However, that all changed thanks to middle school peer pressure. I was at one of the parks on a field trip and my best friend convinced me to “just wait in line” with everyone. She promised that when the time came to board, I could just slip to the other side and wait at the exit. I agreed, and while waiting in line for a solid 40 minutes, my friends convinced me to actually give it a try. Clearly, I was easily swayed. And deep down, I was terrified.
At the time, this was the newest, tallest, and fastest roller coaster in all of Florida. You’d think I would ease my way into the roller coaster world, work my way up to a ride like this, but before I knew it, I was being strapped in to a seat on a record-breaking roller coaster and the dread I felt was REAL As the coaster crept up the ramp, getting higher and higher inch by inch, I closed my eyes and thought, What in the world have I done? What in the world have I gotten myself into?
Before actually getting on the ride, I’d made sure to observe the people who were getting off. And honestly, their demeanor was what gave me that final push and convinced me to actually sit down in the seat myself. I did observe the occasional person in tears, and even one guy who looked like he was going to be sick, but the overwhelming majority of people looked exhilarated - smiling, laughing, talking about how they couldn’t wait to go again. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad after all.
I’m pretty sure I kept my eyes tightly shut the entire time, my fists clenched and clinging to the overhead bars. But by the end, despite the steep drop, the twists and turns and upside down loops, I was grinning ear to ear. I survived. I thrived. I’d made it through and actually enjoyed it. I’d conquered the biggest roller coaster I had access to and felt on top of the world. For the first time, I understood the term “joyride.”
Now, a literal roller coaster is one thing, but when it comes to the twists and turns and loops and drops our actual lives often throw our way, “joy” is not usually a word that first comes to mind. Sure, it’s easy to experience joy when things are straight and steady and going well, the way we want them to. But when our stomachs drop and the world is turned upside down by unexpected loss, grief, or a forced change of plans; when the wind is knocked out of us while experiencing the sharp turn of unmet expectations, missed opportunities, or broken hearts; when the speed picks up and we can’t handle the pace or seem to catch our breath; when life comes to a complete stop and we feel stuck, heavy, or unmotivated; or even when little bumps of frustration get to us at work, at home, or stuck in traffic - where is there room for joy in all of these things?
My honest answer is, I don’t know. I struggle with this, with my circumstances dictating my outlook and disposition. I’m no stranger to a bad mood or morose perspective. But what I do know is that if we want to experience the joy of Christ and emulate that joy in the world, despite less than ideal circumstances, then like we talked about not too long ago in Episode 26, we have to turn toward the source and stay connected to it.
That being said, if we turn to God’s Word, one of the most joyful sections we can land in is Paul’s letter to the Philippians. In fact, joy or rejoicing is mentioned 16 different times throughout the short letter. Joy is most definitely a common thread and theme and worth paying attention to. But what is also interesting is that suffering is also a theme of Philippians. Paul’s joy and suffering seem to go hand in hand.
You may or may not know the context of this letter, but Paul wrote it while imprisoned and separated from his community. Sound familiar? 2020 anyone? That in and of itself makes it difficult to understand why it would be full of so much joy. But we can also look at everything Paul had been through up to this point - shipwrecked, abandoned, stoned, beaten, ill, snake-bitten, ridiculed, the list goes on. And yet, despite his circumstances, his joy was strong and steady. His joy was not determined by whether he was happy or whether he was suffering. His joy was founded in something - someone - much more sure.
Paul closes this joy-filled letter with these words. Philippians 4:11-13 reads,
“…I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
It’s interesting because we usually attribute that last line to physical strength or endurance or willpower. But essentially what Paul is saying is that he has been able to maintain the joy he exudes throughout the letter, despite his circumstances, because of Christ. The joy he has in Jesus is the secret to being able to thrive on the roller coaster of his life. The ups and downs. The good and bad. The celebratory and difficult. As it says in Nehemiah 8:10,
“…the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
The joy of the Lord is what enabled Paul to make it through. And that’s the kind of joy I long for.
But I have to admit, I wonder what that looked like practically for Paul. How did Paul practice joy in the midst of suffering?
Several years ago, I bought a shirt with two simple words on it: Choose Joy. I bought it because I had a coupon, but I also thought it was cute, I love a good t-shirt, and the lettering was in my favorite color. But on a deeper level, I wanted to wear it as a reminder to myself because I desperately wanted to do what the shirt said, to choose joy.
What I realized pretty quickly after buying the shirt and what I’m continuing to learn today is that choosing joy in the midst of our circumstances is not something that happens in the moment we’re asked to choose. Instead, the ability to choose joy when life gets hard happens long before. We set our selves up to be able to choose joy each and every day by the way we live our lives. It doesn’t mean that we won’t ever feel the weight of heavy things, but it does mean that the joy of the Lord is what will carry us through.
And if you’re wondering what that looks like, I’m finding that one of the most practical things we can do to practice joy, to set ourselves up to choose it, is to take the focus off ourselves. Truly. I’ve heard it said several times in a few different ways that the difference between happiness and joy is this: Happiness is about consumption; what can I add to my life, or purchase, or take in or experience that will fulfill me, that will make me feel the way I want to feel. What will give me that little extra boost to get me through?
Joy, on the other hand, is more about contribution. A person who will more readily choose joy asks, What can I offer? Where is there a need? How can I contribute to something bigger than myself? In a very real way, that’s what Paul did. He was caught up in the cause of Christ, connected to communities and committed to serving others. And the result was a joy that sustained him throughout the hardship of his ministry. He was secure in God’s call, God’s love, God’s faithfulness, God’s purpose and God’s Kingdom.
After several roller coaster rides, during which I hung on for dear life, there came a time when I decided to let go. It started with one arm up in the air, the other continuing to hold on to the overhead bars. But as I gained more experience, and ultimately more trust, I remember the day I lifted both arms in the air during the ride. I was light and free and open to whatever the track had next. Ultimately, I knew I was secure and held in. So I could lift my hands high and enjoy the ride.
I wonder if maybe that’s what joy is like. An unspoken security in the One who holds us close - through all the ups, downs, twists, turns, loops and bumps along the way.
Today, remember to rejoice. You are loved, you are held. We can rest secure in who God is and in what God has done. Through it all, may the joy of the Lord be our strength and continue to carry us through.