By: Katie Dale
Understanding the Phrase, “Choose Joy”
Let’s be real for a second. When I hear “choose joy” I think of denying my current emotions.
I also think it’s a blanket statement that could confuse people, especially Christians with mental illness. We could easily start thinking we must feel happy and choose to think positively all the time, despite our chemical imbalances and episodes of severe depression.
I don’t want to get rid of the phrase, but I’d like to provide what I feel is some much-needed context, much like when we consider the Lord’s command that “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48, ESV) The Lord knows we can’t simply be perfect, otherwise we wouldn’t have needed Jesus’ sacrifice; but He does command us to strive for perfection, and just as we are commanded to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4, ESV), the Lord want us to consistently rely on and choose His joy as our strength, especially during tough times, when we don’t have joy inside ourselves.
What Is Joy?
So let’s define “joy”:
(According to Merriam Webster Dictionary)
“a : the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires : DELIGHT
b : the expression or exhibition of such emotion : GAIETY
c : a state of happiness or felicity : BLISS
d: a source or cause of delight”
In the context of the Christian life, joy is when our saved souls rejoice and take comfort in knowing we’re given the promises of God. It’s also a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22), a quality of contentment, preceded by love, followed by peace. It’s liberating. It gives us strength when we come to the tough times in life.
You’re probably thinking, “Yeah, joy is great, and I want the joy of the Lord. But, come on, it’s not that easy!” And you’d be right. But while it may seem incredibly difficult during our darkest moments, joy is always there for the taking.
However, it’s not a light switch we can just turn on and off.
When Feeling Joyful Isn’t An Option
In clinical depression, our joy can be stolen. We can lose our confidence. We can forget the contented feelings and state of peace. As our brains become more chemically imbalanced, and we’re drowning in an almost debilitating excess of sadness, “choosing joy” can become what feels impossible. I’m not saying that there is a point of no return, or that once you lose your joy it’s gone forever…on the contrary, it is up to us to seek out help for our condition that impairs our livelihood and wellbeing.
Feeling the emotion of joy may be all that a clinically depressed person wants. When we focus instead on the source of joy – namely, Jesus – things are put into perspective.
We can, we should, look to Jesus for healing and rejoice in the sense of “I’m standing on His promises to redeem my mind and restore my joy.” Though, there is a distinct difference between “choosing” to believe God’s promises, and recognizing our feelings when they are influenced by an illness of the mind. In mental illness, the feeling of joy can be stolen and its presence forgotten. It’s at these times we have to focus less on the feeling we can’t attain, and re-focus on the source of true Joy.
Sometimes, the feeling of joy is not an option because severe depression has beaten our minds to a pulp.
Often we simply resign ourselves to letting depression take its course, i.e. believing the enemy’s lies about ourselves (“you’re worthless”), choosing to live unwisely and making foolish choices in life (reaping behaviors and feelings sown by negative thoughts). In these cases, we forfeit joy.
How To Tap Into The Source Of Joy
It can be impossible to choose the feeling of joy in severe depression, but that’s when we need to focus less on the feeling aspect of joy, and focus on the source aspect of joy.
Philippians 4:4-7 ESV, tells us to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
How Paul continues this passage hints at how to rejoice, and find that peace:
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8, ESV)
The key to rejoicing is to think on those virtues.
Notice how in John 16:24 (ESV), Jesus said, “Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” Again, God is encouraging an inquiring, a petitioning stance from His children.
A Process, Not A Light Switch
In the darkest times we need to focus not on feeling joy, but on the Lord. Through focusing on the promises of God, the blessings of God, the victory of God, that peace and joy will be sown back into your heart. But it will still be striving, as the verses above say, “by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving” and “ask”…it’s not a light switch, it’s a process in the hard times, but the Lord promises He’ll bring you through it and restore your joy.
So instead of telling yourself or others to “choose joy,” consider the implications of this message, and reconsider. As with any feelings of happiness or contentment, these don’t originate from the pursuit of them in and of themselves. Rather, feelings of joy and happiness follow a thought life that dwells on the richness of the goodness of God. Feelings follow thoughts, so redirect “choose joy” to, may I suggest, “think Jesus.” May that be your path to finding joy. That’s certainly our choice to make: we do or don’t dwell on Jesus.
O soul, are you weary and troubled?
No light in the darkness you see?
There’s light for a look at the Savior,
And life more abundant and free.
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.
-Helen Howarth Lemmel
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