We have a lot of words in our Christian faith that we throw around kind of flippantly without ever thinking about what they really are and what they really mean to us. One of those words is joy.
The truth is I've taught about joy. I've sung about joy. I've even thought about exactly what joy is and what it means. At the end of the day, though, I don't know that I've ever really bought in to the fullness of what joy is or can be in my life. I don't know if I've ever fully understood just how important it is for us as Believers to really grab on to the joy that God offers us through the Holy Spirit.
Joy is tricky. It's tricky to talk about, to teach about, and it's kind of tricky to understand. I'm not saying that God is trying to trick us with joy, but our language causes the concepts of joy and happiness to be almost interchangeable. I guess that's ok until you consider the fact that we get sad sometimes. Then, we have to ask the question, if joy is a fruit of the spirit (according to Galatians) and joy and happiness are pretty much the same thing, then when I'm sad am I not be being spiritual? Or..in simple terms, if joy and happiness are the same thing, is it a sin when I'm not happy? IF joy and happiness are the same thing,the the answer would be yes I suppose.
Now, I KNOW that joy and happiness aren't the same thing. I realize that happiness is my emotional response to a positive situation and that joy is something deeper and more spiritual than a simple emotional response. I also recognize that joy is a spiritual thing that is not only supposed to be a product of what the Holy Spirit is doing in my life, but also a source of strength within me that comes from God. I know all of that...but what I have found myself struggling with is how to tap into the joy that I'm supposed to have when I'm really sad.
In fact, it's a lot easier to talk about joy and sing about joy and sometimes be happy and call it joy than it is to actually grasp what joy is and how it works in my life.
In the aftermath of my chaotic experience with God's grace and love, I began to learn a few things about myself...maybe I should say that I began to admit a few things about myself. One of the things involved a situation I found myself in that absolutely broke my heart. I found myself incredibly sad at the damage I had done. I found myself frustrated at my inability to fix the damage I caused. I found myself depressed because I didn't understand how I could feel so spiritually free and emotionally torn up. I found myself praying that God would fix the situation. I had literally never dealt with the emotions that were now welling up inside of me, and they began to overtake me. I had times when I would reach out to God and seek His strength and seek His joy and for moments at a time I would begin to find it only to let it go and sink back into a place of sorrow.
Stopping for a moment to tell you what I've learned about sadness and despair. It's comfortable. As much as it hurts, it can be really comfortable to be sad and depressed. In fact, if you're in a situation where you're holding on to something that has made you sad then the sadness and despair can feel almost necessary. It sounds twisted, but when you're sad about someone you've lost, or a situation that you want to change, getting over the sadness and despair may feel like giving up or letting go or even forgetting. So it is that sometimes we hold on to sadness or depression because we think it's all we have left of a situation and it becomes so easy to continue to be sad because we know what that feels like. If we get over the situation that has hurt us, if we are no longer sad, then we really don't know what's coming. We really have to move forward and that is scary because that means we are letting go and we have no idea what the future holds. At least that's what has been true in my life. I came to a point in which I would have rather been sad and despairing than to move past that in my life because to move past it was losing any little bit of control I may have had in the situation.
There's nothing wrong with being sad. Sadness is a legitimate emotion that we experience when we go through things in life that hurt us. Jesus was sad. Not all the time, but we have instances in scripture of Jesus being sad. He was sinless...so there are times when it's ok to be sad. In fact, I'm convinced more than ever that it's never wrong to be sad until we let sadness and the situations that make us sad become what we focus on.
I'm not sure that sadness is the opposite joy. In fact, I think that joy can be a powerful thing in the midst of sadness. I've experienced it.
This is where it gets weird.
It wasn't long ago that in my attempts to try to make my situation stop hurting me that I was crushed. Emotionally crushed I mean. I had done all that I knew to do. I had so desperately tried to set this one thing in my life right and nothing seemed to set it right. Then, with one statement, I found myself literally crushed under the weight of the realization that the real truth is that unless God steps in to change things, this situation may never be set to what I consider to be right. I couldn't breathe. Literally, I found myself struggling to breathe and gather myself up for the tasks that I had ahead of me that day. For the rest of the day, every step felt like I was walking hip deep in wet concrete that was swiftly drying. I went to bed that night with tears in my eyes and desperate prayer on my lips. The next day I woke up to the phone call of a friend checking in on me. I started the day with tears in my eyes and the situation on my mind. Trudging through the day, I just couldn't seem to function. Then, that evening, I was sitting at home...and got tired of just sitting there.
