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The Secret to Joy

It's a matter of attitude.

I squirmed a bit as I forced myself to listen to my friend cataloging her problems. After three hours, I interrupted her gently to ask, "If you were to draw a circle to represent your life, what would be in the center?"

She thought a moment, then said, "My problems." My friend spoke the truth.

A week later, I sat across the hospital bed on which lay my younger sister, Joye, who had just been diagnosed with acute leukemia. Gray and perspiring, with a swath of bandages encasing her throat from a biopsy, Joye talked to a student nurse who was interviewing terminally ill people to see if there was any way she could help them.

"Oh, Jan, I'm a bit fearful of the pain and process of dying—but I'm not afraid of death! It'll just be a change of residence for me," I heard my sister, her face radiant from within, say to this student nurse. And for forty-five minutes, Joye explained the good news of Jesus Christ to Jan.

Afterwards, I thought, Both my friend and sister have serious problems. Yet one's walking in despair, and the other in joy. What makes the difference?

Then I realized what it was: My friend's heart was occupied with her problems; my sister's heart was occupied with the Living God.

A heart occupied with God is a joy-filled heart. Yet I admit I often have days (weeks? months?) when I'm discouraged or disgruntled. The reason isn't because I don't understand the big picture. I can see clearly the mountains of God's faithfulness, sovereignty, and incredible love. But my joy is often ruined by small blotches on the canvas.

I discovered one such mar early in my walk with God when I failed to obey a command found in Colossians 3:23: "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men."

Soon after my husband, Jack, and I were married, the owner of the home we moved into informed us he'd decided to turn the efficiency apartments surrounding our house into a motel, and Jack and I were asked to be the rental agents for it. That meant someone needed to be at home twenty-four hours a day—and most of the time, I was that someone. Soon the person who cleaned the units quit and I found myself not only "managing" the motel but cleaning the rooms.

Scrubbing one of the motel toilets one day, I grumbled to the Lord. "You know, Lord," I said, "I could be leading a Bible study. I could be talking to the neighbors about Christ. I could be taking a meal to a shut-in. I could be doing lots of things that would be more useful and certainly more pleasant!"

And there, sitting on the floor, scrubbing that toilet, I heard his voice speak to my heart: Carole, whatever you do, do it heartily for me.

"Even cleaning motel toilets, Lord?"

Even cleaning motel toilets, child.

It dawned on me that I could scrub floors, cook meals, dust, chauffeur people, serve in a multitude of ways, and serve God heartily in doing so. If that was how he wanted me to spend my time, well, that was his business. I could do it for God! Knowing that made all the difference in my attitude.

I have an inkling this is one lesson God will continue reminding me of the rest of my life. If I'm not learning (and relearning) it, the "dailies" of life—those miserable, mundane jobs, those dirty, no-one-else-will-do-them tasks—become not just drudgery but downright depressing, and joy will disappear.

But some of us resist learning. In fact, Jack says some people have twenty years' experience while others have one year's experience repeated twenty times! I inwardly wince when I hear him say that because I wonder if I'm one of the latter. I certainly don't want to be guilty of repeating experiences without learning from them.

It's hard to remember that irritating situations are allowed by God to train me to become more like his Son. A rough paraphrase of James 1:2-4 might read, "Good attitudes aren't developed solely through a relationship with God, but through testing." We may feel as though we have a good attitude when, in fact, our attitude hasn't yet been tested. I have a wonderful attitude when Jack and I experience a smooth, non-hassle flight. But when the plane is canceled due to mechanical problems, when my luggage is lost, when we have to run for connections and then miss them, when the plane's air conditioning doesn't work and they run out of ice … well, somehow I begin to have an "attitude."

When stressful situations and difficult times threaten to bring the scum of my life (a bad attitude) to the surface, it's my choice whether to stir that scum into my everyday circumstances, or maintain a joyful attitude and ask God to skim the scum from my life. A part of living joyfully rests on the decision to endure unpleasant situations as a sacrifice of praise to God.

I've found a great time to check why I'm doing something is when I do my best and no one notices. Or when, instead of a pat on the back, I get a kick in the rear! But, if I listen, I often hear God's voice saying, Beloved, for whom are you doing this? And I become aware once again that I've been doing it because I have no choice, I hope to please people, I want a challenge, or for some other no-good reason. I haven't really been doing it for God.

Author Paul Thigpen defines joy as "the sense of delight that arises within us in the presence of someone or something we love." He goes on to say, "Joy depends not on our acquisition of something, but rather on our encounter with something." I'd say Someone—a Someone who renews us every day.

To be more joyful, I need to drink in God's presence. When I spend more time in his Word, he reveals more of what I need for joy. As I was praying about this article, I said to the Lord, "Father, I want to do this—not just for the readers but for you. I want to write 'heartily' for you. But to do that, I need your help." It struck me then that in order to do everything for God, I must do everything with him. I need his help to have the kind of desire it takes to do whatever I do for him … alone. And doing it for him and no other person or reason indeed helps me to overflow with joy.

Many times, in many situations—from speaking to writing to scrubbing the kitchen floor—I inwardly scream, I don't want to do this! And I know those times will continue while I'm living on this earth. So I'm praying often these days that I'll be willing, even eager, to relearn this needed lesson every day.

The apostle Paul tells the people in Thessalonica that he longs for their love to "increase" (1 Thess. 3:12). Not only that, but they are to increase in living to please God "more and more" (4:1, 10). And not only are they to increase "more and more," but they are to be sanctified "through and through" (5:23). I love that!

That's what you and I need—the ability to increase more and more, through and through, in living to please God. Obeying God's command—to "work hard and cheerfully at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people" (Col. 3:23-24, NLT)—will help us overflow with joy, no matter what we're doing.

CAROLE MAYHALL is the author of numerous books, including Come Walk with Me (Waterbrook Press) and Help, Lord, I'm Sinking: Lessons from My Rocking Boat (NavPress).

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