The Search for Joy in a Less-Than-Perfect World
Monday morning was here again. I opened my eyes reluctantly, since snuggling under my warm covers on this snowy, Colorado spring day seemed more desirable than facing the responsibilities that shouted for my attention. Marriage. Parenting. Church. Work. Extended family. Friends. Everyone and everything seemed to need me, constantly wanting more and more of my time and attention, leaving little for me and my passions and interests.
After twenty-eight years of marriage and twenty-five years of parenting, I was accustomed to these burdens that sometimes weighed heavily on my shoulders. As I lay in bed, I compiled a mental list of what was ahead of me in my day. Making breakfast for two of my children who were still at home; finishing the dishes from last night’s dinner party; attacking the piles of laundry that had accumulated over the last busy week; facing the deadline on a freelance project that still wasn’t finished; helping my daughter with her history report; discussing with my husband how to deal with our sons’ college bills and the need to replace the tires on our older car…
On and on the list grew until I wanted to pull the covers over my head and stay in bed. I was already weary of the work ahead, and the day had not even begun!
In the midst of this, my fourteen-year-old daughter came into my bedroom with tears in her eyes. “Mom, do you remember my friend from church who’s been battling a brain tumor?”
“Yes,” I told her. I remembered him well. My daughter and I had prayed often for his healing.
“I just got an e-mail that he died this morning. I don’t get it. We prayed so hard!”
“I know,” I said, hugging her to me.
“I just feel so empty.”
We talked and prayed, and I was struck again by thoughts that had captivated my attention for almost a year. With so much sadness and so many daily burdens to shoulder, how do Christian women maneuver steadily through this journey of life with joy and peace of heart intact? What does it look like to be a woman filled with joy, every day, all the time, no matter what? In the deluge of all the stresses and disappointments in a fallen world, how does a mature Christian woman really walk in the power of the Holy Spirit? How does she face each situation with gladness, despite the relentless and demanding day-after-day, month-after-month, year-after-year things that would rob her of emotional and creative energy, such as chores, bills, arguments, messes? Or how does she maintain joy in the center of more devastating troubles: a divorce, the tragic death of a loved one, a child who has a chronic illness or disability, rejection by family members, alcoholism and drug-related scars, a job layoff ?
For me, the times I struggle most to experience joy are when I feel an invisible finger pointing at my heart, accusing me of all my inadequacies: How can you be a Christian this long and still lose your temper or struggle with pettiness, entertain critical attitudes, fluctuate in your emotions and in your walk with the Lord? Guilt over disappointing God or others sometimes lurks in the recesses of my mind and hovers silently like a cloud over my subconscious soul. After all, I have been a Christian for many years and am perceived as a mature leader, writer, and speaker; shouldn’t I be able to conquer these obstacles with confidence and strength? Shouldn’t joy be as natural to me as breathing?
PONDERING IN POLAND
My daughter went back to her room to get ready for school. Slowly I got out of bed and moved to the kitchen to brew some tea. As I looked out the kitchen window, I thought back to a similar spring morning, almost exactly one year before, when I first began to wrestle with this issue. That particular April morning found me sitting on a park bench outside the old city gates of Krakow, Poland, my last stop on a mission trip. Many years before when I was a young missionary, Krakow was where I grew into my idealism about life and faith. This was the place where I began to live passionately for the Lord, where I determined to walk each day with my hand in his.
Now I had returned to Poland, still idealistic in my heart, but a weary, life-worn, older Christian looking for spiritual equilibrium. Returning to a place that held such wonderful spiritual memories provided a good opportunity for me to reevaluate my life, to take inventory of my spiritual resources, and to judge whether I needed any midcourse correction.
Before arriving in Poland, my mission trip had led me through five countries and numerous encounters with groups, leaders, and individuals. Although I know it might sound adventurous and exciting, my packed schedule of meetings and speaking engagements, over a period of three weeks, traveling on planes and trains, sleeping in all sorts of beds, and eating a variety of unfamiliar foods was physically and emotionally taxing. But even with the physical demands, I found that my body was not nearly as weary as my spirit.
