How to Have Overflowing Joy: A Primer

I read a quote this morning that surprised me in how neatly it summed up my previous year:

Most often our depression is unexpressed anger, and it manifests itself as the sloth of disobedience, a refusal to keep up the daily practices that would keep us in good relationship to God and to each other. For when people allow anger to build up inside, they begin to perform daily tasks resentfully, focusing on others as the source of their troubles. … It is usually a fear of losing an illusory control—they direct it outward, barreling through the world, impatient and even brutal with those they encounter, especially those who are closest to them. (From The Quotidian Mysteries by Kathleen Norris, pg. 43)

I related most closely to “performing daily tasks resentfully, focusing on others as the source of my troubles.” Last year, one thing after another hit me where it hurt, and my response was resentment and blame. I felt like a spider’s trapped insect; I’d untangle myself from one sliver of sin only to get stuck in another. It’s no wonder that I felt the firm pressure of God’s discipline all year long, and it’s no wonder I thirsted for joy.

Though I craved it desperately, I don’t believe I’ve ever in my life been able to completely wrap my mind around joy.

I’ve tried to manage my way to joy, telling myself to buck up and get on with it. Introspection comes so easily for me, but it can turn morose and unhelpful when I’m tangled in the web. A dark heart is ugly, and I wonder, looking at my own, how joy can breathe under the suffocation of it all. If only I were different, I would have joy!

Like most people, I’ve often looked for joy in my circumstances, but as we all know, they will never fully get in line with our desires. (I imagine the Von Trapp kids lining up so quietly and obediently upon command.) Squeezing joy from circumstances is a losing game. But if only things were different, I would have joy!

And of course, as Kathleen Norris points out, I look at others and blame them for my lack of joy. (If only others would respond to my authoritative and brisk whistle commands!) Or if only they were different, I would have joy!

It’s seemed to me that joy is unattainable in this world. And it’s honestly kind of annoyed me that Paul, in his command to rejoice always, wants something from me that appears impossible. I can barely muster up energy to get out of bed in the morning and like it.

But I want joy! Oh how I want it.

God is so good to help when we ask. When I finally admitted my ignorance about joy, He inundated me with help. I already told you about the word study, which helped tremendously. But thenI love when this happensmy husband Kyle preached on joy from Habakkuk and everything I’d been thinking about came together.

“We think of sorrow and joy as incompatible,” he said, “but they can coexist in one’s life. Habakkuk faced extreme external pressures.” I thought of how I’d considered difficult circumstances as an enemy to joy.

“Habakkuk faced internal struggles so profound that today we would characterize him as clinically depressed,” he said. I thought of how I’d blamed my personality for my lack of joy.

“And then there is the word YET,” he said. “‘Yet I will rejoice in the Lord.’ Habakkuk is able to access joy even in the midst of suffering.”

Kyle then defined joy, which I found most helpful. “Joy,” he said, “is not a feeling. It is not equated with happiness or with burying sorrowful emotions. Joy is a discipline, an intentional savoring of something of high value.”

My heart leapt. I wanted to jump from my seat and scream out, because I could see where this was going.

We do not look to our circumstances.
We do not look to other people.
We do not look to our own hearts and our own ability to muster joy.

We intentionally look on God and savor Him, and we intently look on what He’s done for us, treasuring our salvation. These are the things of highest value, and these are the things that birth joy.

So when our circumstances are dire, we discipline ourselves to remember. We literally rememberreconnect members that have torn apartreconnecting what we know of God’s character to what we’re facing in a specific moment.

When our hearts or actions condemn us, we discipline ourselves to remember what God has done for us in our salvation. He has freed us from condemnation and washed us clean with forgiveness.

Reframing joy as a discipline rather than an emotion has been so helpful. When I crave joy, I need only take time to savor God and my salvation. This elevates the priority of actually knowing God’s character and what my salvation means, but it also says to me that joy is in reach. It’s not as unattainable as I originally thought.

It doesn’t matter that my personality is what it is, I can take joy!
It doesn’t matter if the circumstances change or not, I can take joy!
It doesn’t matter if others change or not, I can take joy!

This is the beauty of turning our attention away from fleshly things that never seem to line up right and onto our unchanging, joyful God!  

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Christine Hoover
My husband, Kyle, and I have been married since 2000 and have three boys. Kyle is the church planting pastor of a church in Virginia, and I am a stay-at-home mom, writer, and ministry sidekick to Kyle. My first book, The Church Planting Wife: Help and Hope for Her Heart, is a book specifically for church planting wives.