There’s a scene in Pixar’s Inside Out where Joy, glowing in bright yellow, and Sadness, droopy and blue, are navigating their way through Riley’s mind.
Sadness: ‘Wait, Joy, you could get lost in there.’
Joy: ‘Think positive!’
Sadness: ‘Okay… [pause] I’m positive that you’ll get lost in there!’
We know that as Christians, we’re called to be joyful. We hear the Bible’s reiteration to rejoice, rejoice, rejoice! Yet sometimes we feel and think like Sadness. We might struggle to maintain joy, let alone attain it. Why does it often feel as if joy is elusive, at times even illusive?
It was exciting meeting new people and plunging into new activities at the beginning of term. But now, you’ve got a tonne of assignments and not much time and you feel the pressure piling up… how do you rejoice?
It was blissful basking in the sunshine with friends and family in the summer. But now, the sun sets at 4 pm and an oppressive darkness begins to creep over your mind… how do you rejoice?
The cold seeps in and worsens physical ailments.
A breakup with a significant other is heart-wrenching.
Next year’s (lack of) plans is stressing you out.
A close relative or friend suddenly dies.
The list goes on.
I’m thankful that God (our good Father) doesn’t force us (His beloved children) to ignore or deny or repress our difficulties. He’s not throwing His hands in the air in frustration. He deeply cares about what’s on our minds and hearts—even more than we do. And He’s patient to listen to our every cry.
Yet it’s also clear in Scripture that God calls us to be joyful even amid suffering. Paul talks about being ‘sorrowful, yet always rejoicing’ (2 Cor. 6:10). Sorrow doesn’t negate joy; they can co-exist, joy is not dependent on simply being happy. (Note: this does not mean God doesn’t want you to be happy—on the contrary! What Father doesn’t want His children to be happy?)
Paul further exhorts: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice’ (Phil. 4:4). “Always” means always, not just when things are going grand or when we’re feeling brilliant.
Over the past two years, I struggled to be joyful. I had occasional bouts of happiness, but I was in a long-term season of sorrow. Every Sunday, I’d find myself crumpling onto my knees during worship, wailing at the top of my lungs, tears and snot running down my face.
One day, someone told me she’d observed the intensity of my sorrow over the months. ‘Justin, I want to challenge you,’ she posed. ‘Ask the Lord for joy.’
I started tearing up. Oh, oh, how I longed for joy! I’d been so overwhelmed with sorrow and pain that I’d forgotten what joy was… or even to seek it.
‘You’re right,’ I replied. ‘I want joy. I’ll try harder…’
‘Don’t strive for it,’ she interjected. ‘Relax into it!’
“Attain” is technically not the best word to use; joy isn’t something you can scour for and buy in Tesco or Sainsbury’s. Remember, it’s a fruit of the Spirit: it comes from (the Spirit) within. But it does require us to be active, not passive. We must “choose”: choose joy, choose to rejoice.
I didn’t feel joyful immediately. But I chose to choose to rejoice, no matter what. Through gritted teeth, through teary eyes. And the darkness, the sadness didn’t last forever. There was an end, eventually; subsequently, the Lord ushered me into a new season of joy (Praise God!).
When we wake up in the morning, no matter how we feel, can we still utter, I will (choose to) rejoice—for this is the day that the Lord has made (Ps. 118:24)?
When things aren’t going the way we’d hoped, can we focus on the blessings in life and still utter, I will (choose to) rejoice—turning every blessing back into praise?
When we find ourselves overwhelmed by darkness or stress or anxiety, can we look to our hope and salvation in Jesus and still utter, I will (choose to) rejoice?
The word (re)joice stems from the Old French words re- and joir; the latter means to ‘experience joy’. It’s not a one off thing. It’s not as if we rejoice once and we’re set for an eternal life of rejoicing. It requires (re)choosing—once more, afresh, anew—joy.
At the end of the day, true joy can only come from the Lord, by His Spirit within us. There is nothing we can just do to earn or strive for it—for Jesus has paid it all. Rather, we must just be: just be in His presence, just be in His arms, for ‘[i]n [His] presence there is fullness of joy’ (Ps. 16:11). Let’s trust that our good Father is working all things together for our good (Rom. 8:28).
If we lack joy, let’s ask for joy.
If we have little joy, let’s ask for more.
If we’re full of joy, let’s share it and spur others on.
Let’s ask the Lord for His joy that is our strength (Neh. 8:10). He’s so faithful to give us what we ask, ‘so that [our] joy may be complete’ (John 16:24).