Tag Archives: Happiness

Joy Is a Verb

I’m not going to lie – finding joy during 2020 was difficult for me. I suspect many of you may have found that challenging as well. For me, it was difficult when the traveling ministry that brings me so much fulfillment was put on hold. I faced new challenges in family relationships and finances, and an unexpected medical challenge brought me to my knees (literally).

As much as I’ve preached and written about joy in the past, last year I was not feeling it. It’s humbling to admit that I just felt sad. I found that almost embarrassing; sometimes leaders struggle to say it without feeling ashamed or guilty. In the middle of challenges and grief, though, I knew that joy was still possible. After all, the Gospels show Jesus as a man who felt sorrow deeply. He wept. He was tempted. He knew hunger, thirst, rejection, and loneliness – and yet he gladly made water into wine to keep a party going! Jesus knew the range of what it means to be human.

Forget the somber, anemic portraits of Christ you’ve seen on funeral home walls. Jesus was a joyful person. We know this because in his final moments with the disciples, the Lord said his greatest desire for them was not that they have strength, salvation, or peace, but that they would share his joy.

In John 15:11, he said to his disciples, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”

In John 16:24, he instructed them, saying, “Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.”

Then he prayed for them, “I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them.” (John 17:13)

Soon to be beaten and pierced with nails for a crime he didn’t commit, Jesus prayed that his friends would be as joyful as he was. The Lord showed us by example that joy isn’t the result of an easy life. He had joy even in the midst of pain, because he wasn’t swayed by what was happening to him. Jesus’ heart was only moved by the heart of his Father.

Joy is the atmosphere of heaven and the very fabric of who God is. In Psalm 16:11, we read, “In your presence is fullness of joy.” Yes, Jesus felt pain in his body and soul, but his spirit was always resting in his Father’s love. Joy was the overflow of the constant presence of God within him. In the same way, it is possible to find joy in any time and in all circumstances when our hearts stay focused on the Lord. Our faith makes room for his joy when we are willing to trust God’s purposes even when we don’t understand.

I love how the prophet Habakkuk rejoiced despite the fact that everything in his life seemed to be going wrong.

Though the fig tree may not blossom,

nor fruit be on the vines;

Though the labor of the olive may fail,

and the fields yield no food;

Though the flock may be cut off from the fold,

and there be no herd in the stalls—

Yet I will rejoice in the Lord,

I will joy in the God of my salvation. (Habakkuk 3:17-18)

The word “joy” in that last verse is not a noun – it’s a verb! Though his circumstances were desperate, Habakkuk chose to rejoice in the God of his salvation. He took joy in who God was even in the middle of catastrophe, rather than allowing his response to be determined by the disaster. When we begin to praise and thank God regardless of what we feel like doing, the Holy Spirit is eager to fill us with the joy of his presence and even change the atmosphere around us. 

One of my favorite examples of joy in action is found in the book of Acts. Paul and Silas were arrested in the city of Philippi simply for preaching the gospel. Having been falsely accused, they were whipped and then locked in the inner prison. Though their backs were bleeding and their feet were chained, Paul and Silas chose to worship their God!

“But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were loosed.” (Acts 16:25-26)

I weep as I read these words yet again. Paul and Silas were so full in the presence of the Holy Spirit that injustice and injury did not dampen the joy of the Holy Spirit’s presence within them. In fact, the power of God was released through Paul and Silas’ praise; it was so great it caused seismic activity in the earth. The prison gates were jarred open and their chains came loose – not only their chains, but the shackles of the other prisoners who found themselves in jail. In the end, even the jailer and his family were saved, becoming believers.

Paul and Silas received joy in the dark and painful place; they chose to join their worship with the worship of heaven even in those circumstances. They knew that no power on earth could stand against the purposes and goodness of God. I even wonder if, by faith, these men already knew what was about to happen. Perhaps they could picture the Lord smiling and saying, “Wait for it…wait for it!” Notice that the earthquake rumbled and shook as they lifted their voices in praise to God.

Would I have acted the same as Paul and Silas did that night? I don’t know, but perhaps I can learn from them as I face hardship in my own life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking for opportunities to be beaten for my faith! But I want to learn to live in the overcoming joy of the Lord, regardless of the circumstances I find myself in or how I feel. I want to be so aware of God’s goodness and love for me that my response in every trial is simply worship.

If you have felt stuck this past year, be encouraged. When we face upheaval and darkness, there is something we can do. We can join our song of God’s faithfulness with the song of the saints, the joy of heaven. We can praise God for his promises for the future, and we can worship the Lord for who he is right now. The Lord is our Shepherd, our Father, our Strength, our Shield, our Shelter, our Rock, our Peace, our Righteousness, our Savior, and our God in whom we trust.

Yes, these are difficult days, but the joy of the Lord is our strength. (Nehemiah 8:10) As we boldly lift up his name in the middle of our circumstances, the one who raised Jesus from the dead will surely lift us up. God uses even our trials to do miracles we could not foresee. However painful or lonely your situation may be today, know that you are not alone. The Holy Spirit is with you and within you. Call out in prayer. Sing praises to him! Joy in the presence of the God of your salvation, and listen for the rumble and rattle of seismic shift.

