Joy – How to keep it when it’s hard?

Everyone, every single one of us, wants to be happy. However, although we all experience moments of happiness, we rarely meet people who are truly happy.

Unlike feelings of excitement which are based on temporary circumstances – because we’ve received a gift or good news – real happiness is an anchor of deep and enduring joy that persists even when life’s circumstances are not in our favor.

How do we attain such joy? How do we become truly happy?

In a survey conducted in 2012 at the University of San Diego, students were asked to rank their life goals from a list with twenty different options, which included a number of impressive objectives such as: making a contribution to science, raising a family, helping others who are in difficulty, influencing social values, helping to promote racial understanding, and more. The highest ranking goal among the students was “being very well off financially”. Almost 75% of the students ranked “being rich” as their number one goal in life.

There’s no doubt that money enables us to live more comfortable and easier lives, a higher standard of living, but a higher standard of living does not promise a higher quality of life.

The cliché that says money can’t buy happiness is true. In fact, oftentimes among people who have very little you can find quite a lot of happiness. But the world tries to convince us that in order to be happy, we have to be rich. TV commercials and Hollywood movies give the illusion that, if we only had a fancier house, an expensive car, and a couple million dollars in the bank we could be truly happy. History, however, is filled with examples of people who had everything and nothing. They reached the top only to discover that there wasn’t anything there.It’s no coincidence that in the past few years, the media has covered countless stories of celebrities and billionaires who put an end to their lives.

Likewise during the times of the Bible, King Solomon who had it all, opened the book of Ecclesiastes with this conclusion:

“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2)

In other words, the myth that the more we have the happier we’ll be isn’t something new. We all know or know of wealthy people who just aren’t happy. The key to happiness isn’t wealth and, in fact, has nothing to do with material possessions.

They key to happiness is gratitude

That’s right, in order to be happy we need to be grateful, and being grateful is a challenge especially in this age in which so many people feel entitled, that they have the right to demand for things. The narcissistic and egoistic belief that “I deserve it!”, which plagues our times, spawned an entire generation that disdains authority, establishments, and leaders.

“Leaders are asking the Millennials: ‘What do you want?’ And Millennials are saying: ‘We want to work in a place with purpose. We want to make an impact. We want free food, and bean bags.’ Somebody articulates some sort of purpose. There’s lots of free food, and there’s bean bags, and yet for some reason, they are still not happy.” Simon Sinek

Our parents have told us our entire lives that we’re special, and if we have the will – we can achieve anything we set our minds to, but in real life, this saying is not only wrong, but even when we’ve finally gotten that car or trip we’ve always wanted to have it might thrill and excite us for a while, it won’t really satisfy us or make us happy deep within.

This cavity that we have deep inside our hearts is something we’ve learned well to hide. We live in a world in which FaceBook and Instagram provide us with this mask, and we’re good at filtering everything and showing everybody how “great” life is despite the fact that deep inside we might be depressed, confused, and unsatisfied with life.

We have everything we could possibly need to be happy, but we’re not. Even when we get what we want, it’s not enough, or we get tired of it and want something else.

We all know this feeling – you got what you wanted, you were delighted and excited, but after a while the excitement died down and you went on to chase the next toy. It doesn’t matter how much we have, it doesn’t matter how much more we’ll make, how much more we’ll buy and win, the satisfaction and the happiness they bring us will always be nothing more than temporary. And so we’ve gotten used to living from one short term pleasure to the next, from one temporary satisfaction to the next. But in between these moments, we feel meaningless and empty, and we try to hide behind “special effects” and “filters”.

On the other hand, now and then we’ll hear about people who went through traumatic experiences, about people who have very little, or about people who lost so much but despite all this remain deeply joyful. Note for instance the words of Nick Vujicic, born without arms and legs:

“You can either be angry for what you don’t have or thankful for what you do have. Do your best and God will do the rest.” Nick Vujicic 

Why is Nick so joyful? Because he’s grateful. 

Happiness doesn’t make us grateful, it’s gratitude that makes us truly happy and joyful. 

“Gratitude” is being happy with your lot.

“Gratitude” is knowing that you don’t deserve anything, and that’s why you appreciate everything that you do have.

“Gratitude” is never taking anything for granted. So long as we take things for granted, and live with the mindset of “I deserve it!”, we won’t be able to be joyful.

We are especially grateful when we receive something we didn’t earn, buy, or deserve.

