How to Have Joy When Life Isn’t Happy

I’ve been told something wonderful recently – “Your joy in the midst of hardships is inspiring!” I’m glad! It’s all God’s doing. If you don’t know what hardships I’m talking about, I’ll summarize: debilitating Lyme Disease, Covid-19, bedridden, weakness, isolation, back went out, setbacks, mysterious sensitivities to foods and medications, etc. It’s been quite a ride, but I am happy. Truly happy. Even though I missed my beloved family Thanksgiving this year. Even though I’ve been sick the whole life of my niece and haven’t been able to spend much time with her (and I adore kids). Even though a million things have gone wrong this year and last year. I’ve been happy. In fact, this is the happiest I’ve been in my whole life. How is that possible? I have two tips that have made a world of difference.

But first I need to clarify something. I’m going to use the words “joy” and “happiness” interchangeably. I know some people insist that they’re different. I don’t think so, but I’m not going to debate the issue. Some people are obviously miserable, yet they claim they have joy deep inside. I’m not going to say they don’t. But in my mind it’s kind of like planting a single flower and calling it a garden. I want to expand their vision a little and say that God can make you such a garden that Eden would blush in comparison. He’s ready and willing. Are you?

1. My Favorite Thing

My #1 favorite thing is spending time with God. What’s great about it is no person or circumstance can take that away from me. Ever. God is Immanuel. He’s with me. No matter what. When my back is spasming, my blood pressure is plummeting, my brain fog is thickening, and nothing seems to be working the way I want, the Love of my life who never lets me down is right there – understanding, sustaining, hugging, loving me. He makes me joyful. He makes me happy! Life’s hardballs can’t break me when I’m letting Jesus love me.

I know a lot of people have a hard time feeling close to God. That’s valid. Think of it this way: Suppose you have a dad who’s an awesome guy – you know, the kind you see in movies or in books where the dad is his kid’s best friend and confidant, the one who always has a wise answer or knows how to fix something when it’s broken, who likes to sit on the front porch or lean against the pickup truck and chat about anything under the sun. (I’m incredibly blessed to actually have a dad like that.) Imagine this dad of yours has written you a pack of letters. They include stories from his life, wise counsel, and words of affirmation and affection. Imagine he has a cell phone that’s always on, always with him, always fully charged, and always has coverage. Imagine he’s the kind of dad who will drop everything and come over any time you ask, day or night. Doesn’t matter how big or small the issue is or if you’re just lonely and want someone there or just feel like spending time with him.

Now imagine this: You don’t read his letters. You don’t really want to because your life is so busy. They sit there on the shelf and make you feel guilty because you know he wants you to read them. You wonder sometimes if he’s secretly mad at you for not reading them. Sometimes you do try to read them, but they’re so hard to understand because you’re sifting through trying to pick out what he’s trying to say he wants you to do, while he’s actually telling you about who he is and what he’s done.

You feel stressed because you spend a lot of time wondering what your dad wants from you, and that makes you feel less inclined to want to talk to him. You rarely call, and when you do, you talk the whole time and hang up before he has a chance to answer. Sometimes he starts to say something, but life’s busyness comes, so you hang up and attend to life. When you’re not busy, you’re too tired to want to talk to him. A lot of times you call with a to-do list for him and hang up without saying anything else or giving him a chance to respond. When some of the to-dos don’t get done the way you expected or when you expected, you feel like he wasn’t listening or maybe is mad at you. Maybe you get mad at him.

You don’t want to ask him to come over, because some part of you wonders if he wishes you weren’t his kid. You wonder if he loves you. You wonder if he cares enough to want to come over. You wonder if he’s too busy. You feel like you can’t ask him to come over because you’ve been such a bad kid, not reading his letters and always asking him for stuff. You don’t even do the things you know he wants you to do. Why would he want to talk to you?

Sometimes you ask him to come over or call him on the phone to try and connect, and it’s all awkward. You don’t know what to say. Sometimes in moments of high emotion you ask him to come over – or demand it – and when he comes, you rant and weep about your life or about your relationship with him. His arms are open to you for an embrace, but you don’t notice because your back is to him so you can’t see his face. You don’t want to see the disappointment or hatred in his eyes, and you miss seeing the love and compassion and understanding. You’re too afraid to hear him. Too afraid of what he might say. You doubt he even wants to talk to you. Or you’re angry with him and demand to know why he hasn’t fulfilled your to-dos that you told him over the phone. Your voice is so loud you can’t hear anything else. Your eyes are clenched shut. Your fists are squeezed so tightly your knuckles are white. Would this person feel close to their father? I think not.