Featured image courtesy Jenni Peterson on Unsplash.

Edgar Bazan ~ A Hard Reset

What do you do when a phone freezes, stops working, or is unresponsive? You toss it to the ground, step on it really hard, and make sure is completely crashed, right?

Well, probably not. Most likely you do what most of us have done: we reset our phones to reactivate its functions, we don’t discard it. Depending on how bad it is, we may remove the battery, or do a hard reset which restores the factory functions, deleting everything in the hard drive. It’s not a good situation, but you get your phone back and start all over again.

Have you thought about your life along those lines? That sometimes we need some kind of reset when life gets so thick and unbearable that we stop functioning in healthy ways and find ourselves thinking, behaving, or making choices that are not good for us or the people we care about? In such times, what we need is a fresh start. I know I do sometimes for a variety of reasons, and maybe you do too.

Why bring this up? Maybe you have a bunch of stuff going on in your life right now that keeps getting in your way and keeps you from fulfilling what you know is God’s plan and calling for your life. You may have regrets, remorse, or guilt, the sadness of unmet goals and past disappointments that distracts you from seeing a future for your life to the point that you give up hope, saying: I am broken, I will never be whole again, there is no future for me, I gave that up long ago. These experiences and memories from the past threaten to overpower us to the point that what happened in the past is ruining our present and our future.

The sad part of it is that we think it’s normal, that we just have to deal with it. In a way, we do have to deal with the not-so-positive happenings in life. But here is the trick: we are not called to do this alone.

God wants to work his good will in everything that happens in our lives, and God is in the business of making things new, in transforming the old into a new creation. Our God is a God of opportunities and new beginnings. Our God is a God of the ultimate Reset.

Do you need a reset today, a new way of living, of moving from what was to what can be? If you feel purposeless, broken, or like a frozen, unresponsive phone, then it is time for a reset, and you are not alone.

Now how do we do this? Well, let’s learn together.

The scripture for today is 2 Corinthians 5:17. It is just one verse. And it says,

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

Let’s get some context first.

Like us, the Corinthians were struggling with many problems and difficulties. One of them was living into their new identity as followers of Jesus. As new believers in Christ, they were becoming a part of a new way of living that was in drastic contrast to their old ways. The Corinthian Christians needed to be reminded of this and encouraged constantly about their faith, to not give up and give in to the old ways of living before they knew Christ.

For this reason, in this text and within the context of the letters to the Corinthians, Paul talks of a “new creation” as the transformation that takes place in us that makes us to be “born again,” meaning, saved from the condemnation of sin and death, and the evil powers of this world, to become people of God: children of light with a restored and new life.

However, there is always conflict when you have two elements at odds, in this case the old versus the new. There is a sort of battle between these opposing elements. The moment we embark on our new life, the old yells back at us, reminding us who we were, what we did, or what happened to us, with the only intention of holding us back by discouraging us and putting in doubt our worthiness.

For this reason, a common struggle Christians face today as much as back then is to fully leave behind the old and fully embrace the new. Although your soul has been saved, maybe your mind has not caught up: a part of you is still stuck in the past, in the old, in the very thing about which God has said: “you are the one talking about it, I don’t even remember that anymore!” In other words, what happens in practice is that the devil will always bring up your past to discourage you, but God will always remind you of your future to encourage you to keep moving on.

So when I talk about a reset in this context, I mean the ability to embrace and move into the new things that God has for us by not allowing the hurts of the past to hold us back. Becoming new creatures, as Paul says, is the ultimate reset for anyone, “for everything old has passed away and everything has become new!”

But this is one of the most difficult practices, isn’t it? How do we move away from the old? Is it possible?

I think it is, but we have to change it. What do I mean by “change it”? Like changing the past? Yes, like changing the past.

At first this sounds like a contradiction. How can we change something that already happened? But why does the past matter at all? What is the past to us today? What do we get to keep from something that already happened? Why does the past have so much power over us?

Well, because of the memories; we get to keep those –either the bliss or the trauma.

When we talk about the past, it is really the memory that we are talking about. The story that runs on a loop in the back of our minds of what has happened. This is critical because the past – those memories – only exists in our mind; but they have a direct effect on what happens today and will happen to us in the future. Why?

Because they define us. Although those events may not even matter anymore, they have so much power and control over our minds that they affect our decisions.

Recently I learned about epigenetics, the science that tells us that we are the sum of our experiences, that what happens to us – mentally, physically, emotionally – affects our biological composition, which means that everything that happens to us lays itself like tire tracks tattooing itself across our body-mind and literally making us the product of what has come before.

For example, an experience of trauma from the past seen through a certain lens can physiologically create stress responses like cortisol, stress hormones, and anxiety. All these responses may exist today –even if the event took place many years ago. According to epigenetics, we are the product of what we were and what we continue to allow to affect us today. That is why it is so hard to let the old go. Because it is tattooed all over our lives and we think that that is normal. And the more we replay it in our minds, the more it takes over us, printing itself all over our lives, defining who we think we are.

