Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go. ~ Oscar Wilde
During a difficult season in my life, I asked a mentor of mine if we could have lunch. He had always given me such great advice and perspective. This time he listened, didn’t say much, and then wrote a few Bible verses on a napkin and handed it to me before we left the restaurant. Don’t get me wrong, I love the wisdom of the Bible, but to be honest, I was looking for more. I stuffed the napkin in my pocket, and that night my wife asked about our lunch. I told her I was a tad bit disappointed by his lack of advice. I told her that he had simply written a couple of Bible verses on a napkin. She asked what they were, and I had to admit I hadn’t bothered to look at them. So I pulled the napkin out of my pocket and read what he wrote:
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. — 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
Those verses ended up becoming part of a major life message for me and helped me through times of struggle and conflict and my cancer scare. I’m not exaggerating when I say that they changed my life, because they helped change my attitude. Let me explain.
As I investigated the Scripture passage my friend John wrote on the napkin and how it relates to my attitude, I wrote at the top of a page in my journal the word joy. Then I wrote, “My goal is joy!”
“Rejoice always.” Another more modern translation of that verse reads, “Be full of joy.” I then circled the word joy. I knew from past study that when a person has deep-rooted joy, it is something much more than happiness after eating a great meal or watching a wonderful movie. Joy comes from the inside, and it’s connected to the well-being of the soul. Part of my journey toward deeper joy is knowing it’s a choice and not usually based on circumstance or chance.
About that time, I was having dinner with my friend Henry Cloud. Over the years, Henry has been one of the leading voices on the subject of creating healthy relational boundaries and finding joy in the midst of difficult circumstances. At dinner that night, he gave me a great illustration about developing joy. He said, “Yes, you can make joy a goal and choice for your life, but you can’t just will to have joy. You have to choose the practices and activities that enrich your life with joy, just like you would cultivate a garden.” Hmm, a lot like deciding to have serious fun and then implementing a plan to do so.
Here is another insight I learned around that time: circumstances are not as important to our joy as most of us would think. Two people can have a similar negative circumstance, and one of those people can rise above it and still have joy, while the other doesn’t. It’s more a matter of mindset than circumstance. I saw a poster recently in a hospital waiting room that read, “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass... it’s about learning to dance in the rain” (Vivian Greene). Many years ago, a scientific researcher named Sonja Lyubomirsky wrote a book called The How of Happiness. In this book, she developed a simple “Pie Chart of Happiness.”
Whether or not this is accurate in your life, the pie chart reminds us that there are at least three major influences to develop deeper joy: genetics, circumstances, and activities. The research also reveals that our circumstances have the least to do with it. If only 10 percent of our joy or happiness comes from circumstances, and there is not much we can do about our genetics or biological set point (50 percent), then our focus needs to be on activities and choices we make that increase our happiness. While there’s still the matter of deciding whether a brisk walk or another Twinkie will garner the results we seek, when you think about it, having such control over our attitudes is good news. Back to what Henry Cloud told me at dinner that night, that our joy mainly comes from our activities and life practices: this translates to our attitude.
While battling cancer, I realized that it really had been a draining season of life and that the joy that I’d had glimpses of at times seemed out of reach. As I studied the word joy in the Bible, I realized that more than five hundred times we are commanded to practice choosing joy above anything else. So almost every morning before I get out of bed, I recite Psalm 118:24:
This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. — NIV
Repeating that verse day after day reminds me that He is God and I am not, and that my joy comes from healthy practices and activities. It’s a daily practice, more of a running stream than a stagnant pool. Here’s the bottom line: You won’t get joy from others or from money or from fame. Joy is an inside job, and you make it happen.
If my goal was to have a deep-seated mindset of joy, how could I attain it? The words “pray continually” didn’t seem to help, but as I investigated what Scripture says about prayer, I realized there is an intriguing promise connected to it.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. — Philippians 4:6-7
The more I looked at this, the more I wondered, “If I spend time regularly with God in prayer, just talking with Him about everything, with thanksgiving, will I experience more peace?” All I’d studied and witnessed about people who live with joy seemed to indicate this was the “secret sauce” for being more at peace. Even more interesting was that most of them had the same relational and work problems anyone else has, but they didn’t get as bent out of shape about them. They had already chosen a different mindset.
So I decided to commit to twenty minutes of prayer a day. To some people, that might sound super spiritual; to others, it might seem spiritually wimpy. But over the long haul, spending twenty minutes a day reading Scriptures like these, praying and journaling my thoughts, and looking for any gratitude I could find grounded me in my situations and often changed my perspective. It’s no magic formula. There are times I don’t remember what I’ve read or prayed about. (But then, I don’t always remember what I ate for dinner a week ago, but somehow it still nourished me then.) And there are times when I read, pray, and journal and, instead of peace, the result is focusing all day on a fear or worry. But I can say with confidence that most days, this twenty-minute discipline has worked for me.
Let the reader beware: results may vary! One day I was talking with leadership expert and author Nancy Ortberg about spiritual disciplines and joy. I told her that I read through the One Year Bible every year, and I pray and journal. She smiled and said, “That’s what my husband, John, does. I think that is sooo boring!” She said she needed to walk in nature and listen to God instead. Obviously, she recognized the need for prayer, and she wasn’t opposed to the discipline I was talking about, but my routine just didn’t work for her. When it comes to prayer and cultivating a joyful attitude, there just isn’t a one-size-fits-all regimen. Do what works for you. I’m typically not a person who finds cutesy little formulas from the Bible helpful. But the Scripture my friend John handed to me on the napkin that day translated into “joy = giving thanks in prayer.”
And that has stuck with me and done some good work on my crusty soul.
“Give Thanks in All Circumstances”
This is the phrase I had the most trouble with, but eventually it became the most powerful one of all. In all circumstances? Really?
Was I truly supposed to thank God for the death of a parent or for war or for a friend’s drug addiction? Then I noticed it didn’t say give thanks for it; it said in it. Well, that made all the difference in the world! I could thank God in my mother’s passing, even though I grieved her loss. Her passing freed her from the pain of her cancer. She was with God in Heaven. There were plenty of things I could thank God for in my circumstances, once I slowed down enough to consider everything.
- Thanksgiving truly is a key that can help even in your unhappiest and most depressed moments.
I’m now convinced that a discipline of thankfulness is tied to our attitude in any circumstance.
Here is what I think: Thankfulness transcends circumstances. Your circumstances may stink and rightly cause you to want to throw a fit, but seeking the things you’re still grateful for can keep your head above your attitude, and that makes all the difference in the world. I learned that my circumstance may never change, but my attitude can change how I view it.
Anne Lamott once wrote, “You breathe in gratitude, and you breathe it out, too.”1 Dallas Willard died May 8, 2013. He was truly one of the greatest thinkers, writers, and philosophers of the century. Lying in his hospital bed, about to leave this world at any moment, all of a sudden he leaned his head back slightly as if looking toward Heaven, and with his eyes closed, he smiled and in a voice clearer than he’d had in many days said, “Thank you.” Soon after that, he entered eternity with the One to whom he had given thanks. What a life of cultivating a joyful attitude.
Seems like a worthy enough idea to practice, don’t you agree?
1.Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers (New York: Riverhead, 2012), 60–61.
Excerpted with permission from Have Serious Fun by Jim Burns, copyright Jim Burns.
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How's your attitude? Spend a few moments today taking your attitude temperature and ask the Holy Spirit to help you start having serious fun by choosing joy, rejoicing always, praying continually, and giving thanks in all things! Come share your thoughts with us! We want to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily