Though my husband and I have always been a bit intense, we’ve also known how to laugh and enjoy life—until five years ago when we faced multiple tragedies, including the sudden death of Christopher’s mother from pancreatic cancer. We felt crushed, confused, and joyless. After one particularly somber week, I felt inspired by the Lord to figure out how to get our joy back.
As the two of us pressed in, we discovered something: the joy of the Lord is one of the most dynamic forces available to us. It has the power to turn our mourning into dancing, our despair into hope, and our fear into faith. This joy is a by-product of our spiritual transformation as well as an essential component of the process.
What, exactly, is joy?
In marriage, joy functions like engine oil. It reduces relational friction, which not only helps us uphold our commitment but also rejoice in it. Joy runs deeper than happiness because it has the capacity to transcend the details of our lives. Author Margaret Feinberg explains in Fight Back with Joy, “The Bible insists that joy is more than a feeling; it’s an action. We don’t just sense joy; we embody it by how we respond to the circumstances before us.”
Joy emanates from God. Joy is not a saccharine, sentimental emotion. It is a mighty river that flows from the headwaters of God’s fierce love for us. Based on verses such as “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (Ps. 51:12) and “I will be filled with joy because of you” (Ps. 9:2), it seems that, like with our salvation, we don’t initiate joy; rather, we respond to the Lord’s initiative. Provided that we remain in relationship with Him, the flow of His joy will not be dammed up or diverted (Ps. 19:8).
It’s important to note that joy does not swallow up our grief. In fact, it seems that the ability to experience joy is directly related to the ability to feel pain. Author Jerry Sittser observes in A Grief Disguised, that the “soul is elastic, like a balloon. It can grow larger through suffering. … Once enlarged, the soul is also capable of experiencing greater joy, strength, peace, and love.” It’s been my experience that those who try to distance themselves from pain and suffering are also the ones whose happiness seems unconvincing and one-dimensional.
How do we find—and remain—in joy?
Though it is a gift from God, living in joy requires something from us: we must push back against the darkness through worship, gratitude, and prayer.
One of my husband’s main gifts is leading worship. He understands that proclaiming God’s goodness in the face of uncertainty and ongoing losses refutes the enemy’s constant assault on God’s character. To worship means to submit one’s voice, mind, and body to the Truth. It’s not enough to just think about God. We’re flesh and blood. Therefore, our earthly worship has to involve all of who we are. (See Rom. 12:1)
Worship is intimately connected to gratitude. Like worship, gratitude is not an automatic human response. We have to train ourselves to have grateful hearts. If we can discipline ourselves to choose gratitude over complaining and fault-finding, not only will our spiritual lives improve but so will our marriages.
Because most Christian traditions lack holy days specifically for giving thanks, we have to be intentional about expressing our gratitude. Consider incorporating thanksgiving into nightly prayers or carving out some time for the sole purpose of expressing gratitude. One afternoon, a friend and I committed to thank God for any and every gift we could call to mind. Our impromptu praise went on for almost two hours.
Like worship and gratitude, prayer moves us toward God, changing us and our perspective in the process. Regardless of what we’re hoping for, when we begin praying, we typically want God to change our circumstances. But even if God chooses not to solve our problems the way we imagine, prayer changes us. It is through prayer that we experience the slow conversion of our worldly desires to the transcendent will of God.
When we pray together as husband and wife, we not only solidify our defenses against the Enemy’s attack but also experience a level of closeness that is rivaled only by sexual intimacy. When too many days have passed since our last time of praying together, I am hungry to approach the Lord with Christopher. Whether it’s for five minutes or twenty-five minutes, it’s always a joyful exclamation point to our day.
During our twenty-six years together, joy has lifted us up and over many obstacles. It has given us a kingdom perspective and helped us not to take ourselves too seriously. Regardless of your temperament or your circumstances, rest in this truth: God intends for all of us to experience His abundant joy.
(This article is excerpted from Making Marriage Beautiful, published by David C Cook, 2017. All rights reserved.)
Dorothy Littell Greco spends her days writing and speaking about how following Jesus changes everything. She is married to Christopher and together they have three sons and one amazing daughter-in-law. Dorothy’s writing regularly appears in Relevant Magazine, Christianity Today, Start Marriage Right, The Mudroom, and many other publications. You can find more of her work on her website, or by following her on Twitter (@dorothygreco)