This idea led me to ask the question, “can we change what has already been, meaning our past experiences? Can we remove those unhealthy marks out of our lives?”

I think we can.

Here is something amazing: our cognitive framing, our interpretation of reality, our use of thoughts, memory and language to frame our past experiences, even how we speak about them, can actually allow us to change our very past experiences. The story we tell, the story we choose to tell about what has happened, can change what has happened insofar as it may change how we respond to those very experiences today.

Of course, we can’t change the facts of the past; but we can change how we feel about the facts and how we allow them to affect us today. So, if the past can affect you negatively today, perhaps you can change the past positively by changing your response to those negative past experiences by reframing them and seeing them through a different lens.

While we can’t ignore the past – it happened – we can reframe it into a story of redemption by looking at it, by talking about it, by thinking about it through the lens of Jesus’ love and grace. We change our past by allowing it to be redeemed.

This is the reset we need! We stop keeping our future a hostage to our past. We free our future by allowing God to redeem our past and reframe our whole lives around a new story with the hope we get through Jesus Christ. We don’t let our past get in the way of our future anymore. We break the cycle of oppression. We don’t choke on our fears and disappointments but rework these experiences through our faith in Christ. And in turn, we output all of our stories from the past into a story of redemption, knowing that we are more than we were because of what has happened to us today, because of our faith in Jesus the Christ.

I believe that there is a lot more for us in our lives that God wants to bless us with, but we don’t see it because we continue to allow an unredeemed past to dictate our future. And just like the Corinthians, we may find ourselves with a new faith but old thinking, old behaving, old brokenness marking us for life.

We can’t ignore the past. It is never going to go away, as long our memories of it exist. So, change it; redeem it; let the gospel of Jesus, the Word of God, bring healing into your past and transform it into a beautiful story of redemption. Don’t let it haunt you anymore. Look straight at those fears, unmet goals, disappointments, and hurts, and say: you are forgiven, you are redeemed.

I know this is not easy at all. The brokenness from the past holds us by making us feel as if what has been must always be. But here is the truth. We were never created to live defeated, guilty, condemned, ashamed lives defined by feeling unworthy. We were created to be the ultimate reflection of God’s self, full of light, life, and goodness. Let us stop building on brokenness and start building on hope, forgiveness, reconciliation, and acceptance. Let us allow our past to be transformed into a story of redemption, where our decisions of today reflect our hopes for the future and not our fears and brokenness from the past. Remember, new faith with old thinking does not work well. So let’s also stop acting on the brokenness of our past, and start living in the power of the new life Christ makes possible for us day after day.

Finally, let us be certain of this: what God is offering to all of us today is a wonderful thought: the best days of our lives haven’t happened yet. We are not here by accident. This is your confirmation. Everything is going to be alright. God is making a way for you right now. All you have to do is to welcome God’s Word into your life, so it can speak new life into your mind and soul, reframing your feelings, thoughts, and everything from your past that has been getting in your way for so long.

I invite you to frame your life, your whole self, in the gospel of Jesus Christ, in the love God has for you, in the grace that has been bestowed on you. That is our reset!

Be encouraged today: you are going to make it. Your life still lies ahead of you. You are becoming as you keep on living and walking the pathway Jesus sets before you. Go ahead. In the words of Toby Mac: “You’ve got a new story to write and it looks nothing like your past.”


James Petticrew ~ Gaudete

Yesterday was the third Sunday of Advent, called Gaudete Sunday; “gaudete” is Latin for “rejoice.” Even a cursory reading of the Bible reveals that joy and rejoicing are an inevitable overflow in the  lives of people who have understood and experienced God at work in their lives. Paul reminds us that rejoicing has to be a continual and ongoing part of our individual and community life as Christians. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4) I love how Eugene Peterson captures what Paul is saying here: “Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him!”

In that verse, Paul reminds us that joy isn’t just for the third Sunday in Advent. Nevertheless, it’s helpful for us to think about joy purposefully, about what genuine joy is, about whether we are experiencing it and how we promote it in our world which is so often marked by such joylessness.

Some well-known Christians have said a few things about joy and Advent.

The current Pope said that on this “Sunday of joy,” instead of fretting about “all they still haven’t” done to prepare for Christmas, believers should “think of all the good things life and God have given you.” Now you don’t need to be Roman Catholic to see that is good advice.

Mid-twentieth century German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in prison and knowing that in all likelihood he would be killed by the Nazis, wrote, “The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, who look forward to something greater to come. For these, it is enough to wait in humble fear until the Holy One himself comes down to us, God in the child in the manger. God comes. The Lord Jesus comes. Christmas comes. Christians rejoice!” If Bonhoeffer, facing all he faced, could call on us to rejoice, we surely need to find reasons to obey his call.

Henri Nouwen described joy as, “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death – can take that love away.”

That means that whatever is happening around us and in us, we can know joy despite those circumstances and challenges.


Andy Stoddard ~ Happiness: Cause and Effect

How do you live a happy life?  For you, what would result in happiness?

We may have a list.  If I have this.  Or if I have that.  If I’m able to accomplish this.  Or if this happens at work, or at home, or in my own life, then I’ll be happy.  We’ve probably all got our list of what we want, or want to happen, in our lives, that will make us happy.

