Having no joy is just boring, but it’s also problematic

When you think “joy”, do you think mad happiness? Quiet contentment? Something else? A very smart man I know once described it as “your personal climate”. Some people have a joyful climate. I don’t mean that they are incessantly happy all the time. They aren’t bursting into laughter like a crazy person or flinging rosebuds and rainbows everywhere. They are normal people. They might have spots of bad weather, but overall, their personality is positive.

My dad and my younger son (birds of a feather) are often described as “always on the lookout for merriment and mirth”. They have a joyful climate.

One of my best mates is funny and sweet and clumsy and kind with a lot of nonsense going on upstairs. But nothing is ever a big deal and every problem has a solution. She has a joyful climate.

All these people have down times. They get stressed, angry, upset and frustrated. But it’s just weather. They’re overall climate is joyful.

I know other people whose climate is grey, thundery, dismal, rainy and muggy. They can have spots of weather when the sun shines, but mostly their climate is wet and dark. No joy. Just stress.

Being around people who don’t have a joyful outlook is boring. People who don’t have a naturally joyful climate find it hard to see joy around them. They find it hard to observe and draw joy from others.

It’s also problematic though. As a climate it can become inflicted on others. Others get rained on. They can feel the air crackle when a storm is coming. They get swept up in the tornado. Being around them is stressful. Your own joy fades.

And that’s just general joy. What about Christian joy? According to the bible we’re supposed to have joy and be joyful.

I should note here that people feel and express joy differently. Just because they aren’t showing it outwardly, doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t feeling it inwardly. They don’t have to be jumping up and down and waving their arms in the air to show they are feeling joy. Nobody has anything to prove to anyone except God – and he already knows us anyway.

No, I’m talking about people who seem unable to feel or see joy around them. Their climate is so entrenched and pernicious, it’s almost as though they cannot allow themselves to feel joy – or see it or allow it in others.

Here’s the problem. The bible says “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13). The joy comes from God – and it is so that we may overflow with hope. That’s how important joy is.

Our response to God should be joy – “Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy.” (Psalms 47:1) because “the prospect of righteousness is joy.” (Proverbs 10:28). Our joy is glorious (1 Peter 1:8) and what we glory in, glorifies God.

John Piper describes Christian joy as “a good feeling in the soul, produced by the Holy Spirit, as he causes us to see the beauty of Christ in the word and in the world.”*

Joy comes from the Holy Spirit – it’s one of the fruits of the spirit in fact. So if we don’t have it, there are some things to think about.

The things to think about are hard, because they require self-reflection and humility. It requires us to look at what our natural climate is. Are we naturally a “joyful”, positive glass-half-full type person? Are are we a grey and rainy glass-half-empty type person? This is not necessarily bad until we come to the next set of questions – do we inflict our climate on others? Does our climate stop us from seeing joy around us? Does it stop us from seeing good in others? Or does it incline us to see the bad in others?

Here’s the key question – Does it stop us from feeling joy in God? There’s more to it than just feeling it. The hidden depth in this question is whether our climate inhibits our powers of observation and our ability to see God at work in the mundane. We can see God in things that are obvious (such as nature) or in things that we specifically prayed for. But can we see God everywhere in everything and feel it in our joy (not just know it in our heads)?

If Christian joy is enjoyment of God** which is the fruit of communion with him, then sin gets in the way of this. So we need to deal with our sin. We need to deal with ourselves. “To be joyless,” Bridges says, “is to dishonour God and to deny His love and His control over our lives. It is practical atheism. To be joyful is to experience the power of the Holy Spirit within us and to say to a watching world, “Our God reigns.”

The good news is, we can do better. We can practice gratitude – this helps us hone our powers of positivity. It helps us broaden our view of where we see God. Which means we can be more intentional about practicing our powers of observation.

Sometimes we need to take ourselves out of our environment to re-calibrate. Is our climate actually influenced by our circumstances? Break the norm for a short while. Take time out with God, Time in prayer and Bible reading.

Take a breath. Pray. Open your eyes. Observe. Be grateful. And may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

* https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/how-do-you-define-joy which is the first in a 6-part series in the book of Philippians

** which is how Jerry Bridges describes it in his book The Fruitful Life

Is “living your best life” attainable and what does it look like?

I don’t really know what “living your best life” means. First of all, how do we know what our “best life” is? We can’t possibly know, surely. We haven’t lived it all yet. Does it mean “living to what I feel is my fulfilled potential”? Or does it mean “living joyfully and freely and with nothing to worry about”. Possibly. So surely what we really mean is, “living the life I dream of”.

What sits behind this is the feeling of satisfaction. Feeling satisfied means feeling complete, peaceful and contented. To feel completely satisfied means to feel happiness. Now, we often think that these feelings are states of being – that happiness or satisfaction is a constant state of experience. This is just not the case, nor can it be.

