Joy: The secret of being content

It’s possible to mistake happiness for joy. Easy, in fact. People walk around on their little patches of earth thinking they’ve got that “joy, joy, joy, joy down in their hearts” when really what they’ve got is fine weather, good health, and a full stomach. Or, the opposite is possible. It’s quite common to be so miserable that you feel you are as far from joy as the north is from the south, and never the twain shall meet.

The fact is, that if any outside element, circumstance, or person affects your joy, then what you’ve got isn’t actually joy. Joy is like faith. While faith is hoping in something you can’t see and believing in the promise of something you can’t touch, joy is believing in the hope of heaven. Joy is looking at the bigger picture. Joy is fuel for the journey, not the scenery you pass through along the way.

When the going gets tough

Joy is made manifest by difficult circumstances. That’s when it comes out. That’s when you flex it, like a muscle. Happiness, on the other hand, dissolves in the face of hardship. Joy endures through hardship. That’s the difference between happiness and joy. Happiness is a feeling. Joy is a state of being.

The good news is that joy is available for the taking. Praying for His followers, Jesus said, “‘I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world, but that you protect them from the evil one’” (John 17:13-15, NIV).

When Jesus said, “The world has hated them,” He means us. The world in rebellion against God hates us. Don’t expect a pat on the shoulder from the world. Expect a cold shoulder. But, what the world gives us isn’t important. We have a full measure of joy in us. Today. Right now. This minute. Joy is constant and abiding regardless of our circumstances.

Like it like that

Anne Hobbs Purdy, a young woman who made her way to Alaska to teach in a remote area, was anxious to fit in and be accepted by the native people. She questioned a native Alaskan about when she’d stop being a cheechako, a newcomer, and start being an Alaskan. The Alaskan native told her that some people never became Alaskans. They never learned to like it the way it was. They just tolerated it.

This, I believe, is the key to living a more joyful Christian life.

We can’t be joyful Christians if we never learn to like life the way it is. We can’t be joy-filled Christians if we just tolerate it. This is what Paul meant when he said, “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13, NKJV).

Sitting in prison, cold, hungry, and alone, Paul did not wish himself on a tropical beach surrounded by friends, drinking coconut milk and feasting on dates. He lived where he was, not wishing to be somewhere he wasn’t. It was in the living, in being cold, hungry, and alone that he was warm, fed, and comforted by God who exists always, but most closely, in the terrible ordeals through which we must sometimes pass. If we don’t get to any of those places, we will have only half an experience.

Many of us are used to a life of ease. If it’s painful, a drudgery, or difficult, why do it? If something can be fixed, fix it. If it can be improved upon, make it better. Christians don’t settle for the status quo and don’t simply get by—we go forward. Because it isn’t in our comfort that we grow, it’s through our discomfort.

We can miss this vital lesson if we try to skip over the discomfort part. Think about your own prayers for just a minute. Write down a few that make your top 10 list on a regular basis. Now analyze them. How many are requests for God to make something easier for you and how many are requests for Him to take you somewhere uncomfortable, somewhere that may make life harder for you, but under His guidance and in His service?

No pain, no gain

Most of us go to great lengths to avoid painful situations. It’s no wonder we have a difficult time learning from God, who sends us “trials.” At the first hint of pain, we’re looking for the exit. But joy and pain go hand in hand. James, one of the leaders of the early Christian church, said, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:2-4, NKJV).

The joy is in the trial in the same way the power is in God’s Word. The question is, can we not simply endure a trial, gritting our teeth, clamping our eyes shut and bracing ourselves, but can we relax and simply “be” in the trial, asking God what is the lesson He wants us to learn? Isn’t that what James is saying? “The testing of your faith produces patience.” Moving through the trial, as opposed to ranting and raving over it, makes us patient. We are better able to relax and “be” in the trial. We have clearer vision to accept the lesson of the trial.

Then, patience has its perfect work, meaning that eventually we start to look for the good or the lesson in the trial as a first response rather than looking for a way out of it, looking for someone to blame, or even just bracing ourselves to get through it and get it over with. The Psalmist was even able to say, “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice” (Psalm 51:8, NIV).

Avoiding the martyr complex

Each of us, on a daily basis, has the opportunity to serve others, but how many of us take advantage of not only doing that, but doing it cheerfully, gladly, as if you were doing it for Jesus? The apostle says, “Work hard and cheerfully at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people” (Colossians 3:23, NLT). This doesn’t mean “work as unto the Lord for then you can feel superior to others.” As someone who has spent a lot of time tied to the “stake” I can tell you that serving the Lord is not the same as having a martyr complex, though there are times I dearly wish it was. It’s much easier to let feelings of self-righteousness power your work than to give it freely. This verse calls us to that higher level of servitude. It calls us to loving service that expects absolutely nothing in the way of reward.

