Joyful Living

"We can insist that we have a right to be happy all the time, no matter what, or we can claim the joy of God, even when life doesn't go our way." Photo: Jordache
Published December 13, 2011

When I lived in San Diego, cosmetic surgery was very much in vogue. Newspapers and magazines were full of advertisements for facial and breast surgery, tummy tucks, liposuction and a variety of other procedures, all giving the message that cosmetic surgery was a way to feel good about yourself.

On one occasion I had the opportunity to chat with a cosmetic surgeon over lunch. Cosmetic surgery, he told me, was becoming increasingly popular with men as well as women. He went on to reveal that many people who came to him were already attractive, but inside they were hurting. Yes, some had problems that cosmetic surgery might help, but many had scars that were not physical-they were deep inside and very painful. Some people needed a “heart-lift,” he said, which cosmetic surgeons simply couldn’t give.

I pondered his words after our lunch: “What some people really need is a heart-lift.” He meant that they needed inner peace, contentment, fulfillment and a sense of satisfaction with their lives. They needed to accept themselves as God accepts them. They needed to understand that nobody is ever perfect, but we are always lovable and capable of love. Above all, we can still feel joyful, even when times get tough and life is hard.

St. Paul, from the tone of his letters, wasn’t always happy. After all, he got knocked around a lot, whipped, stoned, mobbed, shipwrecked. He had health problems, some kind of persistent ailment that never did get cured. He didn’t own a lot, except what he could carry with him from town to town. His Jewish parents probably disowned him when he became a Christian. His friends often let him down. He got into trouble with the law and did some jail time. His life ended when he was executed by the government.

Isn’t it strange that, in an apparently unhappy life, Paul should have found so much joy? Because he did find joy. Or joy found him. “Rejoice always,” says Paul. “This is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16−18).

Sometimes when we read a passage like this, we may +say to ourselves, “Joy? What have I got to rejoice about?” Then we review a host of problems-the doctor’s report, our lousy jobs, the investments that went sour, our aging parents, rebellious children, the class we’re failing, the aches and pains that are all too frequent, the friends who let us down…and the list goes on.

All of us can complain about something in our lives. We can fret about missed opportunities or our present circumstances. We can feel sorry for ourselves that life hasn’t treated us fairly. We can look at ourselves in the mirror in the morning and not like what we see.

But we always have a choice: we can become better or bitter. We can insist that we have a right to be happy all the time, no matter what, or we can claim the joy of God, even when life doesn’t go our way.

Consider the difference between joy and happiness. Winning the lottery might make you happy, for a while at least, but it won’t bring you joy. Joy is something that touches our whole being. It doesn’t stand or fall depending on what good or bad things might happen to us today or tomorrow. Joy can come only from God, because it is only God who can touch us that deeply and that fully. This God cares about us when we hurt, when we feel frustrated, when we feel lonely or disappointed. In fact, there is not one area of our lives that goes unnoticed by God. And why? Because God loves us-that’s why!

The next time you feel gloomy and sad, when you are so far down in the dumps that you think you will never be able to get up, try saying to yourself, “God loves me and will never stop loving me.” Perhaps you will begin to believe that the great God of the universe really does love us.

You and I are beautiful people in God’s eyes. How then, can we fail to rejoice this holiday season? Even when the world denies us happiness, God is still able to give us joy.

A number of years ago, when I was a boy living in New York City, this story appeared in the newspaper. On Christmas Eve, as last-minute shoppers hurried along the street near Macy’s department store, a vendor stood with the aid of crutches, offering his papers to passersby. He looked happy and his crutches were decorated with evergreens.

“You sure have the Christmas spirit,” one man remarked to the vendor, returning a cheerful smile.

“What’s the use of putting on a sour face?” the vendor said. “Sure, I’m poor and lame, but that’s no reason to be glum. I may not have as much as others, but God loves me as much as anyone else. So I decorated my crutches to make them seem special for Christmas.”

Now that’s joy-the joy of Jesus, the joy of God’s presence in your life, the joy of being assured that you are a child of God and heir of heaven, the joy of knowing that, no matter what your circumstances in life, how you feel about yourself or what you look like, God loves you always and forever.

When the dictator Idi Amin initiated his reign of terror in Uganda, the Christian community was relentlessly persecuted. The Anglican archbishop was murdered.

Many bishops and priests fled the country to avoid the same fate.

One priest stayed with his people. On a day when he was not in the village, Amin’s soldiers came and burned to the ground all the homes in the village, along with the church. When the priest returned, he found people weeping over the ashes of what had once been their thatched roofs. A parishioner said to him, “They even burned my Bible and hymn book!”

And then, among the ruins, the priest saw a scrap of paper. He picked it up and read, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” He stopped for a moment, then said,

“That’s enough for me.”

Would it be enough for you?

Some of us are hurting this holiday season. Maybe you are dealing with the loss of a marriage, the memory of someone you love who is now with God, concern about your children, worry about your health, finding the right job-if any of these things trouble you now, don’t let despair defeat you. Joy is the right of every Christian.

This holiday season, find some way to defeat the blues. Join a music group and go sing carols in the community, volunteer in a soup kitchen, buy some gifts for needy children, visit shut-ins, or write a thank-you note to someone who has touched your life. Do something positive, something heartwarming, something that will bring someone else joy-for joy has a way of boomeranging, giving even more satisfaction to the giver than the one who receives it.

Quite simply, you can live your life trusting God, because God will never let you down.

A story about the noted movie director Cecil B. DeMille comes to mind. When work began on the movie Ben Hur, DeMille talked to the actor Charlton Heston about the all-important chariot race at the end. Heston, he felt, should learn to drive the chariot, rather than using a stunt double. Heston agreed to take chariot-driving lessons to make the movie as authentic as possible.

Learning to drive a chariot with horses four abreast, however, was no small matter. After extensive work and days of practice, Heston returned to the movie set and reported to DeMille. “I think I can drive the chariot all right, Cecil,” he said, “but I’m not at all sure I can actually win the race.”

Smiling slightly, DeMille said, “Heston, you just stay in the race, and I’ll make sure you win.”

Those are the words God says to us, no matter what our situation in life. “Stay in the race, and I’ll make sure you win.” God is with us every step of the way. God never abandons us. God is always faithful. God will see us through whatever comes our way.

No wonder St. Paul can say, “Rejoice always!” This is not wishful thinking or pie-in-the-sky theology. This is God’s gift to us this Christmas. God comes to us in Jesus because he loves us always and forever. Yes, we can all think of reasons to be miserable, but God has come up with even better reasons for joy. So hold your heads high and rejoice! God comes to us in Jesus our Saviour, and that is reason enough to be joyful.


The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.


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