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The air felt oppressively hot and sticky. A haze of dust and grime engulfed me as I watched dirty, half-naked children scamper around the rows of ramshackle cardboard houses. It was hard to fathom that hundreds of people actually lived in this cramped, filthy neighborhood — one of many “colonias” (poor, make-shift communities) near Juarez, Mexico. Most of the homes were made from boxes, with blankets or thin tarps laid across the top. The nicer dwellings boasted walls of crumbling cinder block instead of cardboard. Instead of bathrooms or even outhouses, there were only designated holes in the ground. And instead of privacy and fences, entire families crowded into tiny spaces smaller than my one-person bedroom back home. It seemed like such a hopeless, depressing place.
When our mission team arrived in the colonia, I expected every resident that I met to be sad and gloomy — in keeping with their dismal circumstances and surroundings. But that was not the case.
There was a little boy who didn’t have so much as one toy to play with, but had resorted to rocks and sticks to fuel his imagination. Yet surprisingly, I realized I had never seen such a sincere smile and innocent joy on a child’s face as on that little boy’s.
There was a young mother of two toddlers who joyfully greeted us and invited us into her tiny, one-room home with a dirt floor and cinder block walls. Though she had next to nothing, she received us graciously and happily. Instead of talking about her woes and sorrows, she was genuinely cheerful and outward-focused, showing true hospitality in every way she could.
During the few days that we spent working in the colonia, I was stunned to meet one local after the next who had a happy countenance and a cheerful, contented spirit. I had come to Mexico expecting to bring help and comfort to the destitute. But I found that the poor were actually challenging and convicting me. Materially speaking, I possessed far more than they did. But when it came to possessing a consistently happy attitude, they ran circles around me.
I was eighteen and two years earlier had become a devoted follower of Christ. I had a loving, God-fearing family and church. God was unfolding a beautiful love story for me with a wonderful Christian man. I had so many things to be grateful for.
But to my shame, I had to admit that I often struggled with discontentment. Though I had been given so much, I didn’t consistently exude the refreshing cheerfulness I now saw in these impoverished people’s lives.
During the long bus trip home from Mexico to Colorado, I inwardly grappled with this obvious weakness in my life. If Jesus Christ was a reality to me, then why was I so often unhappy and discontent? If the poorest of the poor could be happy in their difficult circumstances, why couldn’t I be happy in my wonderfully blessed circumstances?
Certainly I had many moments in my life of real joy. But I also had many moments of unhappiness, inner frustration, and gloominess. Why?
I turned to the Word of God for answers. The Bible was overflowing with promises and commands to be joyful and rejoice.
But let all those rejoice who put their trust in You; Let them ever shout for joy, because You defend them; Let those also who love Your name be joyful in You.
You will show me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
… I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you.
1 Thessalonians 5:16
… Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory.
1 Peter 1:8
The list of these Scriptures went on and on. As I read God’s amazing promises about joy, I began to see the root of my discontentment.
Simply put, I was basing my happiness on circumstances, instead of a Person. Though the Bible made it clear I had everything I needed for constant joy in Jesus Christ, I had fallen into the habit of putting off my happiness until such-and-such happened. Before I met Eric I would reason, When I finally meet my future husband, that’s when I’ll really be happy and fulfilled. Now that Eric was in my life it became a new thought, When we finally get married and settle into our home, that’s when I’ll really be joyful and content.
And of course, there were many daily moments of delaying my joy until my circumstances improved. Once I get done with this grueling project, then I’ll be happy. Until then, I have every right to be frustrated and miserable. Or, If this person would start treating me better, then I’d be cheerful. But until then, it’s totally reasonable for me to be irritable and depressed.
I was surprised to realize how off-base my reasoning really was.
If persecuted Christians could rejoice in their prison cells, if impoverished people could be cheerful amidst their poverty, and if the Apostle Paul could be happy even with his unimaginable trials, what excuse did I have not to embrace lasting joy? Joy was available to me through Jesus Christ. And not just as a gift, but a command: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4 NIV).
I began to see that true joy, just like real love, wasn’t merely a feeling or emotion based upon circumstances. Rather, joy was a decision of the will; a purposeful act of fixing my gaze upon Jesus Christ and anchoring my soul to Him. To my astonishment, I realized that “getting what I wanted in life” had nothing to do with true happiness. The secret to true joy was incredibly simple. As long as my eyes were on Jesus, I would be happy. As long as they were on circumstances, I would always be discontent.
Since having that profound revelation so many years ago, I’ve struggled many times with the temptation to become discontent or unhappy, especially when I’ve walked through difficult times. The enemy of my soul has often whispered that I have the right to be gloomy or depressed. But whenever I find myself struggling with unhappiness, I’ve learned what the answer is and what it is not. The solution isn't manipulating my circumstances in a desperate attempt to get what I think I need in order to be happy. It’s not putting my life on hold until such-and-such can finally happen. Rather, it’s taking my eyes off my circumstances and fixing them upon Him. It’s anchoring my soul to the unchanging, unfailing Rock of my heart. He is joy. In Him, I have everything I need for life and godliness — and that includes lasting, unshakable joy.
An American soldier was taken prisoner by the Japanese during the Second World War. He was sent to a dirty prison, abused and starved, and eventually locked into a dismal solitary confinement cell. For the first year of his imprisonment, he couldn’t have been more miserable. His circumstances were horrific. His hope of freedom was small. He was depressed, lonely, and angry.
One day someone gave him a Bible to read in his solitary cell. As he encountered Truth for the first time, he was captivated. He couldn’t put it down. For several days, he read the Bible all day and night. And he was changed. He recognized who Jesus was and what Jesus had done for him. He surrendered his life to Jesus.
Suddenly, the entire atmosphere of his cell became different. No longer was it a place of gloom and misery. In fact, he realized that there was nowhere on earth he would rather be than in that cell. He was able to spend countless, uninterrupted hours pouring out his heart to his Savior, reading the life-giving words of Scripture, and praying for others. Instead of being depressed and angry, he was filled with genuine happiness and forgiveness.
Nothing about this man’s circumstances changed. The only thing that changed was the focus of his soul. As the old hymn so beautifully expresses, “Where Jesus is, ’tis Heaven there.”1 When we have intimate fellowship with our King, we can have true joy no matter where we are or what is happening to us. And when we don’t have fellowship with Him, we won’t have true joy no matter how many earthly dreams we fulfill.
If you are looking to other things besides Jesus Christ to bring you happiness, you are sure to run into a brick wall of disappointment. Why? Jesus is the only real source of lasting joy. Unlike people and circumstances, He will never fail you.
The world pines for one temporary high after the next, but never finds true joy. But as Christians, we have the amazing opportunity to actually find what everyone else is desperately seeking … happiness that never fades away.
If you are ready to anchor your soul to the only Source of true joy, here are four key areas to cultivate:
I remember one particular birthday, many years ago, when I was being baited toward self-pity and depression. The day had been disappointing, and I was feeling melancholy. That evening, my family and I attended a home group meeting with several close friends from church. I was asked to lead some worship songs on the piano. Rather reluctantly, I began to play and sing. At first I was merely singing because of social obligation. But as the people around me genuinely worshiped and praised God, I found it was contagious. I found myself meditating upon the majesty of God, the faithfulness of God, and the incredible love of God. And as I did, I felt my spirit lift. My focus was no longer on myself and my disappointments. I was no longer worshiping out of duty or obligation. I was delighting in my King. And in that moment, I realized a life-altering truth: It is impossible to be depressed and gloomy when we are delighting in Him.
Isaiah 61:3 says that God gives a "garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.” At first glance, this looks like a counterintuitive principle. Praise isn’t what we normally think of as the cure for a heavy spirit. When our feelings are pulling us down, we often think that the way to lift our spirit is through physical comforts or mental distractions. Or at the very least, by processing our feelings with someone who will listen and validate them. But taking our eyes off ourselves entirely and simply delighting in Jesus? How could that possibly work?
And yet it does. When we turn our eyes upon Jesus and look full in His wonderful face, the things of earth — our cares, worries, disappointments, and concerns — do grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.
Next time your emotions take a downward spiral, I challenge you to spend some purposeful time worshiping Jesus Christ. It doesn’t have to be through music. You can go outside and worship Him for His handiwork that is all around you. You can go to the Psalms and be freshly reminded of His majesty, faithfulness, and holiness. You can simply tell Him all the things you appreciate about who He is. A wonderful, worshipful meditation is the short film, He Is, which goes through all the names and attributes of Jesus Christ from Genesis to Revelation. It may be the last thing that you feel like doing when you are depressed, but when you choose to put on a garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness, you will discover a tremendous key to finding joy in the midst of difficulties.
I love listening to audio Scripture, especially when I’m doing things around the house. One week, my audio Bible kept repeating the same portion of Scripture for several days in a row. It was the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. After listening to the story over and over again, the reality of what Christ had done for me began to sink in at a deeper level than ever before. I remember kneeling down in my bedroom as I listened, so overcome with awe and gratitude that I could hardly pray.
I could see myself locked in a horrible prison cell, condemned to a torturous death, with no possible way of escape. I felt the utter hopelessness and despair of my situation. And then, unbelievably, I was set free by a Redeemer who took my entire punishment upon Himself. I was no longer a prisoner. I had received a full pardon. And not just free from death, but invited to be part of His royal family, and commissioned to carry His light to the world. It was the most exhilarating, joyful news I could have ever received. And it wasn’t just a dream — it was, and is, my daily reality! As it says in 1 Samuel 2:8 “He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the beggar from the ash heap, to set them among princes and make them inherit the throne of glory…” That is my story — and if you are a child of God, it is your story too!