I went for a drive. As I was driving, I found myself losing it. Again, tears sprang to my eyes. The reality of my situation hit my heart and mind yet again like huge weight pressing down on me. Through the noise of my sadness and despair, I heard a stirring in my soul, "This has to stop."
"I don't know how." I said within myself. "I don't know how to let go. I don't know how to not be sad. I don't know how to deal with this." I realized that I was praying now. (I know it sound overly dramatic, but this is what happened that evening. It still makes me feel a little strange.)
"You can't be controlled by this sadness." I felt The Spirit say.
"I don't want to be. But," Then I got a little defensive. "You've taken so much else of me, why do I have to let this go?"
"You've got stuff to do. Let's fight this."
"Ok" I answered. (I know...really spiritual way of talking to God...but it was all I could say.)
In the past, I have found myself quoting scripture out loud and listening to some praise and worship music to move past sadness in order to get into a place where I could at least minister to my kids. That evening, I knew that scripture was the place to start.
None came to mind. I couldn't believe it. I've never had a problem remembering encouraging scripture. Then I felt something welling up inside of me. Everything that pertained to the situation that was hurting me so much seemed to come together like a wave. (Looking back, this is the image I have in my head of what seemed to be happening in my spirit) As all of this stuff gathered, I suddenly remembered part of one verse and even that ended up being a paraphrase.
"The joy of the Lord is my strength." I began to say over and over through gritted teeth. I was literally waging war in my spirit. As I drove my hands gripped the steering wheel tighter and tears began to spring to my eyes. I could feel the swelling sorrow of my situation begin to come crashing down on me. "The joy of the Lord is my strength." I said again and again. Then I remembered. "His mercies are new every morning." "His love endures forever." "I will look unto the hills, and where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord who made the Heavens and the Earth."
As the source of my sorrow continued to crash down on me like a wave I said these things out loud. And then...it was over...the wave had passed...and I was still standing.
"You can't keep going in sadness and despair. Let's fight this. My joy is your strength." That's what the Spirit seemed to say to me in that moment.
And in that moment, I began to find joy again.
I don't know if I can fully describe joy. I don't know if I fully have my head around it yet, but what I've learned is this.
Joy is not happiness. Joy is strength in any situation because joy is a spiritual understanding of what is good and glorious. Joy is more than optimism. Joy is more than an emotional response to a circumstance. Joy comes from the part of our spirit that refuses to focus on what is negative and hurtful. Joy grabs our attention and places it on the goodness of a God who loves us. Joy energizes us when we're weary, strengthens us when we're weak, and encourages us when we're sad.
I truly believe that the source of joy is found in the heart of God's grace. Grace that says "No matter what I love you. No matter how far you think you have fallen, you are not out of My reach. No matter how bleak the situation I am in control. No matter how ugly things seem, I make all things beautiful in its time." That is the heart of joy.
I truly believe we tap in to the strength of joy when we shift our focus from that which hurts to what God has for us. If it seems like God is doing nothing, then we go back to what God has done or said. For me, it's the scriptures of His grace and love that I find myself clinging to, because even if in the moment I don't trust what He is doing in a situation, I know that at my core I trust what He has said in His word.
Joy helps us keep going when we don't think we can take another step. Joy helps us keep breathing when the weight of the world seems to press the life out of us. Joy encourages us when we feel nothing but defeat. Joy helps us find a smile when all we can muster are tears.
I am learning that the enemy hates for me to tap into the Joy of the Lord. Because when I do, I find the motivation, creativity, and confidence that seemed to be gone for good. I find the ability to laugh, and as I laugh it does my heart good like a medicine. The enemy wants me to sit in the apparent comfort of sadness and despair and miss opportunities to impact people's lives. The enemy wants me to sit in the apparent comfort of sadness and miss what God is doing in my life. So the enemy is going to fight to steal my joy, but I have decided...I'm fighting for my joy.
I find myself at yet another place in my life where I've never really been. My heart still feels a certain weight of sadness, and I think that's ok. Rather than cover it up, I will be honest about it. Rather than embrace it, I will process it. Rather than, be defeated by it, I will tap in to the joy of the Lord that is truly my strength.
Thank God that He has given us joy. This amazing thing that goes far beyond an emotional response. God, through His grace, has given His children the means to walk through any situation. The simple yet hard to explain truth of joy.
There's tons more to say about joy. But right now, I just have to smile, because I God is so good, and His joy is truly my strength.