Are you always joyful? Not just in the good times, but also the hard ones? What about the agonizing struggles when life challenges threaten to completely overwhelm you? Maybe you wonder whether finding genuine joy is even possible during an excruciatingly painful ordeal. But here’s the problem: throughout the Scriptures we are told to “rejoice always” (e.g., I Chronicles 16:10, Psalm 2:11, Philippians 4:4). And James says we should “consider it pure joy when [we] face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2.) Our compassionate God would never frustrate us by commanding us to do the impossible!
Sometime in my 20’s it occurred to me that my name was no accident, and that God had given me a mission: to find the keys to joy and then share them with people everywhere. But, despite a strong conviction that God only asks of us what we can give and a dislike of any “victim mentality”, for years I found that no matter how I tried to find consistent joy, my feelings still seemed controlled by the circumstances. In good times I felt good. In the hard times, I’d be fearful, anxious, or discouraged. Becoming a psychologist, I’d hoped for some guidance in my search for joy but had been sadly disappointed. At the same time, I never doubted that God loved me and was working in my life. But still I wondered, “Why can’t I just be satisfied?” I admit I was unwilling to accept a life that was simply “okay.” I longed for an amazing life full of adventure and excitement. Moreover, God seemed to agree with me! In the Old Testament he seemed quite passionate about blessing his faithful children (e.g., Exodus 23:25-31, Psalm 1:3, Isaiah 30:18). Later, Jesus said that bringing us “a rich and satisfying life” (John 10:10, NLT) was his purpose in coming!
I also knew that God’s Word is designed to meet all our needs: “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him” (2 Peter 1:3). Surely that also means he gives us the ability to be joyful. And in John 15:11, Jesus says that if we obey him and remain in his love, his joy will be in us, and our joy will be complete! So for me the Big Question became, “Since God obviously wants us to rejoice no matter what is happening in our lives, are there concise, step-by-step instructions in the Bible for finding joy?” Like the Israelites I wandered in my personal “desert” for 40 years, searching for consistent joy in my own life – and a way to answer this Big Question.
One fall morning in 2004 I began the day with my typical devotional time of prayer and Bible study. That day I happened to be studying a familiar Bible passage – one I’d probably read a hundred times before. But God loves to surprise us, and as it turned out, he was about to reveal the answer I’d been seeking for four decades. Like Paul on the Damascus road, my life would never be the same.
SECRET #1- Don’t overlook the concise, step-by-step “roadmap for joy” found in the book of Matthew!
I happened to be reading a passage commonly known as the Beatitudes:
Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you”. (Matthew 5:3-12)
Suddenly, recalling that the New Century Version and Living Bible substitute the word “happy” for “blessed” in this passage, I realized that these were Jesus’ instructions for experiencing happiness! From there it was a short leap to the thought that perhaps this was the elusive answer I’d sought for so long. The more I studied and prayed through various translations and commentaries, the more convinced I became that this was the “Royal Road” for finding the joy and life fulfillment Jesus mentions in John 10:10 – and for doing so on a consistent basis!
Surely some skeptics are now thinking: “Okay – if this is true, why has it taken over 2000 years to recognize the Beatitudes for the treasure that they are?” Good question! The most obvious answer is that the Beatitudes initially seem to contradict common sense: how can any kind of poverty or mourning be a blessed state? Are these blessings intended for this life, or only in heaven? In other words, the casual reader could easily miss the incredible gift Jesus gave us in these verses. Another challenge is that responding to Jesus’ words goes against our human nature. Everything in us wants to exalt – not humble – ourselves.
In spite of all this, the Beatitudes haven’t been completely overlooked. Hundreds of Bible scholars have written wonderful commentaries about the profound spiritual significance of the Beatitudes (and the entire Sermon on the Mount.) But perhaps it took a psychologist with a passion for emotional well-being, and a particular name, personal struggle, and powerful mission to recognize that this passage holds the keys to finding a consistent experience of joy. Or, perhaps in God’s eyes the time was simply right (Esther 4:14)!
Before we move on, keep in mind that the Beatitudes are progressive steps. This has enormous implications. A few examples are: (1) All spiritual growth (and blessing!) begins with poverty of spirit – humbling ourselves and acknowledging that we are weak, helpless, and completely unable on our own power to live by God’s standard (also see John 15:5). This means that pride and arrogance are guaranteed to prevent God from working in our lives; (2) Humility is the foundation underlying all the other beatitudes. Each beatitude only makes sense when built on the previous steps. For example, mourning our sin (verse 4 – the contrite heart), and meekness (verse 5 – trust and surrender), grow naturally from the humility that comes with spiritual poverty; (3) Idolatry and pride (desiring to elevate oneself as God) resulted in Adam and Eve being banished from the beautiful garden where they were completely blessed. There, they had lived in harmony with God and each other with God meeting all their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs (Genesis 3). Although we will continue to work and suffer until we eventually reach God’s “garden” of heaven, in the Beatitudes, Jesus teaches that repenting of pride is a first step toward returning to a state of great harmony with him and each other. And it’s also the state where we once again receive his amazing blessing!