On this trip, I conversed with countless people—many who were committed to Christ, and some who had been leaders and missionaries for many years. Spending time with them put me on spiritual battlegrounds where many of these devoted had been injured. I took their burdens into my own life. As I listened to person after person share their depression and soul battles, their temptation to give up on ideals, and how they each sought to keep their heads above the waters of despair, I realized I needed their mirror to look into my own soul.
I wanted to live freely and celebrate the joy that God promised as a fruit of his Spirit, and to live it out in the midst of a less-than-perfect world that challenges my faith and Christian paradigm every day. Having lived as a spiritually committed person for many years, I saw that my soul had slowly been drained by taxing relationships and circumstances, the mysteries of life that cultivate doubt, and a culture that fosters cynicism. I had battled through depression several times while enduring bitter trials and deep hurts at the hands of others, mostly Christians. Facing all these difficulties had, at times, left me fearful of life. When I had struggled through so many life-wars in my past, how could I face what was ahead without fear or doubt in God’s ability to do something, especially when often he seemed silent and unaware of my needs?
I sat on the park bench in Poland wondering how my friends and I had become fragile, discouraged, and vulnerable, bearing the hurts and burdens of life. Is it even possible to live as a joyful Christian in this fallen world? I asked myself. Do I really know what it means to live a victorious Christian life? Scripture seemed to promise power, happiness, the fruit of the Spirit, and unconditional love amongst believers. But that was not always my normal experience, and apparently it was not the normal experience of the many Christians and missionaries I met throughout the years.
As I sat and pondered, I realized that I didn’t really believe any differently than I had so many years ago when I was fresh and young and innocent. My journey began by holding God’s hand, and I knew that I was still holding on. Yet I could see that somewhere along the way, I had become less confident that I even knew what it meant to walk hand in hand with him. My sense of security in my relationship with him had been gradually worn down by the scars and injuries of daily life. My head told me that God was still there, offering the promises he’d always held out to me. But my heart struggled to find assurance.
Help me, I prayed. And that small park, in the midst of obscurity where no one knew my whereabouts, became a sanctuary in which I met, once again, with God.
Memories flooded my mind as I thought about the familiar haunts of my youth, some thirty years before when I started out as a missionary in this country. In order to live “freely” in Poland, my friend Gwen and I enrolled in the Jagiellonian University as students. But in reality, that was our cover; we were there to take the sweet message of Christ to this country that had been overwhelmed by communism.
I traveled through communist Eastern Europe, when Christianity was forbidden to be practiced, taking messages to secret Christian contacts in Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Hungary and meeting with people to teach them the Word of God. These were the days when I cut my spiritual teeth, gathering with people who were hungry and excited to receive the message of God’s love.
A deep happiness and joy had energized those days, as I sensed that I was part of a strategic work for the kingdom of God. I experienced heartfelt satisfaction because I confidently believed I was God’s hands and voice to people who were so responsive to the simple messages of his love and redemption. Innocence and idealism ruled authoritatively in those days when hope and childlike faith protected my heart from the despair of life in a fallen world. Joy fed my soul daily as I saw many people respond to our sincere messages. Miracles were an expected order of my day, when prayers forGod’s help and leading were offered with unwavering confidence.
A CHILD’S DANCE
There in the park I remembered the good feelings of that time when life felt exciting and all dreams were possibilities. It dawned on me that I had felt this excitement at other times in my life: when I was engaged to be married, pregnant with my first child, starting our first church job, moving into missions with my husband and children. Each anticipated change brought a surge of expectation and confidence that good things lay ahead, an assurance that my life held the hope of goodness and joy and satisfaction. All these positive feelings were fueled by dreams of what I thought life could hold. Often my dreams had not reflected the reality of the burdens and responsibilities that such life decisions would entail. As a young woman, I hadn’t yet even understood the costs of living life idealistically in a fallen world.