I was thinking about that today when I read what Paul had to say in Philippians 2: 1-4.  Listen to what he shares with us:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

He actually gives us the secret to happiness.  As tempting as it would be to think that our happiness will come from getting what we want, or doing what we want, our having our needs or wants met, Paul turns that on its head.

If there anything good, be of the same mind with each other.  Don’t be selfish, don’t act selfishly.  Regard others as800px-Beach_Smile better than you, and look to their interests first.

That sounds good, until you actually think about it.  Regard others as better than you.  I don’t (and don’t want to) do that.  I want to do what I want when I want it.  We all do, don’t we, to some extent.

And that’s what our culture tells us.  Our culture tells us that happiness comes from our stuff, from us being in charge, from us being number one.  Live your life the way that you want, doing what you want, achieving what you want because it’s all about you, your life, your contentment.

Today, though, we see the secret.  We see the secret to true happiness and life.  It’s not about us.

The Gospel is so countercultural.  The Gospel says – it’s not really about you.  In fact, to find life, give it away.  To find happiness, stop worrying about it.  To really live, live for others.

And I guarantee, if we try that Gospel-life we will find happiness a lot faster than any other way.  We think in living for what we think we want, we will find that happiness we desire.  We won’t.

But when we live that Gospel-life, living for Jesus, loving others, serving, giving, we find abundant, eternal life.

Today, you were made for that abundant, Gospel-centered life.  Today, live thinking of others first.  Give it a test drive.  Try it and see.  And see if you aren’t, in the end, happy.

Aaron Perry ~ Deathless Death: Take Me to Church

“Something in you dies when you give yourself indiscriminately to gluttony, whether in food, drink, or sex.”[1] While it was New Testament scholar N.T. Wright who wrote that, it could just as easily have been written by singer-songwriter Andrew Hozier-Byrne (“Hozier”), as commentary on his song, “Take Me to Church.” The only difference is that Hozier celebrates this kind of “deathless death.” Wright does not. Neither do I. I think it’s God’s grace. I also think it is Wesleyan theology.

John Wesley was a eudaemonist. This means he was focused on happiness. I first heard this notion when I chanced to encounter Burrell Dinkins and the sermon he preached through an online chapel service from Asbury Theological Seminary.[2] Well, maybe it wasn’t chance, but a kind of prevenient grace. Dinkins captured something that was just beginning to emerge in my theological convictions in my first days of pastoral ministry: holiness—a life devoted to God—is the path both of and to happiness because it is the path to God.

But not all walk the holiness path. And sometimes the amount of sacrifice offered by the desperate traveler down a path that once promised happiness makes for a more determined traveler. Wright names three of the paths people plod in pursuit of happiness: food, alcohol, and sex. Hozier’s “Take Me to Church,” luring, rich, and haunting in melody and voice, is like a determined traveler calling heartfully from far down the path of sex-as-happiness. Its conviction and eerie beauty is undeniable. Go to YouTube here and listen to the song, but refrain from watching the video for the moment; it has a narrative of its own. You’ll hear what I mean.

Hozier wrote the song about his first breakup and the importance of sexuality in being human. “Sexuality, and sexual orientation—regardless of orientation—is just natural.”[3] It seems the expression of sexuality is the experience of heaven. From “Take Me to Church”:

My church offers no absolutes 
She tells me ‘worship in the bedroom’
The only heaven I’ll be sent to
Is when I’m alone with you
I was born sick, but I love it
Command me to be well
Amen. Amen. Amen 

Church, worship, heaven, amen. Religious words and divine experience interact clearly and seamlessly. Hozier makes it explicit: “an act of sex is one of the most human things. But an organization like the church, say, through its doctrine, would undermine humanity by successfully teaching about sexual orientation—that it is sinful, or that it offends God. The song is about asserting yourself and reclaiming your humanity through an act of love.”[4]

But the context of the song betrays this line. “Take Me to Church” does not speak of asserting oneself, but of offering oneself to the female goddess that is his lover. “If I’m a pagan of the good times / My lover’s the sunlight / To keep the Goddess on my side / She demands a sacrifice.” This leads into the doubly paradoxical conclusion: “Offer me that deathless death / Good God, let me give you my life.” It is paradoxical in “deathless death,” but also in the giving and taking: life is given and simultaneously taken.

Hozier further clarifies this deathless death: “I found the experience of falling in love or being in love was death—a death of everything. You kind of watch yourself die in a wonderful way and you experience for the briefest moment—if you do believe somebody and you see for a moment yourself though their eyes—everything you believed about yourself is gone.”[5] It seems that death comes at the hands of the lover. “Take Me to Church” vividly captures how sharing oneself in the relationship leads to this kind of (sacrificial) death: “I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife.” So, why would Hozier agree with Wright’s analysis of indiscriminate giving? Because Hozier believes that something in you dies when you give yourself in the human act of sex.