This struck me the other day when I returned home from dinner with A Mate. I’d had a great day. I did some writing I was really proud of, I didn’t have to be in the office for my day job for another couple of days, and I really like my job so that wasn’t even a big deal. I felt really close to God and had some great devotional time. Then I saw My Mate and we’d had a super lovely evening. We’d laughed and connected. It was still early so we got to have our own time before bed (top consideration when you get to my age). It was a really perfect night.

Then I got home and my new dog had poo’d in her crate and then done that doggy digging motion and sprayed the plops through the bars and all over the living room. As I wiped and mopped I cogitated on the dignity of my life and the fact that “your best life” will always probably have some dog poo on it.

This may sound flippant but it’s worth thinking about because contentment and satisfaction underpin how we approach life – or rather, how we let life approach us.

You see, if we think there is a “best life” we will constantly feel dis-satisfied. Or at least only satisfied in the fleeting moments in which we feel replete – during a relaxing holiday when the cares of the world seem far away, in a new relationship that is thrilling and romantic, when we self-medicate with our favourite pleasure to take our attention away from the fact that we feel horribly mediocre.

If we aren’t careful then, we will live for transitory moments that we wish would last forever, and bemoan our woefully inadequate lives which never match up to what we think our “best life” should be (or what it looks like in the movies).

Now it’s an easy thing to say we should feel satisfied in Christ, as though it’s the answer to all our problems. It would certainly be true, but not necessarily too helpful at this point.

So what to do?

Well, first of all, it’s OK to want a “best life”, to feel satisfied and replete. It’s even OK to want holidays and nice times and money and a better job.

What’s less OK is to let it take over. If always wanting the next best thing is all you think about, if you live for your next holiday, if you are constantly dissatisfied, that’s something to consider carefully. There may be some things in there to repent of. There may be some pride or covetousness.

Here’s something else to consider. Our dissatisfaction itself can be sinful because what we’re saying is that we are not content with where God has placed us and what he has given us. That’s a harsh truth.

The antidote to this is gratitude. What has he given us? We must practice our powers of observation and thankfulness.

If we are in a situation that is making us unhappy, one of two things needs to occur – we need to change our situation, or change our attitude. In either case, the object of the change needs to not be us, but Christ. Is this holiday so I can focus on a fleeting “best life” moment? Or so I can take time with my family, who are my first ministry? Am I looking for a new job because I want power and prestige? Or because a higher salary would allow me to give more to my church, or allow my family members to volunteer more, or have a greater platform to witness to others? Remember, Proverbs 16:2 says “All the ways of a man are clean in his own sight, but the Lord weighs motives.” Our motivations, our choices, are the proof of where our heart is.

Some of us are in a situation that is extremely difficult to feel content in. Some of us suffer in sickness. Some are burdened. Some are heavy of spirit. Some are strangled in poverty. Some are put upon by others, pressured and oppressed. For some, a “best life” seems like an impossible dream.

For those people, know that nobody is living their best life. Even on their best days there is dog poo to clean up.

Take a look also, for encouragement, at my blog on finding peace (you can read it here). This gives us hope and certainty that there will be a best day. There will be an unending best life, with him.

Until then, we must strive to be satisfied – but satisfied in the right thing and for the right reasons. We must rise above our circumstances knowing there is something greater, just as Paul did when in prison:

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” (Philippians 4:12)

Paul achieved this the way we can achieve it. By taking his strength from Christ. But just because Paul said it, doesn’t mean it was easy for him. He was human just like us. He had a shady past and he was kind of a jerk sometimes. But he learned what he needed to learn through his faith in Christ alone. Paul was living his best life, even in poverty and persecution and personal attack and imprisonments. Because he persevered in his faith and growth and obedience.

We too must constantly seek to grow and to guard our hearts, even among the difficulties and the dog poo.

Why you can be fine on the outside while you’re crumbling on the inside

There’s a popular meme that says “Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” This is true. But what is also true is that many people are fighting a battle that even they know nothing about.

This is because we, as individuals and as a society, have a conditioned response to difficulty and trauma that is to downplay or to deny. This can be the response to people dealing with everything from anxiety and depression to burn out to the loss of a loved one, a car accident, sexual assault or even group trauma in response to terror attacks, war and natural disasters. Visual cues are less easy to downplay (and have resulted from something obvious) but the internal scarring and struggle can be invisible, even to the people bearing them.

How can this be? Prior to my marriage ending, I didn’t realise I was in a traumatic situation. I knew I was hurting. I knew I was miserable. I knew I was losing hope. But I didn’t know I was living in a situation that has a name in text books. When it was pointed out to me by a professional, I found it hard to believe. When my marriage ended then, in many ways it’s understandable if other people found it hard to believe too.

