Choosing Joy

How gratitude leads us to experiencing the joy of the Lord

"Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus." 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

It’s interesting to think about the relationship between gratitude and joy. Even Paul, in his letter to the Thessalonians, seems to allude to the way that gratitude and joy should be ever-present in the Christian life.

But somehow, when I am told to just, “Choose joy,” especially in the midst of confusion and suffering, it makes no sense. How do you do that? “Just be happy.” But how?

While joy can be tough to connect with in times of difficulty, I find its “emotional cousin,” thankfulness, or gratitude, much easier to reach. While it still requires work, gratitude is so much more accessible than choosing joy. When I choose gratitude, joy eventually shows up. As I spend time in thanksgiving, joy seems to make an appearance.

Joyful people are grateful people.

If I focus my prayers on all my reasons to be grateful, I find my eyes lifted off my current troubles and begin to see the gifts my Father God has given me. A beautiful wife, loving children, caring friends, good health, a warm home (something Minnesotans are particularly grateful for), a supportive church family, spiritual gifts that God uses to touch others with His presence—the list goes on.

Even as I make this short list of wonderful gifts, I can’t help but smile. Joy once again makes a visit in the presence of gratitude.

The gratitude toolbox

Here’s the key: You can increase your joy by increasing your gratitude. Joyful people are grateful people. The Bible has a lot to say about gratitude and being thankful. In the New Testament, some 46 times Paul encouraged us to be thankful. It’s peppered throughout all his letters. But perhaps his most challenging charge is in 1 Thessalonians 5:18:

“In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (KJV, emphasis mine)

Paul does not say for everything, give thanks; he says in everything, give thanks. It is God’s will for some very good reasons. Isn’t it just like God to give us one command that releases many blessings?

Not only does gratitude put us in touch with joy, it helps in many other ways too. And this isn’t just backed up in Scripture—it’s evident outside of biblical sources, too. Research confirms what God commands.

Teenagers who feel grateful more often than others are happier, get better grades at school and have better friendships, according to a study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies. This same study showed that adults who practice gratitude sleep better, have more energy and have fewer illnesses and less pain.

Additionally, a study published by Harvard Health Publishing of the Harvard Medical School found similar results:

“In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity and build strong relationships.”

It’s no wonder that Paul instructs us to be thankful so often. If you want to become more joyful—and who doesn’t need more joy in 2020?—then one practical step is to become more thankful.

I have found a few truths to keep me in touch with joy and help me grow in Paul’s command to “always be joyful” (1 Thes 5:16).

  • Gratitude looks up. G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “The worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank.” As Christians, when we are truly thankful, we cannot help but thank God for the gifts He has given us.

  • Gratitude looks at what you have. While joy may be far from us and our situations dismal at times, there is always something for which you can be thankful. Start by thanking God for His faithfulness, love and grace, and see where He takes you.

  • Gratitude looks out to others. Joy can be found in the least expected places and most difficult times if you are willing to let God lead you. My colleague and friend, Andrea Hebeisen, shares how she found both gratitude and joy in the midst of confusion and suffering—in the midst of 2020, a year of so much confusion and suffering.

It started with prayer

Sometimes it is hard to know what to pray. I am a pastor of prayer at my church, and I’ve been attending and leading prayer gatherings since I was eight years old. But recently, I have found myself listening: listening to how the Holy Spirit speaks through others whose experiences are much different than my own.

We didn’t start with prayer and then talk about what to do. We prayed. When we were done, we left.

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black American man, was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during an arrest for allegedly using a counterfeit bill. At our church, only 15 miles away, we decided to start a learning circle for those who wanted to learn more about the Church’s role throughout our country’s history regarding racism and police brutality. We identified racist thoughts and actions in our own lives. We prayed together and asked God to do what only He can do in our hearts, and to give us something to do. More than ever before, we wanted to do something.

One of the women in our group had recently started attending a predominantly black church with her family, and she and her husband asked their pastor how we could help. He suggested we start with prayer.

So we did. Because of the pandemic, we gathered outside. Every week for an hour, we stood in a circle and we prayed. We didn’t start with prayer and then discuss the issues. We didn’t start with prayer and then talk about what to do. We prayed. When we were done, we left. We left it all there and came back again the next week.

What we found in prayer

“This is the new thing I am doing, and if I would have told you about it, you would not have believed me.”

While I heard so much pain during these gatherings, I learned to experience gratitude and joy there as well. Gratitude for the people who have chosen to stand together, for nearly six months now, praying and seeking the Lord together. Gratitude for the opportunity to learn and grow in empathy. And immense joy, knowing that we are part of the same body of Christ—and that even when I do not feel like I am doing anything, the God of the universe hears my prayers.

I have access to speak to the One who spoke all things into being, and I am participating in something so much bigger when I come together with my brothers and sisters in Christ.

As we prayed, God brought Isaiah 43:19 to mind: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” In my spirit, I heard, “This is the new thing I am doing, and if I would have told you about it, you would not have believed me.”

I recognized the Lord’s answer to Habakkuk (Hab 1:5), and it resonated because it was true: God did it. He brought us together. Black and white, brothers and sisters, coming together to pray.

[L]et us not get caught up in trying to choose joy when it seems impossible. Instead, let us pray.

Prayers for Thanksgiving

Now, Mondays at noon are the highlight of my week. Every time we meet, we begin with the song “We Are One in the Spirit.” The last line of the song says, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

We can’t hug one another because of the pandemic, but God is growing a deep love in us for one another. We can pray together and we must pray together, because prayer is the work of love and unity in Christ is what will bring us true gratitude and joy. Especially in the midst of crises.

So as we navigate this Thanksgiving season which will look so different than Thanksgivings in the past, in the midst of a year of confusion and suffering, let us not get caught up in trying to choose joy when it seems impossible. Instead, let us pray.

  • Pray for gratitude for the gift of relationship, even when we are separated by distance

  • Pray for gratitude for other people’s stories and perspectives from which we can learn, as we grow in humility and become more like Jesus
  • Thank God for the joy that ultimately comes from Him, as we relish in the goodness of the gifts He gives us

Blessings to you and yours during this Thanksgiving!

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