Yet when there is a kind of relationship, let’s call it consensual, this death must go both ways. The lover becomes not just the one who gives their life, but the one who takes the other’s life. Perhaps the song’s video inadvertently captures this paradox as well, as one gay lover looks on in helpless dismay at his seemingly unconscious or dead lover at the end of mob violence perpetrated because of their forbidden relationship. (You have probably already watched the YouTube video, but if not, then go watch it here and you’ll see what I mean.) The lyrical memorability and melodic thrust of the song capture the reality that it could be either lover in a relationship who vocalizes the message of the song. This mutual deathless death is the closest you get to love and happiness on the sex-as-happiness path.

So, how might Wesleyan theology engage this sex-as-happiness path? Wesley shows how certain pursuits of happiness have the adverse effect:

You seek happiness. But you find it not. You come no nearer it with all your labours. You are not happier than you was (sic) a year ago. Nay, I [expect] you are more unhappy. Why is this, but because you look for happiness there, where you [know] it cannot be found? Indeed, what is there on earth which can long satisfy a man of understanding? His soul is too large for the world he lives in. He wants more room.[6]

The sex-as-happiness path is not wrong because sex is bad and sexuality is shameful. Far from it! The sex-as-happiness path is wrong because it comes to an end. The path simply is not long enough. Sex is not enough. For Wesley, false paths to happiness are not simply dead-ends, though; instead, all shortcuts to happiness lead to hellish misery:

I entreat you to reflect, whether there are not other inhabitants in your breast, which leave no room for happiness there. May you not discover, through a thousand disguises, pride? Too high an opinion of yourself? Vanity, thirst for praise, even (who would believe it?) of the applause of knaves and fools? Unevenness or sourness of temper? Proneness to anger or revenge? Peevishness, fretfulness, or pining discontent? Nay, perhaps even covetousness. And did you ever think happiness could dwell with these? Awake out of that senseless dream. Think not of reconciling things incompatible. All these tempers are essential misery: so long as any of these are harboured in your breast, you must be a stranger to inward peace. What avails it to you if there be no other hell? Whenever these fiends are let loose upon you, you will be constrained to own, ‘Hell is where’er I am: myself am hell.’ [7]

To keep with the theme that Hozier introduced, this potential for hell on earth is why orthodox Christians maintain the traditional view of marriage and sexuality. While Hozier seems to equate an act of sex with an act of love in the interview with “The Cut” quoted above (http://nymag.com/thecut/2014/03/qa-hozier-on-gay-rights-sex-good-hair.html), Christian theology works to determine when an act of sex is an act of love in order to keep sex an act leading to happiness. Or, as writer Christopher West put Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body, “the problem with pornography is not that it reveals too much of the person, but that it reveals far too little.”

While there are different applications and important differences regarding sexual ethics within various minor and major Christian traditions, Christian theology broadly affirms that sex between a man and woman in a marriage relationship is the context where sex is act of love precisely because it is the relationship where one lover may give him- or herself without the other taking this life. Far from the relationship of goddess/god with sharpened knife demanding sacrifice in “Take Me to Church,” faithful marriage is the relationship where sex does not lead to a deathless death, but to life—most explicitly in the flesh-and-blood life of the child who becomes the symbol and reality of the mutual self-giving of two lovers.

The holiness-as-happiness path does not end in the same way that sex-as-happiness does. The holiness-as-happiness path does not end at all, really, because it is the path to God, the source of life and life to the full. God does not offer a deathless death, but endless life in resurrection. That’s the path of happiness. To trod that path? To read those lyrics? To hear that song? Take me to church.


[1] N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Pastoral Letters, SPCK: London, 28.

[2] http://place.asburyseminary.edu/ecommonsatschapelservices/992/

[3] http://nymag.com/thecut/2014/03/qa-hozier-on-gay-rights-sex-good-hair.html

[4] Ibid.

[5] http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/music/hozier-i-m-still-figuring-it-out-i-m-still-figuring-myself-out-1.1933663

[6] Wesley, Works. Volume 5, p. 137.

[7] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley. Volume 5. New York: Emory and Waugh, 1831. “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” p. 138.

Carolyn Moore ~ Joy Begins at the Cross: Learning the Forgiveness of Christ as a Pathway to Joy

Did you ever run across the old children’s book called “Mr. Happy”? His story goes like this: one day he leaves his very happy home and goes walking in the neighborhood. He finds a door and wonders to himself, “who lives here?” When he goes through the door he is led down a long staircase and into the room where Mr. Miserable lives. Mr. Happy leads Mr. Miserable out of the room, up the stairs and back to his home, where Mr. Miserable stays for some time. Over the time he is there, Mr. Happy begins to rub off on him and one day Mr. Miserable finds himself beginning to do something he has never done before. He smiles. The story ends with the lesson that if we’re ever miserable, we can fix it by smiling!

Isn’t that precious? And maybe a bit delusional?

Yes, there are some people who actually can “fix” themselves just by turning their frown upside down. I don’t know how that works. Either they have such optimism that they can will themselves happy, or they live in such denial that they can smile past anything. Privately, I am envious of those people. We need them, so the rest of us don’t pull the whole ship down.