What had changed? What had shifted my heart from the passion and excitement of childlike faith to weary plodding, faithfully putting my foot down one step at a time while feeling the heaviness of life on my shoulders? I had let my burdens weigh me down and throw a shadow over my thoughts and emotions. As I grew older, hope and excitement at the prospect of a new adventure in marriage, parenting, work, or church were often replaced with disappointment and disillusionment.
I sat on that park bench and found myself longing for the energy, hope, and joy of the earlier days when I had begun this journey. Realization dawned upon my heart: I didn’t want to live as a victim—cynical, depressed, and overwhelmed by the load that so many carried. I wanted that childlike innocence that believed in the goodness of God.
Not wanting my circumstances to determine my attitude toward life and my spiritual stability, I prayed, Lord, please show me how to maintain joy, to cultivate an inner peace and delight, a strength that will support me through sadness and difficulty. Help me to end my life well, to still be as resilient as I was when you first called me to be yours. Let me find you and your reality anew.
At that moment, my eyes were drawn to a little boy, twirling and dancing in circles. He held his hands high above his head, grasping at tree blossoms falling gently like snowflakes in the soft breeze. His chubby toddler face was full of delight. Obviously unencumbered and totally unselfconscious, he giggled each time he caught a falling blossom.
That is how I want to be, I realized. I wanted to be as a child, delighting in life, at peace with God, living in the grace of the moment. I wanted to live above the pull of depression and cultivate a heart of joy from which others could draw. I wanted to learn what it really meant to be filled with the reality of God, the love of God, and the joy of God every day, no matter what else was going on in my life.
I knew I stood at a crossroad that would determine what kind of a Christian I would be from that point forward: victorious, lighthearted, and free—or downcast, weighed down, and wounded. I realized that I didn’t want to cross the finish line of life gasping for spiritual breath, clenching my teeth as I wearily crossed into the presence of God.
Although I didn’t want to be a Pollyanna, pretending away sadness, pain, and difficulty and denying the real grieving that comes with loss and disappointment, I did want to find the good in all things, to experience the reality of God’s joy anew right in the middle of my trials and stresses.
And so began a spiritual journey, a search for biblical joy, the kind that satisfies deeply, that brings hope through tears, love when wronged, and peace that passes understanding.
MY DANCE WITH MY FATHER
Now here I was, one year after my crossroads decision on that park bench, sipping tea while thoughts of my menial daily tasks, my daughter’s friend’s passing, and the memories of my prayer in Poland mingled in my mind. As I settled into my quiet-time chair, a blue Queen Anne chair close to my bed, another memory came, this one from almost fifty years before. As I remembered the little boy twirling and dancing in the park, it was as though the Holy Spirit directed me to a long-ago image that he wanted me to have—that of dancing with my father.
My sweet father was a bigger-than-life figure tome when I was a little girl. Standing at six feet three in his stocking feet, he was a slim, towering figure, always poking or patting someone. He was an extrovert’s extrovert, full of life and constantly making friends wherever he went. He was always bright and smiling, kind of a song-and-dance man—whistling, singing, or humming, with a wink and a wiggle as he danced his way through life. His friends in college called him “Slick,” a nickname that stuck because he was, for his time, the epitome of “cool.” Although he was naturally outgoing, I think part of his personality was also shaped from growing up as a Depression child, surrounded by much sadness. As an adult, he seemed determined to live with as little acknowledgment of sadness as possible, to work hard to provide for his family, and to give us opportunities to enjoy the pleasures of life that his own parents had not been able to afford.
I loved my father, and I know he loved me and my brothers. And yet, probably like other children of my generation, I didn’t receive a lot of personal, one-on-one time with him. He worked long hours to provide for my mother, two older brothers, and me. Although ours was a secure home, filled with lots of family time and people, time alone with my dad—just him and me—was rare, and so precious and treasured.