Many people are burdened with internal unrecognised and unnamed struggle and trauma. A friend of mine who works in the industry, told me that up to 90% of the women she meets in a professional capacity do not recognise that they have, or are in, something that has a name. Each are struggling with unnamed trauma. As a result of the event/struggle/trauma itself, there are also the responses to that trauma – there are flashbacks, nightmares, unexplained anxiety, over-worry, overwork, burn out, loss of self-esteem, lack of hope, depression – and all downplayed by the sufferer as “just those things we have to deal with”.

Because we just “deal with it”, people see our day-to-day faces. This can go on for years. In her book, Trauma-Sensitive Theology by Jennifer Baldwin, she notes that “When the intensity of the crisis remains below the threshold of resources and coping, crisis events are generally processed by our innate resources.” This means, we can go years dealing with internal battles because our innate coping mechanisms are high enough, and the level of crisis just low enough, to allow us to function on a daily basis. This is where our meme comes in.

BUT when our coping resources lessen, and/or the crisis increases in frequency or intensity, we lose the ability to function properly. That’s when people start to see it and can be surprised by its suddenness. What they don’t realise is, it’s the tip of the iceberg and 90% of the issue has been below the water line all this time.

What they also don’t realise is that this loss of functionality can be a shock to us too. When the walls come crashing in, the trauma needs to begin to be processed by the sufferer. What that means is that responses to the sufferer after the walls fell in can add to the trauma. The sufferer bears the burden of processing the trauma, as well as the burden of people’s response to the trauma.

We must not add a burden to our sisters and brothers. We must see the nuance behind the meme. The Bible itself gives us its wisdom: “Even in laughter the heart may ache.” (Proverbs 14:13). There is no denial of struggle here. There is recognition that people may be in the deepest pain but not show it on the outside. If we treat each other with patience, kindness and goodness though, we provide a solid foundation for re-building or strengthening a persons coping mechanisms. At worst we help people to function every day. At best, we support them in building their new resiliency in Christ.

As Jennifer Baldwin says, resiliency isn’t “going back” and living as though the struggle never happened or doesn’t exist. Resiliency is finding the courage to process the wounds and find new ways of living authentically. We can help people to do this.

The important key is the ratio of coping mechanism, to the threat of overwhelm. In other words, we need to keep the situation of struggle in check, and/or, we need to build a persons coping mechanisms. Many people cannot change their situation – parents with high needs kids, single parents, people carrying anxiety and depression to name but a few. These situations may not change, but can at best be managed. We can help them. This might be acts of kindness and material help, but more often than not it might be acceptance of the person, acknowledgement of the trauma or struggle, treating the person with compassion, and always prayer.

We can also build someone’s coping mechanisms. The Bible’s wisdom and the early church is built for just such a purpose. In general, our faith is a corporate affair. It is meant to be lived together. We meet at church, we join together at small groups, we do life together. This is fertile ground for interpersonal support and growth.

There is much more to be said about growing in resilience. But the foundation of it is to recognise that we have the power to add to someone’s burden, or add to someone’s journey of recovery. Be patient. Be gentle. Be kind. Against such things there is no law.

And if you are reading this and you are struggling with trauma or trauma response, please know that you are loved and believed and accepted. If you can feel your situation getting the better of you, please seek help to review it and manage it and change it where possible and appropriate. As a single parent working full time, I’ve done things as a simple as getting my groceries delivered because dragging 2 kids around Coles was adding to my stress and sense of overwhelm.

If you can feel your coping mechanisms crumbling, please seek the help and support of Christian sisters or brothers, and if need be, a professional.

Above all, please please be in God’s word. He is Lord and he is alive and he lives in you. Know it, and know that you were known and loved and accepted before you were even born.

Notes:

If you’re a reader, I can recommend Change Your Thinking by Sarah Edelman. She also has a new book coming out in June 2019 on managing anxiety.

If you are in ministry (and if you’re interested), Jennifer Baldwin’s book Trauma-Sensitive Theology is a must in seeking to equip ministers to understand trauma.

This moment. This. Moment. The realness is astonishing

There are some things you know so well that you go onto auto-pilot. The crucifixion is one of those things. Yup. Heard it. Know it. Saw the musical. What’s for morning tea?

Except there is a moment when it hits you full in the face like a bucket of cold water. The reality is so chilling that you see the cross as though it was the first time. And we need this moment.

Jesus famously cries out from the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Why did he say this? I mean, he had been tortured, imprisoned, beaten, and now he was nailed to a cross, the Roman instrument of brutal execution. But Jesus is fully God So it’s hard for us to understand the cross in human terms. We intellectually get that crucifixion was horrific, but he’s God so it was always gonna be alright…right?

So why did he say those particular words?

