider my whole concept of joy. Joy wasn’t acting happy even when things were difficult. Joy wasn’t the product of forced effort in spite of authentic feelings. There was something else to it.
Joy wasn’t the product of forced effort in spite of authentic feelings. There was something else to it.Tweet
I’m not sure how I missed it for all the prior years, but suddenly passages of Scripture that referenced joy began regularly jumping off the page at me:
- “You make known to me the path of life; in Your presence there is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” –Psalm 16:11
- “For You make him most blessed forever; You make him glad with the joy of Your presence.” –Psalm 21:6
- “Let those who delight in My righteousness shout for joy and be glad…” -Psalm 35:7
- “With joy you will draw waters from the well of salvation.” -Isaiah 12:3
- “Your words were found, and I ate them, and Your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart.” -Jeremiah 15:16
- “Yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” -Habakkuk 3:18
- “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” -Romans 14:17
- “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; against such things there is no law.” –Galatians 5:22-23
Examples are aplenty, but the theme jumped out at me over and over: joy and regularly experiencing God’s presence are inseperable.
Down Go the Defense Mechanisms
“Yeah, but I have a quiet time. I read my Bible. I pray… more regularly than most. I must be missing something.”
That’s what I told myself for a while. Surely I was doing everything I was supposed to be doing and the problem was external. I checked all the boxes, so why wasn’t I experiencing this kind of joy? It must just be my personality.
That all came down one faithful day as I heard a teaching on abiding in Christ that I had heard a million times before. In John 15 as Jesus probably strolls through a vineyard on the way to the Garden of Gethsemane He said:
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.John 15:4
Then, the lightbulb moment. Joy is a fruit.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is… joy”Galatians 5:22
I was struck with the conviction that I wasn’t experiencing joy because, in spite of all the perceived “spiritual” activity I was engaged in, I wasn’t actually abiding. My prayer times were formulaic instead of conversations. My Bible-reading was ritualistic as opposed to breathing in the Word of God. I allowed myself to dwell on the difficult instead of intentionally rejoicing.
The Rubber Met the Road
The most drastic change I made after that eureka moment was in how I resolved to answer a simple question everyone is asked multiple times a day: “How are you?”
Prior to that moment, my default answer centered on how busy I was, how something had happened that did not meet my expectations, or some other generally negative response. Now, I resolved that whenever I was asked some version of “How are you?” I would instead think about one thing that had recently gone well and share that.
Several months later I was in a conversation with a student I had known for a brief time. During the course of the conversation I confessed to not being in a great mood. The student was taken aback. Shock filled his face as he exclaimed, “But you’re always so… happy!”
I couldn’t help it. I burst out laughing. “No, no, no, no, no,” I said. “I’m generally a pretty miserable person.”
“Are you kidding? You’re one of the happiest people I know,” he replied.
Dumbfounded, I thanked him and walked away to consider what just happened. Then, I remembered that I had only known this student since I had made the simple decision to answer every version of “How are you?” with a positive answer.
It had worked. I still saw myself the same way. I still had many of the same thought processes. But joy was evident to others in a very tangible way.
Where We Miss the Mark
Many of us conflate joy with optimism. I am no optimist. But I have learned that joy can be cultivated to an extent that even my pessimistic, pragmatic, realistic self can display Christ-centered joy to students who don’t even know Jesus. Reflect on these two questions as you evaluate your joy meter:
- Are you abiding in Christ? I don’t mean are you having a quiet time. I mean are you actually connecting with Jesus in real, meaningful ways? Are you allowing Him to minister to the deepest parts of your heart and soul on a regular basis? If not, what is preventing it?
- Are you looking for joy? The Bible talks a lot about remembering the Lord and what He’s done for us. Do you have an intentional practice to “forget not all His benefits?” (Ps. 103:4) It can be as simple as my practice of choosing to respond to “How are you?” in a positive manner.