SECRET #2: “Vibrant Mental Health” is obvious – it’s spiritual and emotional well-being that will show on your face!
In the modern world, wellness is a popular topic among fitness folks. But what about mental and emotional fitness? Here’s how the dictionary defines “wellness”:
(1) the quality or state of being healthy in body and mind, especially as the result of deliberate effort.
(2) an approach to healthcare that emphasizes preventing illness and prolonging life, as opposed to emphasizing treating diseases.
I like this definition because it includes the mind. But what would people say who were asked to define wellness? Wouldn’t they be more likely to mention things like exercise and healthy eating habits? And when asked specifically about emotional wellness, I think most would say this refers to a person without a mental “disorder” like depression or anxiety. (That’s like saying you’re “fit” if you don’t have a disease, and we all know that fitness involves a lot more than this!)
Since God meets all our needs (Philippians 4:19), his Word also includes instructions for spiritual and emotional health and wellness (or well-being, as I like to call it.) In fact, the Bible contains many passages designed to help us with everyday struggles like discouragement, worry, anxiety, and relationship conflicts. Here are just a few examples:
Fatigue: Isaiah 40:31, Matthew 11:28-30; Illness and physical pain: Psalm 41:3, James 5:14; Insecurity: Isaiah 41:13, Hebrews 13:6; Jealousy: Psalm 49:16-17, James 3:14-16; Frustration: Isaiah 26:3-4, Hebrews 10:36; Guilt: Isaiah 1:18, I John 1:9; Impatience: Psalm 37:7; Inferiority: Romans 12:1-5, I Peter 2:9; Depression: Psalm 34:17-19, Psalm 40:1-3; Discouragement: Deuteronomy 31:6; Fear: Psalm 112:7-8, Isaiah 41:10; Anxiety: Philippians 4:6-7, I Peter 5:7
Not only does God help us through these struggles, he gives us his Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with the fruit of his Spirit (love, joy, peace, and so forth.) I call this state Vibrant Mental Health because when we are walking with God each day, it is obvious to the people around us. Yes, this kind of spiritual and emotional health will show on your face! In Psalm 34:5, David wrote, “Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame.” Paul mirrored this idea in his second letter to the Corinthians: “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (Also see Exodus 34:29 and Acts 6:15.) The question is, “How do we get this Vibrant Mental Health?”
SECRET #3: Choose to believe that God wants to bless you!
Go back and re-read Matthew 5:3-12 again. These are the first words in Jesus’ first sermon in the first book of the New Testament. To me, that means they must be important! They also introduce the Sermon on the Mount, in which he lays out the fundamental truths of Christian living. Emphasizing the significance of his own words, Jesus ends this sermon with:
Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash (Matthew 7:24-27).
In other words, when we practice the principles contained in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, including the Beatitudes, our lives will work the way God designed them to work. We will be strong and resilient. Our relationships will flourish. We will experience serenity and contentment. And we will find great joy!
Isn’t it curious that Jesus begins his most famous sermon with a passage about how we can be blessed? He could have begun in many other ways! But he emphasized how we can be blessed. Jesus knew how self-centered we are, so perhaps he reasoned we’d be more motivated to live the Beatitudes life if he focused on the rewards. But let’s not miss what Jesus’ words tell us about God: God passionately wants to bless us!
Why is God so eager to give us wonderful lives? Not because we deserve it! The answer isn’t even about us. It’s all about God, whose character is, in its very essence, loving and compassionate and generous. (Titus 3:4.) How quickly we question God’s love when we go through challenging times! It must pain God that we don’t remember how faithful he has been to us in the past, how many times he’s come through for us, the times he’s answered our prayers and rescued us. How hard it is to believe that even in the midst of suffering, he loves us and wants to richly bless us! For a glimpse of how God feels, we might ask ourselves, “How would we feel if our children didn’t believe we want to give them our best?”
SECRET #4: Being blessed rests on embracing Jesus’ counterintuitive way of life.
We all want to be happy. We want to love and be loved. We want inner peace and contentment. We want our lives to count for something, and to know we’re intrinsically valuable and worthwhile. These are just a few of the blessings God wants to (and can) provide!
But what is our part of the bargain? Jesus doesn’t say we must be perfect. He doesn’t even say we have to take any specific action. Instead, he tells us how to be.
In a word, Jesus wants us to be devoted. What does this mean? I looked up “devotion” in my thesaurus, and here’s what I found:
Main Entry: devotion
Part of Speech: noun
Definition: commitment; loyalty
Synonyms: adherence, adoration, affection, allegiance, ardor, attachment, consecration, constancy, dedication, deference, devotedness, devotement, devoutness, earnestness, enthusiasm, faithfulness, fealty, fervor, fidelity, fondness, intensity, love, observance, passion, piety, reverence, sanctity, service, sincerity, spirituality, worship, zeal
Antonyms: apathy, carelessness, indifference, neglect, negligence
As I read the synonyms above, I’m reminded of Jesus’ answer to the teacher of the law who asked him,
“Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)
Wholehearted devotion, loving God above all else, is a consistent theme of both testaments. When God commanded, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3), he was emphasizing the importance of complete devotion. Over and over, we are told to serve God wholeheartedly and keep his Word wholeheartedly. God promises that if we seek him wholeheartedly, we’ll find him. Why is God so intent on us putting him first? In our human view, this may even make him seem selfish!
