We were having coffee, just catching up. I asked politely about work, about summer schedules, just small talk. Then I asked about family. His whole demeanor changed. The smile faded. The shoulders dropped. The eyes shifted. He told me, “You know, my wife has chronic headaches. Migraines. Sometimes, she can’t get out of bed. It means that every day, we don’t know what we can and cannot do, who we can and cannot see, what we can and cannot enjoy. It is very difficult and lonely for her.”
“That sounds really hard,” is what I say back. We kept talking about other things.
Years later, I am sitting in a doctor’s office. An ENT actually. He’s great. Friendly. Competent. He’s telling me that the symptoms I am experiencing are part of a larger phenomenon known as sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL – because who wants to spell that ever again?): an unexplained but rapid hearing loss in one ear, accompanied by tinnitus (ringing), bouts of vertigo, and a constant sense of “fullness” or congestion. None of the symptoms, mind you, actually mean anything. They all represent the brain’s stubborn attempt to re-establish a connection with the nerve of the inner ear, which is (likely) permanently damaged. It’s a futile attempt to fix something that is fundamentally unfixable.
How did it happen? I don’t know. The doctor doesn’t know. We never will.
Anyway, I’m sitting there, realizing that from this moment on, my experience of life will never be the same. And all I can think about is that guy, over coffee, trying to tell me something about his wife and how hard her life is. I do a lot of coffees, a lot of sharing, a lot of listening. I’m a pastor, after all. And I know a lot of people with chronic illness, just stuff that will never go away. I’ve talked to them, held their hands, read them Scripture, prayed over them. But until this moment, I didn’t understand them. What it feels like to know, deep down, there are no next steps, no more doctors, no more meds, no more plans. There’s just a broken body, and the ways you learn to live around it.
I haven’t shared this with many people. I wasn’t ready. I don’t want this to be a long, drawn out thing about my health. I was listening to someone recently talk about their own chronic illness, and he said, “One of the hardest things about it is that I’m offended when people don’t ask how I am doing, but then I’m exhausted when they do ask how I am doing.” I loved that. It’s so true. I don’t want this blog to be about how I’m doing (I’m really ok). But I’d love to share what I am learning. So here goes…
I need daily bread. During this time with my health, I have learned that some days I can do whatever I want, and some days I just can’t. I have no control over it. My plans are very much plans for the day. I know now more than ever the reason Jesus teaches us to ask for daily bread in the Lord’s Prayer. Not weekly bread. Not monthly. Not quarterly. Not annually. Just daily. Upon further reflection, I think too much of my energy in life has been looking ahead to some hypothetical future, or mulling over some unchangeable past, instead of living the day right in front of me. Now, I find myself concentrating more and more on this idea, to live the day God gave me. There is a design element here: God indeed made us to plan as well for the future as we are able, but more importantly, He made us to live and obey and depend on Him today. When you really begin to pay attention, this idea is all over the Bible. Hebrews 3:12-13 comes to mind:
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
My body failing me is difficult, but it also throttles my attention from drifting too far ahead or behind. What can I do today? What does faithfulness look like right now? I need daily bread, and Jesus is happy to give it to me when I ask. I’m asking now more than ever.
This body is not my home. It’s one thing to feel out of place in the world. It’s another to feel – even just a little – out of place in your body. To feel that your own body is an obstacle to who you want to be and what you want to do. This, by the way, is a feeling we will all experience at one point or another. If illness doesn’t get us, age will. My fellow chronic-illness folks and I are just practicing a little early.
I hate to admit this, but for most of my 20s and 30s, Paul’s teaching on the new body has been for me a fascinating abstraction. Chronic illness has cured me of that. When I turn to, say, 1 Corinthians 15, rather than reading for mere comprehension, I read for hope. I read for reminders and promises. Promises that reshape my reality. Promises like “what is sown perishable will indeed be raised imperishable”, and that a glory awaits me that I can hardly fathom, just as I cannot fathom the beauty of a rose by merely studying it’s seed.
I no longer just believe this is true. I need to believe this is true. And there’s a sense in which the culmination of our faith only happens when we don’t just think it; we feel it.
I feel now, in a way I didn’t before, that while this broken body is a gift, it is also a problem. It has limits, weaknesses, short-comings, and liabilities that I was not designed to carry. But God is not surprised by this, and He gave me good news about it before I knew I needed it. If that is true, if my broken body is not an obstacle to His love and care, then I can trust Him with what comes next. I can trust Him with tomorrow. And so can you.
I am ready for joy. I am hungry for it. After a year of pandemic, characterized for many of us by disappointment, loneliness, and fear, our appetite for joy has only increased. Spring has arrived and the vaccine is becoming available. “Normal” doesn’t feel too far away. Will we return to joy?
We were created for joy. It is the root of every longing, and we spend the majority of our lives searching for it. Joy is both a command and a promise, but we’re often not very good at understanding it or finding it. Every one of us wants more of it, so how do we do it? Where do we get it? How do we sustain it? How do we return to joy?
The Most Joyful Book of the Bible
To answer these questions, I often turn to Philippians in the New Testament. Philippians is sometimes referred to as the most joyful book in the Bible, which means for me, it’s pages are well-worn. I even memorized all 104 verses of it back in college (please don’t quiz me!).
Now before you think that’s me bragging — look how spiritual I am, I memorized a whole book of the Bible —I only share that to show you my desperation. That’s how hungry I am for joy! You see, I am not very good at it. As someone who is definitely a bit on the melancholy side, joy often feels out of reach.
