Unearthing Joy

We don't lose our joy, but it can go underground.
"Though the cherry trees don't blossom and the strawberries don't ripen, though the apples are worm-eaten and the wheat fields stunted, though the sheep pens are sheepless and the cattle barns empty, I'm singing joyful praise to God. I'm turning cartwheels of joy to my Savior God. Counting on God's Rule to prevail, I take heart and gain strength. I run like a deer. I feel like I'm king of the mountain!" (Habakkuk 3:17-19, The Message)

How do we find and hold onto the joy that belongs to us as Christ-followers? To find out, we talked with Thelma Wells, Extraordinary Women speaker and author of God Is Not Through with Me Yet (Multnomah).

In her early years of marriage and motherhood, Thelma experienced a near nervous breakdown. Then several years ago she was diagnosed with cancer and spent several days in intensive care on life support, not expected to live. Yet Thelma bubbles over with joy. Our Ginger Kolbaba asked, Why?

What gets in the way of us truly experiencing joy?

THELMA: Trying to be somebody we're not. God made us wonderfully in his image. But we look at life from the eyes of our culture: where I should live, what I should drive, where my kids should go to school, what I should have in my house. We compete for status, for recognition, for all these things that mean little or nothing in the end. And when we do that, we become confused about who we serve and why we serve.

If we aren't careful, we can become so depressed and confused and overwhelmed that our joy goes underground.

Underground? That's a different way to put it. Usually we talk about losing it.

We don't lose joy. Once God gives it to us, it's ours. The Spirit of God lives in us. And he brings joy that the world cannot give and cannot take away. But we can make it go underground, where it gets covered up by the stuff of the day.

Like what?

We women try to do too much. When I got married, I thought I could keep a house clean, do the laundry, make the meals, work in the community, work in the church, and have all these children.

I felt neglected. And I hated my life. I mean, hated it. Okay? And then I started hating my husband. I felt like I was doing everything for everybody and getting nothing in return. And I ended up almost having a nervous breakdown. That was a defining moment for me.

The doctor told me, "You're always trying to please everybody, and people don't even expect that of you." Then he told me to go out and get a job, to do something to satisfy me.

Were you like, "Excuse me. I have a full life"?

That's right. I had a life—but not a life I enjoyed. He understood that I'd lost who I was. I was doing all this volunteer work—but it wasn't something that was just for me. I was doing it because I thought that's what everybody expected. And I didn't really enjoy it. I needed to do something I enjoyed that was bigger than myself.

And the doctor gave me another important task.

Which was?

He said, "I hear you saying, 'I can't do anything right. Things aren't working out for me. I don't have enough time in the day to do all the things I've got to do.' You have to change the way you talk to yourself." Every time I said something negative, I had to make it a positive. For example, I shouldn't say I'm fat. I need to say, "I'm well and healthy." If I don't have money, I need to tell myself, "I have all the money I need to do everything I want." It isn't a lie; it's an affirmation about what God has already promised to me.

So I looked in the mirror and started talking to myself. I still do that. Every day I tell myself how cute I am. We can't wait for people to affirm us or our joy goes underground.

So, in a sense, you were rediscovering who you are.

That's right. If we lose perspective about who we are, who Jesus created us to be, then everything else creates a backlash that isn't what God ordered at all.

I began to find me. I got a job as a substitute teacher, which worked with my family's schedule. Getting out with other people was great.

I started really thinking and praying about who I was and what my priorities were. I was at a point where God was secondary in my life, and I didn't realize it. So every day, sometimes several times a day, I had to do a reality check.

Which means?

A reality check is saying we're not in control of anything; God is. And when we try to take control of our problems, not pray about them, not search the Scriptures to find out how to deal with them, we bury our joy.

And how did your reality checks work out?

Now I live a joy-filled life. Do I get disgusted and frustrated sometimes? Of course. Do I get a bad attitude sometimes? Yes, I do. I'm human.

But I have something to sustain me.

I have joy.

But it's not something that washes over you one day and you say, "Oh, I feel so much joy." It seems subtle.

It is subtle. I think that's why we miss it.

Truly grasping and living with joy didn't happen overnight. It's a process. I had to work through emotionally, physically, and spiritually the dilemma I'd put myself in.

Every day I ask God, "Lord, you direct my path today. Open the doors I need to walk through. Close the doors I don't. Get people out of my way I don't need to talk to today. And put people in my way I do. And, Lord, don't let me waste time. For I trust you with everything."

Sometimes we have to shut out people and things and become more in tune to God. Even just for 15 minutes. Go in the bathroom, shut the door, and take a good hot bath and talk to God. Our joy will be restored. It really will.

At my house, some days it's difficult to find even 15 minutes!

{Laughs} That's so true. But God has given us free will to accept and/or reject anything. That's why it's necessary to pray without ceasing. That means I stay in an attitude of prayer all day, because, you see, I can feel really good when I wake up in the morning. I can be singing, "This joy that I have the world didn't give me. And the world can't take it away." And then somebody will say something crazy to me. Okay? And instantly my joy goes underground.

Been there.

And sometimes it doesn't even take someone saying something mean to me. I can just get up with my joy underground. You know what I'm saying?

I've walked through dark valleys, darlin'. In fact, I've seen more valleys than mountaintops. But even in the valleys, I had faith and trust and joy unspeakable.

Like when I had cancer. I was in intensive care and on life support, and my family was called in to say good-bye. But God wasn't through with me. God walks us through those experiences.

And from experiences like that, joy builds. Joy will build when you see what God's grace will do in your life, what God's promises will do in your life.

You want to know the biggest thing to keeping our joy?

Of course!

We need to get in tune with who we are. We're children of God, designed by him different from anybody else, but loved by him more than anybody else. You know that really baffles me to think that Jesus loves me more than anybody. You, too!

That's pretty difficult to grasp.

Yes, but when we focus on who we are in Christ, God will restore our joy. He will rejuvenate and revive us. And he will rekindle the fire that's gone from us. When we understand who we truly are and what God wants to do in and through our lives, joy will grow.

"Whenever trouble comes your way, let it be an opportunity for joy."( James 1:2 NLT)

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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