When we receive a gift of great value that we didn’t do anything to obtain, but rather it was given to us as a free gift, we feel grateful. This is called grace. Grace is when you’re given something even though you don’t deserve it or even deserve the complete opposite. It makes you truly grateful, it’s humbling, and if it comes from someone you hurt in the past, it restores the broken relationship between you and it makes you feel humble, meek, and grateful toward this person.

But we don’t want gratefulness to be a feeling we experience only a few times or only towards a few people, we want gratefulness to be a way of life, towards everyone, all the time. Nobody owes us electricity, a roof over our heads, fashionable clothes, entertainment, cars, medicine, technology, and a large variety of food at the supermarket. We tend to take these luxuries for granted.

In order to be grateful in our human existence, we need to live in the moment and be aware of the “now”.In other words, to know that we don’t ‘deserve’ these moments. Every second of our lives, every breath that we take, is an undeserved gift of grace. We can’t be certain that we’ll have more moments like these in the future, perhaps our time will come tomorrow and we’ll be no more. Once we’re grateful for life itself, we can no longer take everything else we have for granted, like food and clothes. Therefore, we need to be grateful for the present, and the present is always present!

If we’ll always be grateful for the present, we’ll always be joyful as well.

While running this race in life, sometimes we forget to just stop and take a look around, and when we forget to stop, we miss out on life.Think about small children, who are mesmerized by every new thing. The universe God created is amazing, and even though we know very well how to make use of it for our own personal ends – and that’s ok, since we do need to sustain ourselves – sometimes we just need to stop, be still, and be silent. It reminds us that we don’t have control over everything and allows us to wonder at God’s creation and thank Him:

“Be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalms 46:10)

So what if we really stopped taking life for granted? What if we were grateful to God for giving us minds that can think, research, and discover the nature he created for us, so that we can enjoy all the blessings he offers us? What if we were grateful for our ability to see colors, to experience tastes, hear sounds, and touch and feel in so many different ways?

What if, instead of complaining about the bad customer service at the shoe store, we were grateful that we could even allow ourselves to buy shoes? What if, instead of complaining to the waiter about the sogginess of the french fries, we were grateful that we even had anything to eat? Not to mention the privilege of being able to dine at a restaurant. What if, instead of complaining about all the things we hate at work, we were grateful that we even had a source of income? 

If we would just stop taking things for granted we would realise that we have so much to be grateful for.

True, we can’t always be grateful for everything. We don’t need to be grateful for evil and malice. We don’t need to be grateful for the loss of a friend or for a disease, but even during difficult times as these or any trial that comes our way even then we can be grateful and rejoice in the new opportunities that arise from the situation, as hard as it may be – to learn, to change, to mature, and to start anew.

“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” (James 1:2-3)

The bottom line is, we always have something to be grateful for.

It’s been scientifically proven that being grateful causes us to be happy

In 2011, the medical department at Harvard University published a study titled: “Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier”. The study concluded that:

“Gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness.” (excerpt from study)

Being thankful for material things is great, but these things are only temporary. For instance, it only takes us a few months after recovering from an illness to forget that we were sick at all. Earthly things, as wonderful as they may be, only give us short term pleasure. 

Therefore, we need to be grateful for something long-term, something eternal, something spiritual.

When Jesus gave his disciples the authority to heal the sick and cast out demons and evil spirits, the disciples were thrilled and excited:

“The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!’ (Luke 10:17)

But Jesus challenged them to not base their happiness on miracles and supernatural wonders, but rather on their eternity:

“Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:20)

Being grateful for as many things as possible and at all times is the will of God in the life of every believer:

“Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

History is filled with stories of people who despite having found themselves in difficult circumstances, were able to retain their joy and peace. When Job became sick and lost everything, he didn’t complain – his joy and peace were deeply rooted in the Lord:

“And he said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ ” (Job 1:21)

If you are strong inside, then external circumstances can impact you, but much less. The Apostle Paul begged God to take away what he called his “thorn in the flesh”:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

The Apostle Paul’s joy and happiness were not dependant on his circumstances, not even when he experienced weaknesses, hardships, and calamities, rather that his joy came from a heavenly source. We need to reach this point as well, when we rejoice even when things are tough.Like the Apostle Paul, we cannot be people who require certain ordeals or circumstances in order to be grateful and happy. Rather we must live with gratitude, a life of gratitude.

Circumstances change, and what can we do – we won’t always stay healthy. After all, one day, all of us as well as those close to us will die. 

