I’ve been putting off writing this post for almost a year. Doubts have niggled at my mind: How can a person who’s lived with clinical depression for over half her life write about joy? Joy is something that other people are more qualified to write about; people who are glass-half-full and vigorous and naturally inclined towards optimism. (I’m married to one, bless him.)
But then again, there’s a high chance you aren’t a glass-half-full, vigorous and naturally optimistic sort of person. And how discouraging would it be to read an irritatingly upbeat post about joy from the fingertips of someone who finds it relatively easy to be positive!
So here I am, sad and struggling. I’m having a bad day in what has been a hard few years. And I’m choosing now to write about joy, because I’ve come to understand it is possible to experience joy even when I’m depressed.
Here are five things I’ve discovered about joy over the past year, as I’ve been pondering and procrastinating.
1. Joy is a fruit — it doesn’t grow when you water it
As a young Christian I struggled to find lasting joy, no matter how many Bible verses I memorised, no matter how many uplifting church services I faithfully attended, and no matter how many times I prayed or asked for prayer.
Looking back, I can see I was watering the fruit: I was trying really hard to be happy. And when I didn’t experience this elusive “joy of the Lord” I felt like a spiritual failure; I was ashamed about being a bad witness for Jesus. That only made my depression worse. What a destructive cycle!
Eventually, I learnt how spiritual growth works: you need to water the roots to grow the fruit. I needed to shift my focus.
So I stopped striving to become a super-positive, perpetually happy person — thereby focusing on myself and how (badly!) I was doing as a Christian. Instead, I started to fix my eyes on Jesus. I began resting in the work he did at the cross.
This shift in focus freed me from guilt. It didn’t cure my depression, but it did lift a heavy emotional burden which had weighed me down for years — one that God never intended for me to carry. (Matt 11:28-30, Rom 8:1, Heb 10:22)
2. Sorrow doesn’t destroy our witness
I’ve mentioned my fear of being a bad witness for Jesus. Now I’m going to talk about that in more detail because I suspect it’s a common source of shame for Christians who live with depression.
In the Bible, we see many people being wonderful witnesses for God while also struggling with intense sorrow. This post will get way too long if I look at each person in detail, so I’ll just be focusing on one: the apostle Paul.
Why Paul? Well, it’s partly because he’s the most recent example, historically; partly because he wrote most of the New Testament so he’s a pretty influential figure when it comes to Christianity; and partly because I’ve only in recent years got over my aversion to the man! (His writing started triggering me so I avoided it for a few years, but I’ve come to deeply admire this passionate man who hated-then-loved and lived-then-died for Jesus.)
I’m not claiming Paul suffered from clinical depression — that would be too big a hypothetical. But we do see him struggle with ongoing sorrow and pain. He gets how it feels to be at the end of your rope and I find that comforting:
- He endures great pressure, far beyond what he can bear, which leads him to “despair of life itself”.2This may well have been a literal fear for his life, rather than despair on a purely emotional level. He was beaten and imprisoned more than once for preaching about Jesus, and he did end up being killed because of the message he was preaching. (2 Cor 1:8-9NIV)
- He has moments of intense longing for an end to his suffering — he groans inwardly, yearning to be freed from his physical body and at home with the Lord. (2 Cor 5:1-4, Rom 8:22-23)
- He suffers from some sort of chronic condition (possibly an illness or disability but no-one knows for sure) which he poetically calls a “thorn in [his] flesh”. Although he pleads with God to take it away, God chooses to supply him with the supernatural ability to endure it instead. (2 Cor 12:7-10)
Does this truckload of sorrow disqualify him from Christian service? Does it make his witness for Jesus less effective? No. In fact, the opposite is true! He becomes more reliant on God as he suffers hardship and loss. He clings to God’s grace like never before when he’s at the end of his rope. (2 Cor 1:9, 2 Cor 12:9)
Paul’s ongoing weakness and sorrow, rather than being an obstacle to God’s work, are actually a conduit for God’s work. And the same principle applies to our lives. Don’t assume God is finished with you when you’re grieving and sorrowful. God is still at work in your life! Remember what he taught Paul: “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.”
3. Joy and sorrow can coexist
Interestingly, in Paul’s life we see sorrow and joy coexisting. In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul speaks openly about his many struggles3Why does Paul talk so much about his struggles in 2 Corinthians? It’s because a bunch of “super apostles” (that’s his ironic nickname for them) had arrived on the scene in his absence, throwing doubt into people’s minds about Paul, their spiritual father figure, and the gospel message he’d preached. You can read more here if you’re interested: http://www.robertbsloan.com/2014/09/24/why-did-paul-defend-his-own-apostleship/., which range from physical suffering — imprisonment, sleepless nights, hunger — to emotional distress: he was regarded as an impostor and ignored. (2 Cor 6:8-10)
In the middle of this list he says, “Our hearts ache but we always have joy.” Other translations word it like this: “sorrowful yet always rejoicing.”