By the way, I was once this person. A friend gave me very wise advice. She advised me to listen. Now imagine this person I just described paused in the busyness of life and stopped talking long enough to listen. At first, there is only silence. Your mind races. Your fears and doubts and anger and anxiety and other distractions clamor for attention. But you press on just for a little bit longer and keep trying hard to listen for your dad’s voice. A moment goes by, and you hear a whisper, “Have I not told you I love you from the day you were born? You don’t believe me. Do you think I am lying?” Shock hits you like a splash of cold water. Lying? You know your dad never lies. Never ever. For the first time in a long time, you turn toward your father. “I’m sorry for not believing you,” you say, your face downcast, ashamed. He embraces you very tightly and says in your ear, “I love you.” For the first time, you realize you have a choice: to believe him or to think he’s lying and disregard his words.

If you choose to believe he is a liar, you will continue in the cycle described above, feeling farther and farther away from him, even though he’s still available to you and loves you.

But if you choose to believe him, things will start to change. You’ll pause in your phone conversations long enough to listen, and you’ll hear him tell you things that make you laugh, calm you down, give you insight, and remind you of his love. When you have a list of to-dos, he’ll talk to you about them – confirming some, saying no to others (often with explanation), and modifying some. It won’t be like sitting on Santa’s lap, but it will be like having a real conversation with someone. You’ll know you’re heard and cared about, even if he says no or not yet to everything on the list. He’ll reassure you that he’s doing what’s best in the best possible timing.

You’ll read his letters because you want to know your dad better, and you’ll love learning all kinds of things about him. You’ll see sides of him you never knew before. You’ll stop thinking about yourself when you read, and your love and respect for him will grow. You’ll be amazed at his love.

You’ll start asking him to come over all of the time, and as you work up the courage to look him in the face, you’ll see his eyes shining with delight. You’ll realize he loves spending time with you, and you’ll love spending time with him. Soon you’ll want him over nonstop, joining you in every part of your life. You’ll find your life becoming sweeter the more you invite him into it. You’ll have his comfort and strength in times of pain. You’ll have his laughter, smiles, and quick witty remarks in times of joy. You’ll have his calming reassurance and stalwart steadiness in times of chaos. The storms of life will still blow fiercely, but you’ll find that his embrace is a shelter that can withstand the strongest hurricane. You will feel close to your dad, and you’ll cherish the relationship more than anything else in your life.

People will start to notice and wonder what’s different about you. You’ll have opportunities, and telling stories about your dad and introducing people to him will become a pleasure, not a duty. It will flow easily, not be forced. And when you tell others about what he’s done, he’ll smile that special smile of a dad who is proud of his kid and thank you, just before he invites you to take a walk with him and shoot the breeze.

I’ve left church out of this analogy. Church when you don’t believe God’s words is like putting on a façade and pretending you have a good relationship with your dad and hoping no one sees through your mask. Going to church when you do believe God’s words is like hanging out with a bunch of relatives whom you love and telling stories about your dad – learning from them and sharing with them what he’s been doing with you recently. Listening to a Bible-based sermon is like hearing awesome stories from someone who has known your dad a long time.

So, how does one go from not believing something to believing it? Well, when it comes to truth, the Holy Spirit does His part. For our part, first of all know that belief is a choice, not a feeling. If you don’t feel like God loves you, like His words apply to you, I get it. Don’t worry about that part of it. Seriously. Don’t chase a feeling. Remember in Batman Begins with Christian Bale and Liam Neeson when they’re training on the mountain and Bale falls through the ice into the water? Remember when they’re by the fire, Bale is shivering and rubbing his arms, and Neeson tells him, “Rub your chest; your arms will take care of themselves”? That’s how it is with choices and feelings. Focus on your choices; your feelings will deal with themselves.

Here’s another analogy. Imagine that for whatever reason you were taught all your life the wrong names for colors. You were taught that blue is yellow and yellow is blue. Then you meet someone who tells you the truth, that the sky is blue and sunflowers are yellow. What would you do? If you really believed that person, you would start to retrain yourself correctly. Whenever you saw yellow, your mind would instinctively think blue, but you’d override that and think to yourself, “This isn’t blue. This is yellow. Yellow, yellow, yellow. This is yellow.” When you saw blue, you’d do the same thing. “That’s blue. Blue. Bluuuuue. That is blue. Blue, blue, bluey blue. This is yellow, and that is blue.” It might take a while to retrain yourself, and you’d probably make mistakes sometimes, especially in the spur of the moment. But you’d keep at it. That’s how you choose to believe something. “God loves me. God really does love me. God loves me. God created me and designed me and did not make a mistake. He delights in me, in the real me. God loves me. He really does. He actually loves me, wholly and completely. God knows me, who I really am, and He loves me. Fully. God likes me and loves me.” We need to train ourselves to believe all the things God has said. Which, by the way, means we actually need to know the things God has said. Read your Bible. Learn from others who know Him. Pray. Listen. Make sure everything you hear and everything you’re taught aligns with the Bible, which is God’s Word. God never contradicts Himself.