Whenever we are tempted to reason, “I can’t be happy until such-and-such happens...” we are discounting the most amazing gift that has ever been given — the gift of our salvation. Even if nothing else ever went right in our lives, even if we never achieved even one earthly desire, we already have every reason to be happy for the rest of our lives. And not just happy, but ecstatic!
We were deserving of nothing but death. And He has given us everlasting life. He has taken us from the ash heap and made us part of His royal family. What greater joy could we ever hope for or need?
The next time the weights of this life are pulling you down, I encourage you to take a moment to remember the amazing reality of what Jesus Christ has done for you. When you come face-to-face with His unfathomable love for you, you’ll have every reason to rejoice in the Lord always.
Eric’s grandmother, who died before he was born, had a fascinating solution for curing any kind of sorrow or depression. Whenever she was going through something difficult, she would find someone in a far worse situation and serve them. No matter what she was going through, it always lifted her spirits to give joy to someone else.
The Bible says that God has prepared “good works” in advance for us to walk in. (See Ephesians 2:10.) There is a tremendous joy that comes from fulfilling this incredible calling that we have received from the King of all kings. While the world insists that looking out for ourselves and serving our own agenda is what brings real happiness, Jesus says the opposite: “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love … These things I have spoken to you … that your joy may be full. This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn. 15:10-12).
There are countless ways to give joy to others. It may be serving a sick neighbor, taking meals to a struggling family, visiting orphans overseas, showing love to members of your own household, or any number of other acts of sacrificial love. Prayerfully ask God to show you some of the “good works” that He has specifically prepared for you.
And when you are struggling with unhappiness, follow the example of Eric’s grandmother and turn outward. Giving joy brings joy. That is God’s pattern.
In the classic book Pilgrim’s Progress, there is a city called Vanity Fair in which all of the residents are consumed with earthly pleasures and comforts. They are convinced that real happiness comes from gaining status, popularity, material possessions, and success. In one animated children’s version of the story, the vendors of Vanity Fair call out to the travelers passing through their city, “Find happiness by getting and taking care of STUFF! Other people will see your STUFF and want what you have. And that will make you important!”
How perfectly this enunciates the deceptive cultural messages of today! We are constantly being bombarded with what the Bible calls “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” (See 1 John 2:16.) Spend a few seconds on social media, Pinterest, or Instagram, and you’ll immediately be hit with temptations to “Buy this!” and “Try that!” and “Watch this!” and “Listen to that!” Walk into a grocery store check-out line and you’ll instantly see the “latest and greatest” of fashion trends, entertainment, and material comforts. The world dangles earthly pleasures in front of us like a carrot on a string. They glitter with the promise of happiness, but in the end they bring only emptiness.
By God’s grace, we must choose to reject the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life that dangle in front of us like carrots on a string. If we chase after those things in an attempt to find satisfaction, we will be left spiritually desolate and miserable.
Psalm 119:37 says, “Turn away my eyes from looking at worthless things, and revive me in Your way.” The next time you are baited to chase after earthly pleasure in order to find happiness, ask God for the grace to turn your eyes away from the worthless things of this world, and fix your gaze upon eternity.
Earthly pleasures bring only a short-term, counterfeit happiness. One of the best ways you can distinguish true joy from counterfeit happiness is that true joy is derived from things that will last forever — the realities of Jesus Christ, the souls of people, the eternal truth of God’s Word. Cultural “happiness” is based on the fleeting pleasures of this life. True joy is based upon the unchanging values of Heaven. One will remain for eternity. The other will fade into nothingness. So don’t chase those cultural carrots. Remember where true joy really comes from.
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Elisabeth Elliot wrote, “The world seeks happiness through self-assertion. The Christian knows that joy is found in self-abandonment.”
Throughout the centuries, men and women have joyfully and willingly given their lives for the sake of the One whom they loved more than life itself. Ignatius, an early Roman martyr, said that the wild beasts who were about to kill him were his friends, because they sent him into the presence of His beloved King. Countless Christians — both historically and in modern times — have shared Ignatius’s joy in sacrificing their lives for Christ. They died triumphantly in the face of abuse and hatred with a radiant smile of pure happiness on their faces.
These brave men and women chose to give up all the things that this world says will bring true happiness. Rather than fighting for their own agenda, they laid it down. Rather than seeking the applause of this world, they chose scorn and rejection. Rather than chasing comforts and pleasure, they embraced pain and death. Yet incredibly, they found what everyone throughout all of history has been seeking — true happiness. Happiness that has nothing to do with circumstances. Happiness that is based solely upon the reality of a Person — Jesus Christ. Joy that is so contagious it must be shared with the world, even if it means death.
They found what everyone else is looking for. Have you?
You don’t need to be a martyr to discover that kind of unshakable joy. It is yours this very moment in Jesus Christ. When you turn your eyes upon Jesus and look full in His wonderful face, you will be able to say along with the Psalmist, “In Your presence is fullness of joy!”
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