In other words, there needs to be another reason for us to have gratitude a cosmic reason, a reason that has nothing to do with our corporeal reality, but a transcendental reason, a reason whose source is spiritual.

We mentioned before that when we’re given a gift of great value without having done anything to earn it, it makes us grateful in the most meaningful way. As believers, in a spiritual sense, we can remind ourselves every day that we received the most valuable gift ever for free. While we were so underserving of such a gift, the Messiah gave his life for us, as a sacrifice and atonement for our sins. We didn’t do a single thing to earn this incredible gift of grace, and we cannot take it for granted.

The grace of God in Jesus the Messiah is a daily source for eternal gratitude

This isn’t temporary happiness, giddiness, or excitement but steadfast joy – that we can always depend on. We can analogize this to the contrast between crashing waves on the shoreline, that can be large and exciting for a few seconds only in shallow water, and between the heart of an ocean, which may look calm and serene on the surface but has incredible depth and power. This is what real spiritual happiness, rooted in the Lord, is like.

This isn’t a fleeting moment of euphoric feelings, this is something so much deeper and lasting – this is joy.

When a person dedicates one’s whole life to you, it brings you joy. When a person sacrifices everything especially for you, it brings you joy. The knowledge that the Messiah dedicated his enter life for us and sacrificed himself for us is not just a reason for us to have joy – it’s the reason!

A Biblical perspective

Isaiah 54 opens with the declaration concerning the barren woman, who breaks forth in joyful singing. During this time period, the purpose of a woman’s life was to start a family, to have children. Barren women were regarded by society as “damaged” women, useless women. The prophet Isaiah, after his prophecy in chapter 53 which describes the death of the Messiah on our behalf, begins with the description of abounding joy that even reaches the poor outcasts of society, barren women. Because of chapter 53, the barren woman’s joy is not based on her ability to bear children, but rather on one thing only – the Messiah! But it’s not something that happens automatically. Gratitude is a conscious and wilful act.

This means that happiness is the result of a choice. 

The barren woman had to choose: whether to sink into depression and feelings of self-pity or whether to rejoice in her lot. In other words, she chose to be grateful. Maybe we grew up in a house where there were constant complaints or perhaps we tend to be very critical, and that’s why we instinctively respond with grumblings and complaints. But these also are our own decisions – to poison ourselves. It also shows that our feelings control us and not the other way around. Happiness is a choice, a choice to be happy with out lot, a choice to be grateful for every moment that was given us as a gift. Happiness isn’t something that just comes on it’s own, rather it’s a conscious decision that we have to make.

The Apostle Paul entreated the Philippians to:

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4)

If happiness wasn’t up to us and if it wasn’t a decision we are called to make,Paul wouldn’t have bothered to urge the Philippians to choose happiness. But there is no doubt that Paul regarded happiness as a decision, and that’s why he required them to make a decision – to rejoice!

And not just them – rejoice always!

As mentioned before, the opposite of living gratefully is living with the mindset of entitlement, “I deserve it!”.We’re not generally very grateful when we think we deserve something. Likewise, when we’re busy grumbling and complaining we don’t have time to rejoice.

Grumbling and complaining is our greatest enemy that eats away at our joy.

The greatest enemy of gratefulness is complaining, and that’s why the Apostle Paul also said to the Philippians:

“Do all things without grumbling or disputing.” (Philippians 2:14)

Peter also wrote similarly:

“Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.” (1 Peter 4:9)

And James also wrote:

“Do not grumble against one another, brothers.” (James 5:9)

Our perfect example is of course Jesus, who himself had to endure the most terrible thing of all, sufferings and agonizing death. Jesus didn’t grumble and complain about his grim fate, and even as he was dying he sought to serve others:

“And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ ” (Luke 23:34)

Happiness and joy do not happen on their own, but rather they are a natural result of gratitude.

Gratitude is a conscious decision. The greatest example of a grateful life is embodied in Jesus the Messiah, who taught that the more we seek God’s will, and, as we saw, God’s will among other things is being grateful, the more our joy will be complete and full.

“These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:11)

In conclusion, if we won’t make a conscious decision to rejoice, we’ll end up by default – unhappy. Why? Because our back hurts, there’s no money in our bank account, our boss is annoying, we didn’t find a parking spot, we were asked to do something we just don’t want to do, or because we didn’t have a good night’s rest.

And that’s why, we’re called upon every day anew to choose – joy!

“This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalms 118:24)

Amen.