Try this. The next time you have to do something for someone else—respond to a phone call, pick up their dirty laundry off the floor, prepare a meal, loan money, feed their pets, whatever it is—try this experiment: Simply offer your service to God, not the person you are serving, but God. Your service will become an expression of the joy that is flowing from your heart. As a result, your feelings of self-worth and fulfillment will not depend on any human response to your actions, but will be rooted in the fathomless love that God has for each of us, His obedient children.

The gratitudes

One easy way to keep your tank full of joy for the journey is to count your blessings. Once when I was deeply depressed, I began keeping a “gratitude journal.” Every night before I went to bed, I listed in my journal five things for which I was grateful. Sometimes it was an easy exercise, but there were times when I struggled to find even five things I was grateful for. Having this “assignment” ahead of me, I subconsciously began to look for things throughout the day that I could write down later. In this way, I was consciously seeking out positive aspects of my life. I was training my mind to look for the positives. Soon I realized that many of the unpleasant things went unnoticed because my brain was not assigning them importance. They were not important, and I was not writing them down.

If you want proof of how this works, just decide that you are going to notice a particular type of car. I had never seen a PT Cruiser until a friend bought one. I started consciously looking for them. Suddenly PT Cruisers were everywhere. I couldn’t leave my house without seeing at least a half dozen. Before a week was out, I think I’d seen just about every color of this model. Jesus said, “Seek and you will find” (Matthew 7:7, RSV) We can apply this principle to many areas, including joy.

What are you waiting for?

It’s not enough to simply be aware of our own joy, though that’s a start. It’s also important for us to share our joy. Lack of joy in people’s hearts is one of the main reasons why we see so many tragedies, both personal and corporate, around us. When we don’t have joy, there is nothing better coming in the end. When we do have it, it makes all the difference.

We all know what a life of hopelessness looks like. You can see it by reading a newspaper or watching the evening news. There’s a debate among some Christians about how bad it’s got to get before Jesus comes back. Is it as bad as Noah’s day? Is it as bad as Sodom and Gomorrah? When is “bad” bad enough? If you ask the parents of a child who was abducted and murdered, or the friends of sniper victims, or soldiers fighting in a war, or a cancer patient, or people dying of hunger or AIDS, they’ll tell you, it’s plenty bad enough. God’s not waiting for it to get worse. Any atrocity is “bad enough.”

God is waiting for us. He’s waiting for His people to live out the joy He’s placed in their lives and share that joy with others. When the Titanic went down, hundreds of people perished. It’s true that there were not enough lifeboats to save everyone, but many perished not because of a lack of lifeboats (many lifeboats were not completely filled), but because they did not get into the lifeboats.

Jesus gave us the commission: “‘Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation’” (Mark 16:15, NIV). He gave us the joy—the motivation—to accomplish this mission. It’s our responsibility to go into the world and tell the good news of the gospel of Christ. Not just the pastor’s responsibility. If it was just the pastor’s job, Jesus would have said, “Support your pastors as they go into all the world....” But He didn’t say that. He said to each one of us, “Go.”

It’s interesting that He didn’t say, “If you feel like it, you could go into all the world;” or “You can beam satellite programs into all the world;” or even, “If you feel called to be a missionary, you can go into all the world.” He simply said, “Go.”

It’s not like we have far to travel. The world is all around us. We’re all connected to other people in some way. That’s the part of the “world” we’re responsible for. What’s going on in your world, and what are you going to do about it?

Which brings us back to joy

We come full circle when we realize that it’s the joy Jesus placed in our hearts that gives us the courage, strength, and stamina to go out and obey His commands and fulfill His commission. Without joy, we’re just going through the motions, and sooner or later we’re going to crash and burn.

But, there’s no need because we’re King’s kids. Ellen White says, “Why should not our joy be full—full, lacking nothing? We have the assurance that Jesus is our Saviour, and that we may freely partake of the rich provision He has made for us…. It is our privilege to seek constantly the joy of His presence. He desires us to be cheerful and to be filled with praise to His name. He wants us to carry light in our countenances and joy in our hearts.”*

We can have that light, that joy, each and every day. It’s both our commission and our privilege to live in joy and walk in light, spreading both to the world around us. Fill up your tank with joy, and begin your journey today.

Céleste Perrino-Walker is editor of Listen magazine. This article is adapted from her book Joy, The Secret of Being Content, recently released by the Review and Herald Publishing Association. Her mailing address: 27 Robshawn Place, Rutland, Vermont 05701, U.S.A. Email:

* Ellen G. White, That I May Know Him (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1964), p. 142