But those people — the naturally giddy ones — are not most of us. Most of us are moody. We are stressed out and confused about our lives and the lives of people we live with. We deal with real depression, real anxiety, real mood disorders. Many of us chronically feel like we’re running just to keep up. So how do messages about joy work for real people like us, whose lives are a little more complicated than Mr. Happy? How do we do this thing called reality without it looking like a Hallmark card? How does joy mesh with stress and broken dreams and broken relationships and the death of people we love and the kind of anxiety and depression that goes deeper than a bad mood or a bad day?

Here’s my real question: how does what we read in the Bible about joy make sense if you’re on Prozac or worse yet, if you’re not, but should be? If Jesus said, “I came that you might have joy, and that you might have it to the full,” then how do I acquire that inheritance? Here’s what I believe: I believe biblical joy is not only attainable, but is the normal state of the Spirit-filled life. Christians are meant to grow in joy.  And as we’ve already said, maybe your temperament or approach to life or other circumstances makes this more of a challenge for you.

But as a follower of Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, it is your inheritance. And there are things we can do to clear the channel so we have the most opportunity to experience the fruit of the Spirit-filled life.

Let’s start with a definition. What is biblical joy?

1. Joy is a spiritually generated response to God’s goodness.

2. Joy is a deep-down assurance that the quality of my life is not rooted in my feelings or circumstances but in the love, cover and hope of a good and faithful God.

3. Spiritual joy comes from a deeper place than our everyday emotions, which are also gifts from God. The difference is that emotions don’t have roots, but spiritual fruit does.

4. Joy is a natural fruit of the Spirit-filled life.

There are barriers to joy, just like there are barriers to grace. We let things, like sin, self and circumstances to get in the way of the flow of joy. And one of the most painful blocks to joy is unforgiveness.

The first habit of joyful people is that they forgive easily. We know this, because forgiveness is the cornerstone of our faith. God’s seminal statement to humanity at the most critical moment in the world’s history was the statement he made at the cross. And that statement was simply (profoundly) this: I forgive you. Joy begins at the cross!

Ephesians 4:21-24 reads, when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”

Malcolm Gladwell has written a book called “Blink,” about the thousand decisions we make every day in the smallest slices of time — choices we make in split-seconds during a conversation — that determine how we respond to life at the subconscious level. Gladwell interviewed one psychologist who has made a study of watching couples in conversation. This guy has become so adept at watching their non-verbal communication that he can tell with incredible accuracy how likely they are to divorce, after just a few minutes of watching them talk. His point is that how we react to other people in the briefest moments even non-verbally says a lot about what’s beneath the surface.

This psychologist has boiled hundreds of facial expressions down to four major categories. He calls them the Four Horsemen: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism and contempt. And he says the real killer among those four is contempt.

He says, “You’d think criticism would be the worst, because it maligns character. But contempt is worse, because it puts one person above another. It’s when we look down on another person that we do the most damage.” And it is so damaging, the psychologist says, that it affects our immune system.

Contempt is a killer. No wonder the enemy of our souls has made a career out of getting us to go there. He wants us to make pecking orders. To make ourselves better than others. The enemy has made quite a career out of doing nothing more than keeping your heart hard toward another human being. And it is brilliant, really. He can make it slice both ways, so we feel chronically inadequate while we’re tearing others down so they never feel good enough, either.

That’s the tactic of the enemy of our souls.

In his teaching on forgiveness, Chuck Swindoll asks some good questions:

• Do you free people, or do you hold them hostage?

• Do you relieve them of guilt and shame, or do you increase their load?

• Do you encourage others or discourage them?

• Do you find yourself participating in the world of construction or the world of destruction?

• Do you point out people’s faults and failures or their strengths and accomplishments?

Paul says that if we’re going to practice true, deep-down forgiveness, we have to find a new way of seeing our circumstances so that we cultivate a spirit of honor.

Go with me to Mark 10:17-22. This is how Jesus did it. He didn’t wait for a person’s behavior to straighten up. He learned to love people right where they were, before they got it all right. And this is what it looks like to walk in forgiveness, and this is the difference between walking in deep-down, New Testament forgiveness and simply “letting it go.” Walking in forgiveness requires that we keep our hearts open, that we engage the practice of love, not as a feeling but as a discipline.

How can I practice repentance and renewal in my life?

Name your spirit of offense. This is what it means to confess your sins. If you won’t name it before the God who already knows it, he is not likely to heal you of it. Sometimes, I suspect God waits for us to name our sin so we can hear ourselves say it … so we can acknowledge our part in our own pain. God is good about asking us to take responsibility – to grow up.

Pray daily for the person who has offended you until you sense your outlook changing. I learned this from Jerry Varnado, a friend in ministry. When Jerry’s wife left him on the day of his best friend’s funeral, he was mad. Probably should have been. But over time that anger settled in and became bitterness. Does that sound familiar? This is what Paul means in Ephesians when he says we can be angry, but we don’t have permission from Jesus to sin. Anger is a feeling. Bitterness is a sin. It has a root to it, a root that will choke out the roots of spiritual fruit. Bitterness separates us from God.