There is only one reason God expects our wholehearted devotion. Because he wants to bless us! It is for our own good! To live the Beatitudes – which result in great blessing – we must first realize who we are in relation to God: he is everything, and we are nothing! Once we accept this reality, we will begin to mourn our spiritual insufficiency. Without God, we are a mess! Despite our “good intentions”, we will sin again and again. Without God’s grace, we are simply wretched people, worthy of punishment (Romans 7:14-25)! Only when we truly understand what this means will we deny the “god of self”, surrender, and stop resisting what God is doing in and through our lives (Matthew 5:3-5).
SECRET #5: The more we admit our spiritual bankruptcy, the more valuable and worthy we become.
The epidemic of low self-esteem, worth, and confidence is the number one reason people resist even the idea of “humbling themselves before the Lord” (James 4:10.) But that’s exactly what we must do to reap the blessings Jesus promises in his Beatitudes.
Being spiritually bankrupt means accepting that you have nothing, are nothing, and can do nothing of value without God’s mercy and help. But wait! This certainly doesn’t sound like a recipe for great self-worth and confidence! One of the great ironies of Christianity is that the more we humble ourselves, the more valuable we become. How can this be? The more we empty ourselves of “me”, the more we can be filled with “He”! And the more his Holy Spirit can work in and through us to do the good things he prepared us to do (Ephesians 2:10.) As Roy Hession wrote in The Calvary Road, “Revival is being absolutely filled to overflowing with the Holy Spirit, and that is victorious living …. All we have to do is present our empty, broken self and let Him fill and keep filled.”
Shortly before his arrest, Jesus had the following discussion with his disciples. Preparing them for his crucifixion, Jesus says:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14:1-4)
The Amplified Version renders verse 1 this way: “Do not let your hearts be troubled (distressed, agitated). You believe in and adhere to and trust in and rely on God; believe in and adhere to and trust in and rely also on me.”
A little later, appearing sad at Philip’s spiritual dullness, Jesus makes the following incredible statement:
Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. (John 14:10-14)
These two passages contain the secrets of inner peace, vibrant mental health, and life fulfillment!
SECRET #6: The more we humbly admit our spiritual need, the more we’ll conquer loneliness to feel and express genuine love.
Experts estimate that as many as one in five Americans, or 20%, feels lonely! We all want more love in our lives, genuine unconditional love that is based on who we are, not what we do. But to feel loved, we must first become more loving people!
How will this make a difference? We will stop flying off the handle at the slightest insult. We will respond patiently when our children disobey or our spouses are insensitive. We will really listen and avoid being defensive when we’re criticized. And we will be less fearful and suspicious.
We especially fall short when the person we’re trying to love just isn’t very lovable! With people who like us, it may be easy to respond in a patient, gentle way. But when we’re mistreated, our natural inclination is to defend ourselves or retaliate. We think they’ve got a problem. Sometimes we even walk away from the relationship.
Being “poor in spirit” really means admitting how desperately we need God. In other words, to become more loving (like God), we must fully accept the fact that we are not loving! When we humble ourselves so that God can infuse us with his loving Spirit, he will begin to transform our character. We will become more loving because love comes from – is a “fruit” of – his Holy Spirit. Genuine love can’t come from sinful people any more than apples could come from a cherry tree! The kind of unconditional love that Jesus demonstrated is simply not within our nature. The only way to become a more loving person is to humble out, obey God, and walk in his Spirit.
Once we face reality and turn to God, we can become more loving by making a daily decision to wholeheartedly follow him and live his way. “Doing things” like going to church, praying, helping the poor, and trying to avoid sin are important too, but Jesus said that, first and foremost, we must love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. Loving God and other people are inseparable. If we’re not loving with people, this shows we don’t love God since it’s harder to love someone we’ve never seen (I John 4:20.) Also, loving people is evidence that we do love God, as John says in the following passage:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:7-8)
Although this sounds like a “chicken-and-egg” problem, deciding to love God and seek him wholeheartedly comes first, since love is a fruit of his Spirit. So, the more surrendered we are to him, the more his Spirit will take residence in our lives and the more loving we will be. It may not be rational to love those who hate or mistreat us, but this is the work of the Holy Spirit, and this is what can set us apart from those who don’t have the Spirit!
The bottom line? Finding the joy that is evidence of vibrant mental health comes from a heart overflowing with the Spirit and power of Jesus. And it all begins with (1) acknowledging that I can do nothing truly valuable on my own, (2) being desperate for God’s help, and (3) choosing to eagerly seek him, trusting that he will bless me with immeasurably more than all I ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20)!