He is quoting the first line of Psalm 22……

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?

………which suggests that there is something there we need to see.

All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. “He trusts in the Lord,” they say, “let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.” (Psalm 22:8, written about 600 years before Jesus’ death).

Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!” In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.” (Mark 15:29-32 written about 30 years after Jesus’s death).

This was foretold. It had long been foretold. This humiliation. This death. It was no accident.

But also in this psalm, the psalmist gives voice to the loneliness of suffering that we can all relate to. Where are you God? I’m so alone. This suffering is unbearable. Jesus apparently speaks into these feelings by quoting just one line. The depth of his emotional suffering is palpable.

But Jesus’ physical pain is described in Psalm 22 too.

I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me. My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.” (Psalm 22:14-15)

Poetry is so expressive. I read these lines and see Jesus on the cross, his limbs twisted and mangled, his flesh ripped, in all the physical anguish that is possible for a human to bear.

Sit with that for a moment. Because when we say “Jesus died on the cross” it can be a distant concept – an idea that’s too far, too alien for us to see clearly. But this is where we see it. The agony. The loneliness. The heart-breaking torturous physical pain.

You would think this would be the point that Jesus is trying to communicate in as few words as possible. And it is an important one – because it connects us to the realness of his suffering.

But Psalm 22 doesn’t end there.

From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows. The poor will eat and be satisfied; those who seek the Lord will praise him – may your hearts live forever!” (Ps 22:5)

Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!” (Ps. 22: 30-31)

If these were Jesus’ last implied words, these are profound. The praise. The promise. The hope. The certainty. He has done it.

This Easter Friday, remember. Reconnect with the memory of the cross. Sit for a moment in the startling realness of what Jesus went through. It makes what has been done all the more astonishing and wonderful.

Praying for peace when you’re too tired to even finish this sentence

Life is really hard. I mean, it’s great, but it’s really hard. We all have those days when, half in jest, we pray “Hey Jesus, if you’re thinking of coming back soon, now would be a reeeeeeally good time.”

Sometimes it seems relentless, unending, even hopeless. The days flow on, one after another, like the incessant march of wartime. We didn’t really plan for this, but the days go on like war came to our doorstep whether we liked it or not. And now we’re in it, we just have to keep going until the war is over.

When will the war be over? We think. When will it get less difficult? I’m so tired.

At times like these, usually the Bible is one of the last places we go. We’re too busy trying to do life. But that’s why we need it. The more we strain to get through the day, the more we tend to rely on our own initiative. Head down, bum up, organising, planning, running things, keeping small people alive, happy and safe, just managing to keep putting one foot in front of the other…… It is easy to fall into self-reliance.

But that’s where we have gone off course, and we need to get back to God’s word.

God gets us. He so gets us. The place where he communicates with us is the place we find people who have gone before who have done and felt the exact same thing as us. And they rest in the pages of the bible so God can redirect our attention to the right place.

The book of Micah is one such place. Micah was a prophet in the 8th century BC – it was just before the Assyrians wiped out the northern kingdom of Israel and came right to the door of the southern kingdom of Judah. War is coming. The Assyrians are coming. When will there be peace?

Micah tells them in chapter 4 that God’s peace will come. The law will go out from him and he will judge and settle disputes. The people, Micah says, will “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” (4:3b). There will be no need for these weapons. They will turn weapons of war into tools of the farm. Prosperity. Fertility. Peace.

Then he says:

Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.” (4:4).

Can you imagine that? Sitting somewhere in complete safety and tranquility. Master or mistress of your own little spot. Nothing to worry about. Nothing to fear. Nothing to lose.

What would it look like for you? For me it’s a late afternoon, sunny but cool. The light casting a faint orange glow over the countryside. The sound of the breeze in the trees – not even birds chirping. Breathing in the sweet air with the faint whiff of hay and honeysuckle. My kids playing and laughing.

Nothing to worry about. Nothing to fear. Nothing to lose.

Peace. God’s peace. That’s what he promises in Micah. One day, this will be real. It won’t look like that – who knows what it will look like? But it will feel like that. One day we will be there, in God’s full peace. In his presence. He promised it. He communicated it, and he is faithful. It will happen.

How does that change the tough days? Hope.

It lifts me because I know what sitting under my own vine would look like, what it would feel like. I pray for the day I will sit under my own vine, but I also know it is a certainty, and so my bad days become not so bad. I can imagine being in God’s peace and it calms me.

It even pushes me forward – if that is a certainty, what should I be doing before I can relax under my vine? What is the work that’s still to be done? That drives me back to God again. What shall I do, God? What can I do so that when I sit under my vine, I do so as a good and faithful servant? Complete, replete, God’s own. Forever.

Sleep well, friends. Be well. Be hopeful. God has promised and it will happen.