I used to write stories about him and was thrilled when he gave me any sort of special attention, kissed my cheek, or spoke a personal word of love or affirmation.
One vibrant summer evening, when the sweet scents of roses and honeysuckle from our yard were carried along on the breezes of the night, my parents allowed me to attend an adult party with them. While it was a social affair of some sort that was just one of many for them, it was an auspicious occasion for a little girl of eight. I am not sure why I was allowed to attend the party with them; there must have been no babysitter available and no brothers at home that night. Even all these years later, I still clearly remember getting ready for the great affair with the help of my mother, who always made grand preparations for special events.
As I watched, she donned a sleek royal blue chiffon dress with a swirling skirt that begged for movement. Large rhinestone drops were mounted on her earlobes, and a sparkling matching necklace framed and accentuated her lovely features. She added two circles of rouge on her high cheekbones and ruby red lipstick to her lips.
“You look like a princess!” I told her in awe. The final spray of cologne made her smell like one too.
“Now it’s time to make you into a princess,” she said to me with a playful voice. And at that, she lifted me up, placed me gently on her bathroom vanity, and added some never-before-experienced magic tomy face!
A little rouge, some hand lotion rubbed gently on my rough little-girl hands, a squirt of her very own perfume, and I began to feel more and more like a little princess. I remember dressing in a sky blue polished cotton dress adorned with delicate eyelet lace and belted with a satin sash. Surely, my mother and I would be the most beautiful girls at the party.
My father lifted me into their car. I was perched on top of the elevated middle armrest, which served as my own special cushioned seat between my sophisticated parents. (This was before the days when seat belts and car seats would interfere with a little girl’s delight of riding in style.)My father dropped my mother and me off at the front door of the country club where the party was being held. A tall, elegantly dressed doorman clad in black opened our car door and ushered us into the foyer, which opened into a large ballroom. The room was a whirl of pleasures to delight the senses, glimmering with sparkling lights, candles, and flowers, while a Glenn Milleresque big band was pounding out rhythms and filling the room with the sounds of horns.
We were seated at a round table laden with silver, china, crystal, and thick linen napkins, all adding to the sparkle, gleam, and splendor of the night. My wide blue eyes took in the lavish celebration. It was such a delight to my young, unsophisticated senses and seemed like a kind of fantasy world. The dance floor filled with couples, twirling and swaying to the music. I sat at our table and excitedly took it all in. But the longer I watched all the festivity, the more I longed for a chance to be a participant instead of just an onlooker.
It seemed tome that my black, shiny patent-leather shoes were made for tapping and dancing on the floor among all the jewel-bedecked, rouge-faced women swirling and laughing with their husbands. Visions of romance marched through the corridors of my girlish mind as I dreamed of a future day when I would be on the arm of my very own partner, gracefully and lightly gliding over the floor. An involuntary surge of excitement and joy at being caught up in the pulsing rhythms bubbled up from some hidden corner of my being. I stood and began to sway to the melodies, tapping my toes to the rhythms of the band, lost in the wonder of the moment.
Suddenly, my handsome, smiling father strolled over. In one easy, graceful movement, he swept me off my feet and up into his arms. With a tone and look of noble seriousness, he said, “May I have a dance with the princess of the ball?”
“Yes,” I said with my little girl smile. The next thing I knew we were on the dance floor. My feet hung limply down, swinging as he swayed. He held me tightly in his strong arms and easily twirled me ’round and ’round the dance floor. As we danced cheek to cheek, I breathed in the familiar scent of the Old Spice aftershave he had lightly rubbed on his smooth-shaven face earlier that evening. (That spicy aroma still brings back memories of him.) The tingling excitement and pride that I felt at that giddy moment, being in the arms of my hero, left me almost breathless. I treasured each second with great delight and took in all the smiles and admiration of the other doting adults. For the several minutes we were on the dance floor, I was caught up in something so special I didn’t want it to end.
