“I just feel like I’ve lost my joy,” she told me one day over coffee and a few tears. “And as a Christian, I feel horrible about that.”
My friend was in the situation many of us find ourselves in: taking care of kids (or something else) and trying to keep our acts together while we’re exhausted, overwhelmed and downright cranky about all. And to top it all off, we feel guilty for not being more joyful.
I wish I could have told her the magic formula, something like prayer + Bible study = joy. And there have certainly been times when I have naively thought it should be that simple.
But in response I simply gave her a hug and maybe cried a little myself. Because in truth, life is hard. Joy isn’t always an automatic response just because you’re a Christian.
Yet on the other hand, the Bible does instruct us to rejoice always, in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:17). I mean really, God? (He says yes, really.)
So how, exactly, do we have more joy, even when life is really, really tough?
I’ll try to handle this carefully, since I truly don’t think there’s a formula. But here are a few things I like to remember that help my own heart feel more joy when the circumstances bring anything but.
1. Look to Jesus
I don’t know about you, but a lot of times when I’m dealing with my not-so-joyful emotions I fall into a thought pattern that goes something like this: this is too hard, and nobody understands what I’m going through.
That’s one of the hardest things about pain and suffering: sometimes it does make you feel isolated. Proverbs 14:10 says, “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy.” But the good news is that there is actually one person who does “get it.”
Hebrews 4:14–16 say that Jesus empathizes with our weaknesses and was tempted in every way we are. And as our friend he gets us and is there for us, and wants to show us the way through our pain (John 15:15).
So in other words, take your pain to Jesus. Pray to him; confess your weaknesses and ask for help. Study his life and his words, that it may increase your faith (Romans 10:17). Sing to him. Meditate on his promises.
Having said that, God is not a genie and doesn’t magically turn your emotions off and on whenever you ask. But I believe he’s the way I must turn when I’m hurting, if I want to heal.
2. Fill Your Mind with Truth
I’m fascinated with the human brain, and I’m even more fascinated by the fact that the Bible supports a lot of what modern psychology has discovered. In particular, we have the power to change the structure of our brains by redirecting our thoughts.
If you’re in the habit of negativity and toxic thinking, your thought patterns will continue down those well-trodden paths (you literally can get into “ruts.”) But if you are more conscious about what you’re putting your mind to, you will change the way you think.
Scripture supports this (Philippians 4:8, for starters), and Brittany has some great suggestions here: Want to Take Every Thought Captive? It’s Easier Than You Think!
I’ve found that copying Bible verses and memorizing them is a way to keep my mind focused on what is true. (Want some suggestions? Check out the printables I offer.)
Another way to fill your mind with truth is through habitual gratitude. Keeping a gratitude journal is a scientifically supported, biblical way to rewire your brain for joy.
3. Reach Out for Help
When I think of some of the toughest times in my life, I don’t know how I would have gotten through without the support of the body of Christ. And few things make me smile more than thinking about those who have been there for me when I’ve needed them.
When a part of your physical body gets hurt, other parts of it provide healing by delivering the oxygen and immune support it needs. It’s the same way in the church (1 Corinthians 12:21–26). We need each other through good times and bad, to help us heal and grow through our trials and weaknesses.
I’m guilty of being extremely independent through my pain and struggles, as I think a lot of us are. We come to the church putting our best foot forward, when it should be the other way around.
I’m not saying you should go to worship service a weeping mess all the time, but I challenge you to be bold in your vulnerability. Meet with mentors and peers who can cry with you over coffee, watch your kids so you can rest, celebrate your victories and pray with you through your trials. And if you don’t have these people in your life, go find them. Pray for God to lead you to them.
4. Let the Holy Spirit Do His Work
It occurred to me recently as I was thinking about this that joy is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23). Here’s the thing about fruit: it doesn’t appear magically. It takes time and cultivation.
Jesus is the vine, the Father is the Gardener and we are the branches that bear fruit through the work of the Holy Spirit (John 15:1–8). There have been times when I’ve been impatient and even felt guilty because the joy simply wasn’t there when I thought it should be.
But if joy is like fruit, then that means that it will take time to grow into maturity. It will be more plentiful in some seasons than others. And at times we need to be pruned in order to produce more.
We may not fully understand this process, but we don’t have to. All we have to do is stay in the vine (the steps listed above are some practical ways that help with this), and God will grow the fruit.
I don’t know what your circumstances are, but I do know what the Bible says about working through them. And I believe that given time, you’ll find the joy that God calls us all to.
Now I’d love to hear your thoughts: what helps you find joy when the circumstances are hard?