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Choosing Joy

By the time March rolls around, I know that whatever resolutions I made at the New Year will have gone the way of any lingering snow by now—that is, trampled down and shoved off to the side somewhere. So last year I scrapped the resolutions and declared a theme for the year instead, almost a mantra I could repeat to myself: "Choose Joy."

I was tired of waiting for a certain set of circumstances that would supposedly fulfill me, tired of sitting around hoping I'd suddenly hit a permanent 10 on the happy scale. So for one calendar year, I committed myself to actively pursuing joy. I can't claim that in those 365 days I somehow mastered joy or discovered a three-step formula for finding it. But along the way there were a few themes that lodged in my heart, and I hope I'll never look at happiness the same way again.

Sometimes joy comes in little packages.

As I reflected on my joy levels (usually during my morning commute), it struck me how easily little things could steal my joy—like waking up late, spilling coffee on my way out the door, getting cut off by the large vehicle that apparently doesn't believe in turn signals. So I wondered: If little things can have so much power to steal joy, why can't they give it as well?

So I started keeping a list of all the things God has given me—not just the big gifts like salvation and provision and people to love—but the less overt graces too, like daffodil bulbs that peek their heads out each spring, a home with running water, the funny things that come out of the mouths of my Sunday school kids. Before I knew it, I was becoming less desperate for the elusive big-ticket joy items.

All those little joys, it turns out, can add up. "The LORD has done amazing things for us! What joy!" (Psalm 126:3).

Sometimes joy appears in camo.

Maybe it's because I'm a romantic at heart or because I grew up with a healthy dose of Disney, but I typically assume joy comes in the obvious things—the perfect wedding, the job promotion, the newborn baby, the happy ending. And those moments are wonderful … when they happen. But if I pigeonhole joy into such a small box, I deprive myself of so many other joys that may require a second glance.

My friend Jan is one of my heroes in the joy department. After a grueling battery of tests, she just received the news that her four-year-old has autism. While Jan doesn't minimize the challenges that go along with that, she's still able to delight in the way God created her daughter. "Like any parent, I wouldn't choose this difficulty for her," she says. "But God in his wisdom doesn't give me the ability to make that call. So in the meantime, I'm happy to have this contented girl who just so happens to be able to differentiate between Mozart and Tchaikovsky, and is overly interested in the number 6."

When joy comes knocking in the less obvious things in my own life, I want to recognize it—and embrace it.

Sometimes joy takes a village.

In the past, I assumed joy was a solo endeavor—something each of us has to figure out for ourselves. But lately I've been thinking what God has in mind is a lot more communal than that. Romans 12:15 puts it this way: "Be happy with those who are happy." So when someone I love is celebrating, I guess it's not only my privilege but my calling to share their joy.

I'll admit that doesn't always come naturally for me. In the span of my "Choose Joy" year, I attended four weddings, five baby showers, and two going-away parties. I wanted to be happy for those friends, but I confess that part of me felt left behind somehow. I knew there was no way I could manufacture joy of my own willpower, so I did the only thing I could: I begged God for his joy, the supernatural kind. And little by little, I found myself rejoicing in wedding plans, baby registries, and new homes that weren't mine … and yet were somehow mine.

Sometimes joy chooses you.

As much as I try to choose joy, there are times when God gives me unexpected delights—when joy comes up from behind and sneak-attacks me. That was the case when my grandfather was visiting recently. He's experiencing the early effects of Alzheimer's, and now the man who was constantly fixing something, making bad puns, and striking up conversations with strangers is retreating into the shell of his body.

On New Year's Eve my family got together, and each person was to share something—a verse, a reflection on the past year, or something we were thankful for. Grandpa wasn't able to retrieve the words to pull this off, but he requested that we sing his favorite hymn together, "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." So we sat around the fireplace, amazed as Grandpa's baritone belted out every word to all four verses.

And in that moment, surrounded by the wonderful and quirky people I love so much, with the words "Take it to the Lord in prayer" lingering in the air, I felt a surge of unexpected joy. Not the kind I might have chosen myself, but it was enough.

C. S. Lewis titled the account of his conversion experience Surprised by Joy, so it only seemed appropriate for me to read it during my year of joy. One line continues to echo in my ears, even now that the year is up: "All joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still about to be."

A new year is well underway, but who knows—I just might declare this a year of joy as well.

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

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