But then the song wound to a close, and the music came to an abrupt stop. Our dance was over. With his long, smooth strides, my father glided back to our dinner table with me still in his arms and set me lightly upon my chair.
“Thank you for the pleasure of your company, sweet princess,” he said affectionately and bowed. Then he turned away to find my mother.
I hadn’t visited this lovely memory in many years, but even as I thought of it again that Monday morning, it brought a smile to my lips. My father was always my hero; I longed for his love, and I cherished his attention and affection, as any girl does.
Though he passed away more than fifteen years ago, just to think about him brings me pleasure—his antics, his exuberant spirit, the affectionate kisses and embraces he gave to my mom as he walked through a room, the times I remember him telling me I was pretty, rare though they were. His wonderful mixture of many qualities gives me pleasure to know that this man was my father.
I smiled as the memories allowed me to reexperience the delight of that night with my parents, feeling the intimacy of their focused attention and remembering the magical ambiance of the evening when I drank in the romance and enjoyed the rhythms of the music and of life.
On with the dance! Let joy be unconfined…
A PICTURE OF WHAT GOD WANTS
Now almost fifty years later, my Monday morning thoughts flooded me anew with the reminder that I wanted to live my life and build my attitudes on those truths that give life to my heart and expression to my desire to embrace beauty and goodness. I renewed my decision made in Poland that joy would be my goal; that I would look everywhere I go for God’s touch, his shadow, his signature. I would celebrate the inner reality of his Spirit, rather than live as a victim of circumstances in my outward reality.
That morning, in the midst of the mundane to-do list and the tragic news, I rededicated this whole area to the Lord. I told him that I wanted to reflect his character and reality, that I wanted to love him and be filled every day with his joy, so that others who see me would have a glimpse of God—in my words, in my affection, in my writing, in disappointments and trials, and even in my everyday tasks. I longed for him to “restore to me the joy” of his salvation (Psalm 51:12).
The memory of dancing with my father provided a picture of what God desires for us to share. He gave me a personal, visual image of what he wanted me to understand about his joy: that it is wrapped up in him as my heavenly Father, that he is the Initiator, the Provider, the Lover, the Strong One. In short, he is to be my leading man in the dance of life.
But even more, dancing seemed to be a visual picture of what God wants me to do in my soul: he wants me to dance inside my heart, no matter what is going on outside in my circumstances. To dance is to celebrate life, to make merry, to physically live out the reality of internal joy. Those who walk closely with the Lord have a secret inner joy, a dancing energy just from knowing him. It is in having him as my partner, in letting him take the lead, that I will be directed around the “dance floor” of my life. He is the One who will show me the steps, how to listen to the music, how to engage my heart with him and to stay in sync with him, the real Source of the music, the dance, and the everlasting joy.
Where would this fit into my reality? I had to put my finger on what had placed a cloud of darkness over my thoughts and feelings so that I could know practically how to reconcile, on a moment-to-moment basis, the distance between the outer world I lived in and the inner world of his presence, the place I desired to dwell.
I MADE THE DECISION
To strengthen my commitment to make joy my goal, I started a blog called I Take Joy at www.itakejoy.com.There I wrote about my desire to dance through my life with his joy, to seek to be resilient, and to learn to celebrate every day the present reality of living face to face with the Lord.
In response to my writing, I received letters from women all over the world who share in this desire:
“I want to find joy every day.”
“I am committed to the same thing.”
“I decided not to be a victim of my circumstances, so I have committed to living a life with joy at the center.”
Through this process I have learned that, to use an old cliché, the journey of joy begins with a single step. We step in the direction of the Lord and say, “Walk this pathway with me anew. Hold my hand. Show me how to live the way you designed me to live in the first place.” Those I found along this same path agreed that in order to regularly experience the joy of the Lord, we must make a focused decision.
“Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap,” I read in Galatians 6:7. If I was going to find the joy of walking with God minute by minute, it would take a personal commitment from me to choose joy, to seek joy, to invest in joy, to “sow” joy into my life in ways that are biblical and true. So in my quiet-time place, as I talked about all of this to my heavenly Father, I planted a flag of faith. I prayed, “From this day on, I will choose to cultivate joy and to pursue it in your presence, so that I may indeed walk in the reality of the fruit of God’s Spirit reflecting joy through me—every day, no matter what.”
As the weeks passed, I assessed my life in light of my new goal. And in that assessment I found some obstacles that had kept me from experiencing what I knew God said, through Scripture, is possible to have.
One of the greatest obstacles was my response to disappointments, frustration, and the day-to-day interruptions of life. As I evaluated these things in light of my commitment to walk in joy, I could see that, in reality, God had used many of my difficulties to create in me a deeper, more compassionate heart. I could see that the hand of God had faithfully met me at my need and somehow sustained me instead of letting me go under. I also realized that he had used these challenges to loosen my grip on the worldly, temporal things I had previously looked to for security and stability and instead compelled me to rely on him and seek eternal answers.
I have never relished the thought of more suffering! But I knew that such times created a deeper hunger in my soul for spiritual realities and answers that satisfied the deep places in my heart. Something in me longed for more—more loving intimacy with others, more deep pleasure in the moments of my life. There was also deep longing for beauty and adventure. I wanted to know that my life was made to be meaningful, that my God was with me always! I even hoped for innocence and a pure, childlike heart in a sophisticated, cynical, fatalistic world. And so I committed this area into God’s hands and looked for the shadows of his reality in my world, learning to expect his answers, to hear from him in the moments of my life.
It took work and prayer, but that commitment to my desire continues to pay great rewards.
Committing to this ideal has led me to more joy. I’m reminded of the pearl merchant who searched all over the world for a pearl of great value, and when he found it, he sold all that he had to own it.
When we change the focus of our heart, we will begin to find answers. The commitment leads in the direction of the fulfillment. We are not to look for temporal happiness, to have our own way; instead we are to look for the true, authentic joy that comes from God, the Source of joy.
You may be where I was not so very long ago, wondering how to have a joy-filled Christian life and whether it is even possible. You may be at a place in your life that is mundane and routine, and so you are looking for a return of your spiritual passion. Or perhaps you find yourself in the midst of tragedy and need reassurance that joy is still possible. Maybe you long for the knowledge that God has something more for you—not a Pollyannaish sense of happiness but something real that can guide and shape your life.
I pray that by picking up this book, you will begin to take the steps that will lead you closer to God and that you will soon find yourself twirling in the joy of dancing with the Father.
You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and girded me with gladness, that my soul may sing praise to You and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to You forever.
Finding Your Rhythm in God’s Joy
Perhaps as you read this book, surveying your life will lead you to answer the questions, needs, and desires you have for finding joy—in all circumstances, at all times. As you ponder what God desires for you and as you look at the joy that may be missing from your life, ask yourself these questions:
1. What hinders me from “feeling his joy”?
2. What is the most prominent feeling about life that I have? Where did it come from?
3. What is my greatest area of disillusionment or the circumstance that most often robs me of joy?
4. What do my attitudes say about God’s character? Are there any areas in which I have subtly believed that God is not concerned about my personal needs? What are the unanswered prayers in my life that I am still waiting for him to answer?
Writing down the answers to these questions in a journal helped me evaluate what I needed to understand and how I needed to begin making better choices. Journaling helped me see that God faithfully leads and teaches us his steps. I encourage you to record what he speaks to your heart as you join me on the journey into joy.
Dear heavenly Father,
Please move in my heart. Teach me to live in the
fullness of your joy. Show me through your Word and
by your Holy Spirit how I might learn to dance my
life with you as my lead, following your steps, listening
to the rhythm of your love. Take my burdens into
your hands and lighten my load as I seek you in the
deep places of my heart. Amen.