We were walking in silence together on a familiar wooded trail lined with frozen pine trees and bare oaks whose branches reached out toward the cold winter sky. She turned to me and said, “I was wondering, how can you write about joy when you rarely experience it?” Confused I asked her to clarify the question. “Well, I just mean that you are always in pain and your life has changed so much because of it, so how can you still write about happiness and joy?” I looked at her for a moment, smiled and said, “Well, let me try to explain.”
When I was younger – a college graduate just getting started in my career – I thought I was invincible. I imagined that life was all about success, late nights working at the office and pleasure. I enjoyed weekend excursions to new, fancy places, drinks after work with colleagues and all the stuff that most young people appreciate in life. Sadly though, I didn’t realize that these things brought little joy into my life. It was all fleeting pleasure – fun in the moment – but gone as quickly as it came. It wasn’t until a deeply special person in my young life passed away suddenly from a heart attack – my Dad’s youngest brother, Uncle John, age 35 – that I realized life involved much more than just my own needs. Sadly I had gotten absorbed with myself and forgot about living a properly balanced life which I had been taught by my loving parents. Losing this very special person was truly life changing for me.
I began to take stock of my life after John’s death and noticed that my biggest problem was that I had put God on the back burner thus everything was a bit empty. I wasn’t raised that way but I think it was an inevitable mishap for a young person (working in the financial district) making her way in the big world for the first time. Thanks to my wonderful upbringing, I realized that all I had to do was invite God back into my everyday life. He didn’t belong on a shelf for only weekend conversations – God needed to be integrated into my daily existence if I was going to experience real joy again. Thankfully, God didn’t give up on me. He met me right where I was back then and hasn’t left my side since. Sometimes I fail to talk to Him and even blame Him when things go wrong. But that never helps me to feel better so I always come back to Him where He is waiting to embrace me with open arms.
“I Can Do All Things Through Christ Who Strengthens Me.” (Philippians 4:13)
Since my young adult days, I’ve learned that joy is not about feelings or material possessions. We may derive happiness from these things but the experience is fleeting. We can’t survive on that alone. Joy is about so much more – it’s experienced deep in the heart of each person. Sometimes I find joy in the simplest things like a visit to my Dad’s house, a walk with my husband and dog, a beautiful wooded trail or a setting sun which illuminates the brilliant green of the forest trees. Other days I find joy in a hot cup of coffee, a delicious homemade dinner, a phone conversation with one of my daughters or with a woman I am visiting at the prison. I believe that joy can be experienced just about anywhere. We just have to persevere in faith and be willing to look for it in unexpected people and places which God puts into our midst. We can even find joy in suffering – it’s all how you look at it.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. (James 1:2-3)
Over the years, and through my mom’s incredible selfless example, I have discovered that real joy occurs when we give of ourself for the others. This includes offering our sufferings for the benefit of a friend. This may sound impossible to some but giving purpose to our struggles lifts them to another dimension beyond self, and unites them with Christ on the cross who suffered for all humankind. I have learned that with God at the center of my life, I can even experience joy when I am in pain. The more I try to live this way – genuinely offering my difficulties for the good of others – I take a few more steps up that steep, rocky hill toward Jesus on the mountain at Calvary. It’s hard to explain but there is joy in knowing that I can ascend the mountain in love, in support of our suffering Lord, by simply offering my small sorrows for another person’s good. This truth has changed my life and has allowed me to live joyfully in the midst of pain.
I turned to my friend and said, “Jesus said, …and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25) I never quite understood what Jesus meant by these words, but I think He is asking us to surrender our lives to God’s will and trust that all will be well. I have had to do this over the past few years, since becoming weak by losing my beloved mom and my good health, and through it – I’ve come to experience a peace and a joy that I did not know existed. I’ll admit that some days are still quite hard and I don’t always succeed in surrendering to God’s will, but I keep trying, trusting that my good intentions will help me to climb the mountain toward Jesus one step at a time. Turning back toward my friend I felt thoughtful and said, “You know what, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 9-10)Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)