What a powerful paradox! It hints at a unique and enduring kind of joy which — like a cactus plant — survives, even thrives, in the most hostile environments.
4. Joy is all about the Who — not the what, where or when
How does Paul manage to experience this constant sense of joy despite his ongoing sorrow and severe heartache? Well, there’s clearly a deeper source to his joy. His joy doesn’t rely on outward circumstances — on the what, where or when of his life.
Any of these thoughts sound familiar? They do to me…
- I’ll have joy when I finally get ________________ (insert the thing you’ve been working towards).
- I’d have joy if I lived ________________ instead of here.
- I wish I were ________________ (insert attractive holiday destination, somewhere far away).
- I’ll have joy when I don’t have to ________________ anymore (insert gripes about your current stage of life).
- I’ll be able to experience joy, once ________________ is finished / gone / back home again.
Rather than depending on the what, where or when, Paul’s joy depends on the Who. It bubbles up from within him — its source is Jesus. And he encourages us to find joy the same way. In Philippians 4:4 Paul says,
Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again — rejoice!
Notice how the focus of our joy is the Lord? It’s that same concept again: watering the roots to grow the fruit! Paul goes on to explain what we can do when we find it hard to be joyful.
Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. (Phil 4:6)
Sometimes I do remember to take my worries to God but I forget the second part: thanking him for all he’s done (and sometimes I forget both). If you struggle to balance your prayers, this printable prayer guide from p.9 of the Groaning e-booklet might help.
A quote I had hanging on my bedroom wall, years ago, sums it up beautifully: “Joy is not the absence of suffering. It is the presence of God.” (Robert Schüller) This truth fueled me through some harrowingly hard years of grief- and trauma-triggered depression.
5. Joy is more than a mood
Clinical depression doesn’t just strike during hard times, though. I remember times in my life when I’ve felt horribly flat even though I have every reason to feel great. Self-loathing can really skyrocket in those times: you think to yourself, I have so many things to be grateful for! Why am I feeling so morose? What’s wrong with me?!
Are we stuck, then, those of us who live with uncooperative moods? Fortunately not. Joy is still available to us because it’s more than just a mood; it’s also a mindset. And we can choose what sorts of things we’ll fix our minds on. (Phil 4:8-9)
Someone who opened my eyes to this fact was Sara Frankl. After her death, a bunch of her friends compiled Sara’s blog posts into a book called Choose Joy. I confess I put off reading the book, despite rave reviews from trusted friends, because I feared it would fill me with that awful I’m-such-a-bad-witness-for-Christ guilt.
Parts of the book did grate against me, to be honest, because joy is perhaps the slowest growing fruit of the Spirit for me; but overall I was pleasantly surprised. It was full of practical wisdom from a woman who lived with increasingly severe pain and unwanted social isolation, due to a degenerative disease that ended in death when she was just 38.
Sara had a list of life goals that helped her to cope with her suffering. These life goals were deliberate mindsets she chose to adopt each day, regardless of her mood. I was particularly moved by this one:
To love what I have and not yearn for what I lack.
She explains, “Every person faces the discrepancy between dreams and reality, and learning to love the life we have makes all the difference in our outlook and attitude.”4Please don’t misunderstand this point. It’s good and right to protect ourselves from harm. Suffering is not somehow a desirable or holy or honorable thing in itself! Sara worked hard with her doctors to minimise her pain. She did all she could to help herself. But she reached a point where the medications were no longer helping, so she lived with intense and constant pain. In this situation, she had a choice: (1) Do I get bitter about this? or (2) Do I work hard at accepting the bitter realities of my life? She found peace and freedom in deliberately choosing to accept her situation.
Here’s how Sara described another of her life goals, “To choose joy”.
The major word… isn’t joy; it’s CHOOSE… I ask God to help me make the choice… to change my heart, to change my vision, to create the desire in me to be joyful when I want to close my eyes to all that surrounds me. I close my eyes and open my heart and ask the One Who is the only answer. I ask Him to help me.
Wow. On that note, let’s pray.
Father God, we bring our longing for a better life to you. Sorry for chasing after things, places and people to try finding joy. Lord, we want to know what it means to find joy in you. Please open our eyes to all that you’ve done for us and all that you have in store for us. Teach us to live a joy-filled life regardless of our circumstances. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
How can I help you grow?
One of my favourite Psalms says, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed.” (Psalm 34:18) One way I feel close to God while depressed is through worship music. It has a way of breaking through the numbness and giving me words to pray when I have none. You can find some of my favourite Song Playlists here.