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The Habit of Joy

Do you have any bad habits? Probably you do. We all do. Biting our nails, leaving dirty clothes on the bathroom floor, spending too much time with our eyes on one screen or another. I like to crunch ice with my teeth, a sound that drives my husband crazy—and probably isn’t very good for my teeth, either!

I also sigh a lot. I think it’s something I inherited; my mother did it, too. Sometimes it makes other people think I’m feeling impatient or sad or exhausted—but really, it’s just something I do. A habit. There are worse, right? Being judgmental of other people, losing one’s temper easily, dropping a few curse words here and there. All of these bad habits are things that we do.

But we can also develop bad habits in the ways we think. I once did a Google search on the glass half-empty, half-full question, and of course I found a bunch of quizzes and tests I could take online to see whether I’m a pessimist or an optimist—a sad person or a happy person—in case I didn’t already know. On one quiz, I had to fill-in-the-blanks in sentences like this: If something can go bad… (it will) (it won’t) (I’ll fix it!).

Psychology Today’s website has a “Happiness Test,” 47 questions that you answer on a sliding scale from “Strongly Agree” to “Strongly Disagree.” Questions like these: Some people are doomed to live an unhappy life - there's nothing they can do to change that. And, Given the choice, I think that the majority of people would choose to do good rather than evil.

I took the test and learned that I’m 27% cynical, but have an “upbeat perspective” and “believe in the goodness of humankind.” Good to know that Psychology Today thinks I’m a happy person. I thought I was. (Mostly.)

I think I’m also a joyful person. But I didn’t find a test to measure joy. Happiness and joy aren’t the same thing, are they? Happiness depends upon our situation: I’m happy that we’ve had such a beautiful fall. I’m happy that Harry and I just celebrated 45 years of marriage! Joy, on the other hand, is not tied to any situation. Joy is a deep delight we feel, regardless of our personal situation. I’m joyful because God created such a beautiful world. I’m joyful because I know Jesus loves each one of us unconditionally.

Scripture offers great advice about living a joyful life in Christ, about developing the habit of joy by trusting that God is present in all things. Consider Proverbs 3:5-6 (from The Message). Trust God from the bottom of your heart; don’t try to figure out everything on your own. Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; God’s the one who will keep you on track. Don’t assume that you know it all. First, this scripture tells us to “trust God from the bottom of our hearts,” from our deepest place of being, rather than fretting and trying to figure things out on our own. You know, the Why’s of life can drive us to despair if we let them. Why have 6,570,363 people worldwide died of COVID? Why have we allowed our country’s public rhetoric to become so vicious?

We don’t know. So the writer of Proverbs tells us simply to trust that God—the source of all love and goodness in the world—is in the middle of it all. Yes, troublesome, sad, unexpected things happen in life, often beyond our control. I have a magnet on my refrigerator at home that says, “There is a God, and it is not you.” If we truly believe in the constancy of God’s love for us, then we can rest more securely upon that promise, knowing with full assurance that God is with us in any struggle.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, we find this (also from The Message):

Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live.

Here, the apostle Paul instructs us to listen for God’s voice, God’s presence, in everything we do.

He tells us to be cheerful, no matter what. Of all the advice we find in scripture, that one is probably the hardest for me. Maybe it is for you too. It feels counter-intuitive. How can I be cheerful in difficult times? It’s hard for me to be cheerful when someone I love is suffering. It’s hard to remain cheerful in a culture so full of conflict.

But notice that Paul does not say to be “happy;” he says to be cheerful. And there’s a difference, isn’t there? Cheerfulness suggests hopefulness, an awareness that even though we may not be feeling happy at the moment, we know the moment will pass. Cheerfulness is evidence of an optimistic view of life; yes, the glass may be half empty, but it’s also half full! It’s possible to be aware of both, and that is one way to remain cheerful, one way to develop the habit of joy.

And finally, Paul says to “thank God no matter what happens.” A dear friend gave me a plaque that says:

In the happy moments—PRAISE HIM.

In the difficult moments—THANK HIM.

In the busy moments—BLESS HIM.

In the quiet moments—WORSHIP HIM.

For in all our moments, HE IS THERE…

Paul isn’t telling us that we have to say, “Thank you, God,” for whatever sad or hurtful thing may happen. But when we are sad or hurting, it can help to remember the ways God has blessed us so richly.

Friends, if we can develop these habits—trusting God, being cheerful, praying through all experiences, and thanking God no matter what—we’re certain to be more joyful people. If this list seems too long or too difficult, be encouraged. It might be, if we were trying to do it on our own. But we’re not.

God is our strength; Jesus walks with us, encouraging us; the Holy Spirit fills us and surrounds us with Love. What greater joy can we hope for than this?


Lou Ann


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