I remember her like it was yesterday. Her frail body, covered in a crocheted blanket, looked like a child’s in the vast expanse of her over-sized, blue wheelchair. Her head covered with the tiniest wisps of white hair and her breathing labored as cancer stole her breath.
But her brown eyes, when they peered at me over the top of her tattered Bible, spoke a story of joy. These deep pools of topaz sparkled and in them danced a history of a life well lived. She broke into an easy, infectious smile as she spoke, which made her nose crinkle and the laugh lines around her mouth and eyes deepen.
I met Mary while helping the homeless. My daughter and I pushed her rickety wheelchair around as we arranged a haircut and dental care, gathered clothes and shoes, and gave her hot food to eat. In exchange, she shared her story, and a lesson we will never forget.
Mary was once an elementary school teacher, but she lost her job after a brain injury left her disabled. She was once married, but her husband left her during her second bout of cancer. She had seven children, but four were disabled, two were dead, and one didn’t see her anymore. She teasingly smiled and asked if we liked her hair, then explained she lost it in a third battle with cancer. She then told us this was a war she would not win.
When our eyes filled with tears, she put her time-worn hands into ours, looked us in the eyes, and said, “Do not be sad for me. I have had a good life. The Lord has been good to me.” And in her words, we learned a powerful lesson.
We must feel joy in our circumstances.
Seeing our blessings—no matter what circumstance we find ourselves in—is what Jesus calls us to do. He wants us to see God’s truths instead of becoming mired in the bad. He calls us to see our glasses as full instead of half empty.
Why? Because when we focus on the half-empty glasses of our grief, heartaches, health issues, and financial challenges, we miss out on the joy that transcends our circumstances. God’s blessings and truths stand true even in our troubles.
Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy
One of my friends loves the For King & Country song, Joy. She says the lyrics “Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy, down in my heart” give her chills every time she sings them. I love to imagine her, alone in her house, singing that song at the top of her lungs, her hands raised to the heavens. Because in my mind, this is the only way to fully experience that song.
The song’s message is to choose joy, always. The Bible teaches us to do the same. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he uses the words joy or rejoice 16 times in four chapters. He does this as he sits in prison where he rests not in despair, but filled with joy. He writes, “I have learned in whatever state I am in, to be content” (Phil. 4:11).
He reminds us that joy comes not in the best things that happen to us, but in how we respond to all things. But Paul takes it a step further when writes, “Rejoice always.” He doesn’t tell us to only rejoice in times of plenty, when life is going our way, and everything is great, and then t wring our hands in despair whenever life gets rough. Rather, he tells us to “Rejoice always.” In every moment, good or bad.
We can find joy in isolation, in a financial or health crisis, or in grief if we look for it in Jesus. In the words of Paul, we learn there is a difference between happiness and joy. We plant our happiness in our circumstances, which means our happiness ebbs and flows as our circumstances change. We are happy when things are good, and we are sad when they are not.
But when we plant our joy in the Lord, rather than in our earthly lives, “no one can take away (our) joy” (John 16:22). Paul found joy in his relationship with God, and in that connection, God’s perfect love saw him through his difficulties. In this intimate relationship, Paul “learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through Him who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:11).
Next to this passage in my Bible, I’ve written the words, “Nobody can take my Jesus.” And, it’s true. Our lives may move us through job loss, divorce, health issues, depression, pandemics, and even a loved one’s death. But when we fix our sights on God’s promises, sovereignty and power, and pour ourselves into an intimate relationship with Him, nothing can steal our joy!
Joy in Small Things
Every night I wake up at 2 a.m. I don’t think this is a coincidence. It is the same time that my Bible app sends me a daily Bible verse. I pick up my phone, read the new verse, say a quick prayer, and drift off into a peaceful sleep. I used to think it strange that this happened every night, now I look forward to it and consider it a heaven-sent nudge toward greater joy.
It’s these little things that escape our notice whenever we struggle, but the Bible tells us we will see things more clearly if look at our circumstances through God’s lens. Paul tells us “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” and writes that when we do “the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:8-9).
As we shelter in place amid coronavirus fears, we may experience how awful it is being stuck inside. But when we do, we miss the heaven-sent gifts found in the rays of sunshine streaming into the window, the pitter-patter of the rain, the puffy clouds in the sky, the flowers pushing through the newly thawed ground, and the sounds of the breeze as it rustles the trees.
We may train our focus on our finances, our lack of jobs or money, and flood ourselves with worry about paying the bills. But when we do this, we miss other heaven-sent treasures. Is this circumstance really a gift that teaches us to live life more simply or to try something new? When we center on the negative, we miss that God gave us enough for today, and that somehow despite the odds, we are doing OK.
If we concern ourselves with how stressful it is to work from home with kids underfoot, we may miss out on a beautiful opportunity to spend uninterrupted time with our children. My husband and I have three teens and a young adult living at home. These young people will soon graduate and move on to their adult lives. What a gift it is to have them home for just a little while longer.
So, what if, instead of focusing on our difficulties, we press on in faith, stealing a page from my friend Mary’s book? She trusted in God’s goodness and knew her circumstances would work to His glory. She saw that her life here on Earth could steal everything from her, but nothing could take her Jesus.
We can turn away from the broadcasts that tell us COVID-19 is killing us, whether it is our health, our finances or something else. We can ignore the messy feelings of anxiety, frustration, and sadness, and instead “be joyful always, pray continually, (and) give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thes. 5:18).
Who knows? As we do these things, we might just gain a fresh perspective and start seeing our current situation as a gift that allows us to live life more simply, love more freely, and know God more deeply. And when we do, the joy that Jesus promises will be ours, even from the confines of our man-made “prisons.”
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