Finally, a friend told him to spend two weeks praying for his ex-wife. And not to pray that God would smite her or make her understand or change her in some way. But to pray God’s best over her. He said the first time he prayed that prayer, it sounded something like this: “God, I know you know I don’t really mean this, but I’m praying God’s best over my ex-wife. Amen.”

Every day, he prayed a prayer like that. At the end of the first week, he was able to leave off the part about not really meaning it. At the end of the second week, the anger was gone. Did it mean everything was great for them from then out? No. But things were better for Jerry.

Lewis Smedes in “The Art of Forgiving,” says, “the first and sometimes only person to get the benefits of forgiving is the person who does the forgiving.” I want to ask you to think honestly about this: Is there a bitter root in you? Is there someone who has offended you, recently or years ago, who you’ve not been able to release? If you are not ready to go make peace with someone and if you find yourself harboring anger, and if you don’t know what to do with that, then start with prayer.

Ask yourself: what one good quality in this person’s life can I begin with as I pray? Never mind whether they deserve it or not. Here’s the thing. When it comes to grace, “deserve” has nothing to do with it. Smedes says, “of course he does not deserve to be forgiven. Nobody does. (Even) being sorry for the wrong we did does not earn us a right to be forgiven. There is no such thing as a right to be forgiven. Forgiving flows always and only from what theologians call grace — unearned, undeserved favor.”

Joy flows from the same well as grace. And it begins with repentance and renewal. If I’m going to learn Christ and embrace the new life he offers, I have to let go of the old life, the lower existence. And a key piece in learning Christ is learning to walk in forgiveness. This is the difference between reacting and responding. To put it plainly, I have to learn to discipline my emotions, especially the emotion of anger, so it doesn’t create opportunity for sin in my life.

This new life that Paul talks about (that we learn from Christ) will call us to take every thought captive, including the angry ones. Part of learning how to respond in adult ways to painful things is learning to deal directly and honestly with others. I really think this is right at the heart of what Paul means when he says in this next verse …

In Ephesians 4:29, Paul wrote, “do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Paul isn’t suggesting here that we make ourselves into a doormat — allowing ourselves to be abused, over and over, by the same people. It just means that in our conversations with those who hurt us, we learn the language of grace.

I saw this in a post by Ann Barab, on the habits of joyful people. She says we create our own unhappiness with our JUNK:

• Judgments – criticism. One of the four horsemen that shows up in our facial expressions, even when we don’t realize it. Judgment is a slippery slope that leads too easily into contempt.

• Unforgiveness – carrying a spirit of entitlement; you can’t grow humility and unforgiveness in the same spirit.

• Negativity – Barab says it takes no skill to be negative.

• Know-it-all-ness – another way of expressing defensiveness and contempt.

How much JUNK are you carrying around? Barab says these are the biggest obstacles to joy. And the real courage comes in forgiving completely, from the heart, as God in Christ has forgiven us. Living an authentic Christian life depends on this point.

“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).That’s the bottom-line reason for any act of forgiveness we offer: We do it because we’ve been forgiven for all the rascally, stupid, short-sighted, downright-mean things we’ve done in our lives, and it may be that until we have received that forgiveness from God, we aren’t able to truly forgive anyone else. So hear this: Christ looked on our sin and forgave us for all of it. What we’ve received for ourselves, we use to relieve others, so they don’t have to bear shame and guilt, either.

We’ve talked about two practical ways to clear the channel for joy: Name your spirit of offense. Pray daily for those toward whom you have unforgiveness. How else can we practically support our quest for joy?

1. Seek help from others. Sometimes what we need most is another perspective. David Seamands says that when we are angry or depressed, our perceptions change. A little hill becomes a great mountain. But real friends can help you see its true height in perspective. And it helps, too, to remember that not everyone around us is against us. Its so easy to get the Elijah Syndrome going … “I’m the only one like me. There’s no one else who understands.” That’s one of the things we naturally do when we are angry, upset or depressed – we instinctively build walls to protect ourselves. When you have a wall of anger around you, then it is hard to walk up and love on you. Reach out. Do the thing you least want to do.

2. Sing! Make music. I used to call Steve “the singing bush,” because especially when he was dealing with depression, he sang incessantly. Drove me nuts. Until I started dealing with some obsessive thought patterns and realized I couldn’t will myself to stop thinking what I was thinking. One day, I heard myself singing and realized that when I sing, even if the rest of the world suffers, I feel better. Now I intentionally work to keep a song going in my head all the time. And you know what? Its such a simple thought, but it works. If you can’t stop being angry at someone, try singing the thought out of your head. That’s what David did. That’s where a lot of those psalms came from. He chose in the midst of his anguish to praise the Lord.

3. Remember and give thanks. This one is related to singing, but different. With this one, we are choosing to look at things differently. We are choosing, like Joseph, to see the big picture – to say, “maybe the world meant to hurt me, but God means nothing but good from this.” God can use anything, God can make good out of anything. I was talking to someone recently about a painful memory, and she said, “you know, in a weird way, I’m glad for it now.” I understand that. When we accept the power of Christ in our lives, we begin to get it that he can make good out of anything. Anything. We’ll talk more about this next week.

