Joy. It’s that thing we all long for but sometimes seems so elusive. We all know that person who’s got “the joy joy joy joy down in their heart. Where? Down in their heart to stay.” And we look at that person and wonder how they are able to handle all that the world throws at them without shattering. We envy their poise and unshakeability (new word!).
Here’s one thing I can tell you about those people. It doesn’t come naturally. I guarantee you that these people had to work at it, had to learn to trust God when everything seemed to be falling apart. They didn’t just wake up one day and decide to be a joyful, stable person. It’s something that took time and work- work on themselves and the very nature of who they are.
But isn’t that true with anything? We want to be in better shape, but that doesn’t happen when we sit on the couch and eat pizza. We want to be better read, but that requires turning of the TV and phones and actually getting a book out. We have ideas of new ventures and businesses to start, but that requires research and a lot of extra time.
Lately, I’ve been focusing on getting in shape. I’ve picked up running and boxing. But I didn’t wake up one day and decide to do this, then automatically know how to breathe when I’m running. And I didn’t walk up to the punching back and just knock down some combinations by magic. It takes a lot of consistent little steps to get there. The muscles have to be worked in order to get stronger.
The same is true for our minds. Our minds won’t gravitate towards joy unless we work the muscles that seek it. So I wanted to share some practical steps that you and I can take towards the joy that Christ has promised us. Ways to flex our ‘joy muscles’, if you will.
Maximize Your Mornings
The first thing I do each day, is start early. And believe me, this has taken some work and a lot of grace. I am not a morning person, and I LOVE to sleep. Each morning I get up about 5:15. I fix my coffee, check on the laundry, empty the dishwasher, just kind of wake up. Then I sit down at my desk and spend some time with my Savior.
In the past , I’ve spent this time with Jesus in the evening, but have found that the mornings are so much more effective. It sets the tone for your day.
“In the morning, Lord, You hear my voice; In the morning, I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.” Psalm 5:3
You can start with baby steps- just try moving your alarm back by 15 minutes. Try it and see if you don’t notice a difference.
When you do sit down, I recommend having a plan, even a loose one. If you’re anything like me in the mornings, slightly groggy and thinking how warm your covers are, you’ll be a lot less likely to follow through with this if you also have to put forth the effort to figure out what you’re going to read. Have a plan, so that when you do sit down with your coffee, you don’t have to worry about where to start. If you need some ideas, here are a few of my favorites!
• Read the Proverb that corresponds to the date (there are 31 Proverbs).
• Work through a devotional book, but make sure it points to you actual Scripture to read along with it.
• Read one of the epistles- Philippians, Colossians, and James are some of my favorites.
• Read through the Psalms.
• Read through an Old Testament characters life- Joseph is a good one.
God loves to speak to you through His Word. If you don’t already have a routine in place, I’d encourage you to start one of these tomorrow morning!
When my thoughts and fears start to take over, and worry is pounding down the door, gratitude is the one thing that can wipe all of that away. If I can divert my focus to something I’m grateful for, even something as simple as my favorite coffee mug being clean, I can start to see a difference.
This takes practice though. Most days I still write it down. What was I grateful for today? When I know that I plan on taking pen to paper and jotting down what I’m grateful for each day, I start to search it out during the day. It just starts to train my mind to focus on what is positive and good, not what seems out of my control.
Focus Your Thoughts
“Finally brothers, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy- think about such things.” Philippians 4:8
This verse tells us that we don’t just naturally think toward the attributes listed above, we tend to think the opposite. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a verse directing us to think this way, we’d already be doing it! So it is imperative that when we sense our thinking and attitudes going south, we stop and re-focus. Focus on what? Anything that is true, admirable, right, excellent, praiseworthy, etc. When that is our focus, we see more of what God has done and is doing for us, and we in turn are more grateful, and more full of joy.
This step is a struggle for me, because it’s actual brain work. It feels like school all over again! But it’s so important that our hearts be full of the promises of God and the awareness of how amazing God is. And where do we find that? In His Scriptures.
Sometimes our minds tell us all kinds of dramatic and unreasonable things. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just look our own minds in the eye and say “Nope! That’s not true. This is truth.” Then throw some Scripture at ourselves? It is important that we hide God’s Word in our hearts.
Here are a few verses to get started on, some of my personal favorites.
• Psalm 46:2
• Psalm 27:1
• John 14:27
• Romans 8:15
• Philippians 4:8-9
Evaluate Your Day
Just as important as my morning routine, is my evening routine. Now, it’s not quite as robust. Remember, I was up at 5 AM. I’m about ready to fall into bed. But before I do, I grab my notebook, and do my daily inventory. I’m going to write in more detail about this at another time because this is a more foreign concept. It’s an essential part of addiction recovery, specifically a 12 step program, but amazingly beneficial to anyone.
This literally takes five minutes. I jot down four categories and list 2-3 items under each category.
• Gratitudes- We already talked about this one!
• Progress- What did I do well today? Where did I win? Where did I honor Christ?
• Next Times- Based on my actions today, what do I need to improve upon tomorrow?
• Prayer- What did God place on my heart throughout the day to pray for?
Healthy self evaluation is key to personal growth, better understanding how God created me, what my tendencies are, and how God is growing me.
These habits have been especially helpful with my struggle with depression and bad thinking, but they’re not exclusively helpful for those things. Just like penicillin treats a myriad of illnesses, so can these basic daily habits really work for anyone one chasing after Jesus and joy. The more I invest my time and effort into these habits, the more I understand how essential they are.
Not too long ago, I was having a conversation with a co-worker who is not a believer. Her observation on ‘church people’ was that “Some people do the church and Jesus thing, just because. Other people do the Jesus thing because they really need it, like their life depends on it.”
This honest perspective from a non-believer stunned me. She was somewhat right. Some Christians do the Jesus thing as if they don’t need it, they do it just because. But some realize the truth that their life actually does depend on it, and they act accordingly. The first group’s life depends on it just as much as the second, they just don’t realize it.
I was in that first group for a long time. I grew up in church, did the ‘Jesus’ thing. I honestly followed Jesus, but somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought I was OK enough, that my life didn’t depend on Him that much.
But then He humbled me. He showed me just how much I couldn’t do normal life without Him. And it is with that realization that I work hard to implement these habits. Even when it’s inconvenient, or I’m tired, or I’m not in the mood. I’ve learned how essential they are to my life, that they keep me plugged into the very source of my life.
This Source of life wants to fill you with true joy and give you a life beyond anything you could possibly ask or imagine. What habits are you going to implement today to start flexing those joy muscles? What work are you going to begin to invest in your soul and your character? It may be work, and may not always be fun, but I can promise you it’s always worth it.