In our first-world society, hearing from God directly is a strange concept. It isn’t strange to a lot of others, but we don’t often hear about them. At least, not unless you know where to find their stories. (If anyone is interested, my personal favorites are the book The Insanity of God by Nik Ripken and the podcast VOM Radio with Todd Nettleton by The Voice of the Martyrs.) Some Christians emphatically believe God only speaks through His written Word nowadays. Some other Christians would laugh if they heard this, for they know better. I know better. One time I was with a friend at a Christian retreat, and when walking past a box of tissues, I heard God say, “Grab some Kleenex.” I snatched a few, and He said, “That’s enough.” I stuck them in my pocket and forgot about them. A little while later, a young woman came to speak to my friend about something on her heart. As I left the room to give them some privacy, God said, “The tissues are for her.” I said aloud, “Oh!” So, I turned around and handed her the tissues, saying, “These are for you.” Then I left. There were no tissues in the room where my friend talked with the young lady, and the young lady did cry while they talked and needed some tissues.

How do I have joy when life isn’t happy? I hang out with God. He cheers me up faster than anyone else, and the happiness He inspires lingers.

2. Think About It

One of my favorite versions of Charles Dickens’ The Christmas Carol is the 1970 movie musical Scrooge. I love especially the song, “I Like Life,” which is sung by the Ghost of Christmas Present. There’s a line in that song which stuck out to me and has made an impact in my life. The Ghost sings, “I like the thoughts that I am thinking!” How often can we say the same?

The heart outflows through the mouth, according to the Bible.

“For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.”

Matthew 12:34b, NASB1995

That’s convicting when I think about some of the words that flow out of my mouth. They aren’t flukes; they’re all coming from somewhere in my heart. That’s why I need a Savior who forgives and saves me from my sin. Thank You, Jesus!

I believe the mind outflows through the mood.

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.”

Philippians 4:8, NASB1995

“The steadfast of mind You will keep in perfect peace, because he trusts in You.”

Isaiah 26:3, NASB1995

When I have a crummy attitude, I have to look at my thoughts and see what’s rotten in them. When I can’t find it, I ask God, and He shows me. Either way, I have to find the stinky thoughts and toss them out like garbage and replace them with fresh, sweet-smelling thoughts. My mood will immediately improve if I do. I can make it a whole lot easier on myself to have good thoughts and a good mood if I’m careful about what I listen to, watch, read, and meditate on.

Are you caught up in social media and a stressed out slave to what others think of you? Or freaking out over the state of our country, the onset of Covid-19, and a million other things while the news plays on your television 24/7? Want to know what I’m inputting into my mind? I’m over here watching Disney’s Zorro tv series from 1957. It’s fantastic. What was I watching before that? The Adventures of Spin and Marty from 1955. They’re fun. Before that? I was reading The Hardy Boys. (Feel free to nurture your inner child as you pursue thinking nice thoughts.) Do I care about the state of the world? Of course I do. But God is God. I can’t control things. And my knowing the exact number of people who came down with Covid this month doesn’t aid me in my prayers for the world. If anything, it hinders me because I start focusing more on the problem than the Solution. Fear is not nearly as effective as faith when it comes to praying. And I don’t need to understand everything that’s going on; God does. God wants me to focus on understanding Him and His ways. When I do that, I don’t have much time left for fear-mongers. It might sound unspiritual to read all 58 Hardy Boys originals, but it actually honors God a lot when I choose not to worry and choose to enjoy this life He’s given me. And it’s twice as fun when He reads them over my shoulder and shares my amusement and pleasure.

I have to confess, I’m bad at meditating. As in blank stare, I-don’t-even-know-what-meditating-is, super distracted bad. But God gave me a means of meditating through memorization. I’ve memorized a lot of Bible verses since getting so sick, and I love it because memorization forces me to meditate. Meditation opens up so much depth and beauty and newness to words I’ve read a dozen times before. The lovely thing about both memorization and meditation is that they are intensive inputs for the mind. The more I read Scripture and memorize it, the more my thoughts are on God’s words, and the happier I am.

When I missed Thanksgiving with my family, except for one brief moment, I refused to think about what I was missing. I refused to sacrifice my happy day on the altar of feeling-sorry-for-myself. What did I truly have to feel sorry for? The Love of my life was with me and eager to watch 1950’s tv shows with me and talk with me about whatever I wanted. If I focused on what I was missing, I would miss out on what was being offered to me instead. I had fun on Thanksgiving. Instead of loneliness, I had the company of the One who knows and loves me best and who instills beauty and importance into every single thing that happens in my life. Instead of misery, I had amusement. Instead of stung feelings of entitlement, I had gratitude for my grandma who took care of me and my parents who brought me yummy food and told me funny stories from the day. Instead of regret, I had a special day and a special lesson for the future that it’s possible to take the burn out of disappointment by choosing God and choosing joy.

So, these are my two tips for how to sow a garden of joy in the midst of life’s storms. My “deep” and most important technique is to spend time with God. My secondary “simple” and supplementary technique is to think about happy things. I’m not an expert at either one. But the better I get at doing them, the more joy I have. Life can do what it wants; I’m planning on being happy the rest of my years.

Photo by Gage Walker on Unsplash

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