4. Lean heavily on the power of God’s Word. Because here’s what I’m learning about scripture and about Jesus and about all the things we teach and say: it works. God’s Word is exactly what it promises to be. It is good news for the poor and release for the captives. It really is a way for blind people to see and the very power of God for salvation. If God asks us to forgive our enemies and those persecute us, its because he wants nothing less for us than joy. Jesus says as much (John 15:11). And if God tells us that we can’t be in communion with him so long as we harbor anger and unforgiveness in our hearts, he tells us that because He knows it to be true. He knows what we’re made of and he knows what we’re made for. I came, Jesus said, that my joy might be in you, that your joy might be full.

Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ Truth, Beauty & Tragedy: How to Be Happy

“Jack, take your hands off of your ears.

“But I don’t want to hear what you are saying!”

This is what shoppers strolling down store aisles could overhear recently. Alas, the four year old had acted up; alas, Mama had to intervene with a reminder of behavior expectations. But the child had realized that with hearing comes accountability. If I can’t hear you, you can’t hold me responsible.

And the hands clamped tightly over the ears.

I get the instinct.

I haven’t been swiping an imaginary monster along grocery store shelves knocking products out of place, but I’ve certainly wanted to power down communications coming at me fast and unrelenting. There are days when I feel I can’t take hearing about another iota of tragedy. Once while I was breathing through the nauseating misery of a panic attack a loved one asked what was wrong.

“The Holocaust,” I said.

I meant it.

An image had planted in my mind from a fragment of an Oprah show seen years before featuring a tour of the World War II horror, Auschwitz – the shoes…the piles and piles of shoes, so human, creased on top where a foot had bent – and one tiny little red pair…

I retched.

I get the instinct to clamp my hands tightly over my ear, to turn my grimacing face away. Even as a news junkie (especially as a news junkie?) sometimes I have to limit how closely I follow unfolding events.

I can probably affect something as intimate as your blood pressure level right now.



Russia and the Ukraine



Scandal, addiction, bankruptcy, cancer

“But I don’t want to hear what you are saying!”

  I know, dear friend. I know you don’t. And there’s good news in the world, too, after all –

The ice bucket challenge

Donation of a kidney


Rain after a drought

Unlikely reconciliation

Here’s the twist: the second list may lower your blood pressure or make you smile, but it won’t ultimately make you happy without the first list. I’m not advocating the tired “you need evil to appreciate the good” theology – there’s no such thing as a “felix culpa”, a happy crime that’s blessed because you appreciate the good more.

No, you need the first list in order to be truly happy because we humans can only be happy when we face the reality of evil. We can’t be happy without the truth. Despite being surrounded by the truth of ugly facts – genocide or beheadings or crowded refugee camps or grotesquely contagious diseases – we have the inner impulse to reach also for the truth of reality, of existence, the Truth that transcends current events, that tunes the music of the spheres and absorbs everything into the unity that is Triune love.

To avoid the truth – whether of current events or the transcendent reality – is to construct a scaffolding of denial constantly in need of repair and maintenance. If you live attempting to ignore the retch-inducing evil of this world, you will consign yourself to living constantly in fear – more fear, in fact, than what comes from facing current events or theological questions or past experiences or worries for the future.

“But I don’t want to hear…”

Sometimes the well-worn, familiar refrain says it best, as Pastor Martin Niemöller so famously wrote and spoke:

    In Germany, they came first for the Communists,
    And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist;
    And then they came for the trade unionists,
    And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist;
    And then they came for the Jews, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew;
    And then they came for me . . . And by that time there was no one left to speak up.

There is a deep, gnawing dread when we deny the truth that stalks us, insisting to us that we untie the blindfold. But if I can’t take hearing about the facts of the world I live in, how will I pray for its transformation? If I seek out mind-numbing busyness, how will the Holy Spirit show me where to serve? And if I hear the facts only so that I can attempt to add them to my pile of pieces as I attempt to solve the puzzle of the Apocalypse and how things will ultimately end, then I am not living beautifully – I am living miserly, attempting to guess tomorrow’s weather so that I can gain from the forecast, regardless of who is suffering today. This day. Right now.

Denial never brings happiness – neither does distance, or distraction. We are a global neighborhood now. And while it’s tempting to mistake cynicism for wisdom, Christians are called to be the least cynical people on earth; not the most naïve, or the most chipper, or the cheeriest – simply the least cynical, because we dare to look into the abyss of the evil in our world or the evil in our own hearts and we still dare to say that that evil is not the last word.

God is the Creator and all Christians are artists – not called to paint over ugliness but rather to be a means of its melting and molding into something beautiful. “See, I am making all things new” is the context into which we must submit the 24-hour news cycle. And we have this example set in front of us: Jesus Christ, whose beautiful actions in the midst of ongoing suffering and evil lived the Truth of beautiful reality into the facts of the day around him.

Bear witness to atrocity. Weep with the suffering. Then choose actions of beauty, grace and redemption. Christ lived a life that turned “but I don’t want to hear…” into “tell me your story…” so that you and I can uncover the story of redemption on the mural of our world.