Summer is a time to take journeys. Some journeys involve heading to the beach, lake, mountains, neighborhood pool, or even your own backyard. My journey involved searching for joy.
It’s a journey I’ve been on ever since I was a little girl, as young as five years old. To help me overcome shyness and a walk down the aisle as a flower girl in a family friend’s wedding with a smile on my face instead of my usual, somber look, my grandmother gave me a framed verse that says, “The joy of the Lord is my strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). And while I wanted to do what the words said and walk through life with a big smile on my face (which is what I thought the verse meant), sometimes smiling is easier said than done. Especially when you are a non-smiler like me. I tend to live in my head, tend to think and ponder and pull back rather than press in. And the journey for joy has been rather elusive at times, no matter how hard I’ve tried to find it and wear its evidence on my face.
But a friend challenged me to joy this summer – challenged me to let it be the mark of my life and ministry rather than the worn-out facade I so often wear. So I went on a journey looking for joy, this time looking harder than ever before.
And I didn’t find it in a smile or in the determination to be the talkative one at a dinner party or gathering of friends. I found it, surprisingly, in suffering.
And what I mean is this – joy isn’t found by ignoring suffering or turning a blind eye to suffering. Joy is found by acknowledging suffering – acknowledging the daily burdens we bear or the person who is hard to love, embracing the realities of the difficult circumstances or seasons we are in, and choosing to walk through the suffering with the nearness of God on one hand and the practice of gratitude on the other. (See the excellent book Joyful Journey: Listening to Immanuel for helpful ways to do this.)
And that discovery was a hard one. It took looking honestly at myself and my weaknesses and the well-meaning criticism from my friend while also being true to myself and the person God made me to be.
Because try as I might, I can’t make myself flip a switch and turn into the life of the party. I can’t wave a wand and make myself not feel the seemingly small and insignificant nuances of relationships and circumstances around me. I feel everything. It’s how God made me. But I can choose to feel and allow the nearness and therefore the goodness of God to overpower the feelings of shame, despair, fear, or anger that so often threaten to rise up and overwhelm my soul. I can choose to press in to the faithful, covenantal, unchanging love of the Lord (Exodus 34:6-7) and allow it to help me press in to others rather than withdraw.
And in that journey through the suffering, rather than stuffing or ignoring the suffering, joy unfolds.
It’s like this – I have another friend who, when he was young, saw his dad become angry over something and punch a hole in his bedroom wall. When his mom saw the hole, instead of dealing with her husband’s anger and addressing the issue or fixing the hole, she simply moved a picture on the wall on top of the hole to cover it up and wa-la – the problem was fixed. But not the anger. Or the hole it had left. Either in the wall or in my friend’s heart.
And for a long time, I thought the journey for joy was like that – ignore the hole, ignore the anger and the shame, rage, despair, and fear that caused the hole, move a picture on top of it, put a smile on over it, and poof! You have joy. I thought for years that my inability to have joy came from my inability to ignore the hole. But what God has been showing me is that joy actually comes through acknowledging the hole and paying the price to fix it. The joy comes in the journey.
The last few days of our family journey to the mountains of Idaho this summer (and yes, Idaho has mountains and not just potatoes, much to most Texans’ surprise), Jason and I went on a four day, three night camp out. It was my idea of a dream vacation – no showers, no makeup to put on, no hair to fix, hard uphill ascension on a trail with a pack on my back, and gorgeous views along the way. I was talking to our wonderful guide, Sara, about what it is about me that makes a trip like this enjoyable – because, let’s face it, I’ve come to accept the fact that four days in the Idaho wilderness isn’t most women’s idea of a dream vacation.
Sara said, “These trips aren’t for everyone. They are for people who don’t mind some suffering and hardship along the way in the wilderness to see the views on the top.”
Her statement seemed to sum up my search for joy. Joy isn’t in spite of suffering, nor is it in the absence of suffering. Joy is for those who are willing to suffer and endure hardship along the way, embracing the challenges and treasuring the outcome and views along the way. And you don’t have to like camping trips to experience what Sara said. Your trip in the wilderness and your views of the top could very well be in your own living room with members of your very own family. Or in your very own school. Or workplace.
So don’t get stuck in the hole (which tends to be my problem) or move a picture on top of the hole to simply cover it up. Press into the hole by pressing into the Only One who can fix it and whose nearness is always our good (Psalm 73:28). And while sorrow may endure for the night, joy comes in the morning, and along the way, every single time.
Thank you for your patience with me the last few months while I took a break from blogging and focused instead on writing a new Bible study on prayer. I had hoped to have it out to you at the beginning of the summer, but the editing process took longer than expected. It will be ready (Lord willing) at the start of the new year and is a tool I am really excited to share. But this fall, after a much needed rest this summer, I am back to blogging and very thankful for the joy in the journey through comes each of you. Gratefully, Susannah