As a result, I can easily gravitate to the many pseudo joys around me. Maybe the next meal, or the next drink, or the next vacation, or the next purchase, or the next show, or the next accomplishment, or the next whatever will finally do it. Have you been there? Even though these are often good things, it can be a vicious cycle of escalating disappointment and discontent.
Paul shows us a better way. And what always amazes me about Paul’s letter to the Philippians is that he wrote it from prison! From prison, suffering for preaching the good news of Jesus, Paul writes one of the most joy-filled books of the Bible. At the very least, this should remind us that joy is not based on circumstance. But if it’s not circumstance, where do we get it?
I know you’ve heard the phrase or seen it on some home decor or motivational poster: Choose Joy. I have a love/hate relationship with that phrase. On the one hand, I do love it. Joy is a command from God and therefore we all have an active role in pursuing it. Joy is not an option for Christians. Choose Joy!
On the other hand, as someone who has struggled with mild depression for most of my life, I also sort of want to punch that phrase in the face. Believe me, I’ve tried to choose joy! It’s not that easy, is it? I don’t think we can just “choose joy” and have it magically appear.
Choose Habits of Joy
But we can choose habits of joy, and I think this is where Philippians encourages us. We may not be able to simply choose to have joyful feelings but we can choose to pursue the practices that are most likely to build joy into our lives. Paul shows us some of these practices, and while there are many lessons on joy here, let me focus on three primary habits of joy: prayer, people, and presence.
Habit of Joy #1: Prayer
Perhaps the most obvious habit of joy from Philippians is the habit of prayer. According to Paul, prayer is not simply a means of getting stuff from God, but a means of receiving the kind of peace that leads to rejoicing.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. …do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:4, 6-7
It’s interesting to me that more and more is being written today from a variety of worldviews about the importance of mindfulness and gratitude when it comes to joy. People from several disciplines (neurology, psychology, theology) all agree on how important this is to joy, even if they disagree on other foundational principles.
The practice of quieting ourselves mentally, articulating our feelings, and focusing most on the things we’re grateful for is good for your brain, and more importantly, it’s good for your soul! The people of God have been doing this work for millenia. We are actually invited to express those things to the God who made us.
If you want more joy in your life, but are not growing in prayer, you are going to be disappointed. For me, I try to start each day with prayer, and I try to spend about half my time thanking God for those ways in which I’ve recently experienced His love. All joy is relational (more on that below) and when I pray with gratitude, my joy increases. I think yours will as well.
Habit of Joy #2: People
The second habit of joy that stands out to me from Philippians is people. This letter is deeply relational, deeply personal, and highly communal. Paul addresses conflict among Christians, he encourages the relationships within the church, and he demonstrates that there is no real joy apart from others.
There is no real joy apart from others. That may be a shocking statement, but the older I get and the more I read on this subject, the more convinced I am of this truth. Although I’m an introvert, need a lot of alone time, and occasionally just don’t like people, I am convinced that the majority of our joy is found in the context of relationships.
I recently read that one definition of joy is knowing that someone else is glad to be with me. Simply being with that person and knowing that you are loved and respected — that they want to be with you — is the place of deepest joy.
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being 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 count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.… Philippians 2:1-5
What will make Paul’s joy complete? The same thing that increases our own joy — a community of people shaped by the love of Jesus.
Sadly, we often think joy will come by doing what we want, expressing ourselves, possessing unrestricted freedom, and essentially getting our own way. Which means, if you think about it, many of our faulty definitions of joy actually hinder community, and therefore hinders our joy! True community isn’t possible if I’m always getting my way. True community demands a sacrifice of some of my rights, preferences, and desires, yet even with these sacrifices, this kind of community is the place of deepest joy.
This is why Paul can tell us to put others first, to serve relentlessly, and to give generously. He can tell us all that and keep a smile on his face, because he knows: if you want joy, you need people, and the best relationships are characterized by the way of Jesus.
This has shaped my priorities. For example, even though I often think I’d rather stay home and watch Netflix (which only rarely satisfies), I’ve forced myself to schedule greater time with the people I love (which almost always satisfies). The church is a great place to do this, even though it certainly takes work. Prioritize these relationships, and when you see that people are glad to be with you, and they see that you are glad to be with them, there will be joy.
Habit of Joy #3: Presence
This also applies to God. God is happy to be with you. His face lights up when you enter the room. He delights in spending time with you, and in His “presence there is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11).
The presence of God is always available to His people. In the third chapter of Philippians Paul lists many of the things we run to in order to give us joy. He mentions his heritage, his national and ethnic background, his accomplishments and good works. But that is not Paul’s joy.
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him… Philippians 3:7-9
Knowing Christ and being found in Him — this is Paul’s joy. And we also can know Him and be found in Him. We can spend time consciously in His presence. We can get to know Him through prayer and people, spending time with Him and spending time with His community. We also get to know Him through His Word and through His Spirit.
And for Paul, that is a joy greater than personal self-expression or unlimited freedom. It is a joy greater than power or accomplishment or feeling like a good person. It is a joy that is greater than any circumstance and it is a joy that is available to us.
Prayer, people, and presence…I’m not going to say just choose joy. But I can encourage you to choose the habits of joy. They take time and they take work but it is a lifelong path worth taking. And together, we can return to joy.
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Philippians — Read it, study it, meditate on it, and perhaps even memorize it. You can also engage in our sermon series: Return to Joy: Studies in Philippians.
The Other Half of Church: Christian Community, Brain Science, and Overcoming Spiritual Stagnation by Jim Wilder & Michel Hendricks. (While not perfect, this book does a fascinating job in bringing many of these things together. It’s a pretty short read but very worth it. I’m still chewing on a lot of it.)