It was my senior year and I was excited for it. I had so many things to look forward to: amazing friends, my final year at my homeschool co-op, preparing to be in a play in the spring and my senior prom. I was so ready for it all, and I was happy. But then it hit. The pandemic, and it altered what I thought happiness truly was.
I am a words person and “joy” is my favorite word. I also love the word “happiness.” Both words make me think of light, smiles, laughter, and warmth. But what is the difference between those words? What makes seeking joy so much more than the pursuit of happiness? What makes being joyful so much more fulfilling than being happy? Most importantly, how can you find joy?
I learned the true meaning of joy in 2020.
I wrote this in my journal one night right when the pandemic began:
“I’m trying to be strong, but it’s so so hard. I try to reassure everyone that everything is ok. But I’m not convincing myself. I’m sad, I’m anxious, I’m confused, and I’m angry. The year I looked forward to is falling apart. I try to keep a positive attitude in front of people, but they don’t see the tears that I shed when I’m alone, thinking about the things I’ll be missing out on and what the world is turning into. Everyone around me is on edge. I try to put on a brave face for my family and friends because I can see their concern, even when they try to hide it. I’m trying to be the rock; the strong one. I try to be the person that I think they need. But my strength is crumbling. I know God’s got this, deep down, but I’m still confused. I’ve never been through a situation that I questioned God until now. I do know that He is going to deliver us through this, but I’m afraid because I don’t know when it’ll be over. I feel small, lost, and scared.”
The things I thought would fulfill me (friends, activities, celebrations, prom, etc.) were never guaranteed, and those plans were shattered. The things I put my heart into were ripped away. Dwelling on the things I didn’t have sent me into a state of burnout, leaving me exhausted, depressed, and empty. I fell on my knees and begged God to show me the way. I begged Him to shine a light in that darkness. And that is when He taught me what joy really is.
This is what I learned and how you can fill your days with true joy too:
1) There is hardship in our world, but god is always there
We live in a fallen and sinful world. Bad things are going to happen. But we can have hope in the fact that we have a God that takes all things (the good, the bad, and the inconvenient) and uses them for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28). It was through that promise that I learned what joy really is. God showed me that even though bad things were happening in my world, He was turning that situation around and using it for His own purpose, even if I couldn’t see it.
Paul, the author of the book of Philippians, wrote the most joyful book of the Bible, and yet it was written in prison.
Think of a time when your world fell apart. When you didn’t think you could get through it, but as the years went by you realized that something good came out of that bad situation. Paul had nothing when he was thrown into prison. He was alone. He had every right to be unhappy; to feel sorry for himself. But instead, he looked to Christ and found joy in Him. One of my favorite verses is Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice.”
That’s what happened to me in 2020. I saw that even though I was away from my friends and my world had been cancelled that I would be OK because God is joy.
2) Pray for joy in your life and see God work
My friends and family did everything they could to make my senior year special, and I learned that if I prayed for joy in my life, God would deliver. It wasn’t that the pandemic stopped and my senior year went back to normal, but instead I learned that my joy wasn’t held in the things I could see, but in Jesus. Every day the Lord was working in me and giving me a joy that I could not explain. I went from feeling sorry for myself when things didn’t go according to my plan, to rejoicing in the fact that God is working my situation out for good. I went from fake positivity to genuine hope.
I wanted that joy that Paul had in prison.
Paul’s prayer for the Romans was, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” (Romans 15:13).
I wanted that joy that the Psalmist had in the presence of God.
Psalm 16:11 says “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
Jesus said that if we ask, it will be given to us (Matthew 7:7).
So I asked for it. I asked the Lord to cultivate that joy within me. And He did.
3) Look for joy in Jesus, not in this world
Why do we keep looking for joy and fulfillment in other places? Why do we seek joy in possessions, people, and circumstances and end up feeling so empty? Why don’t we look to Jesus and receive the joy that only He can give? Why don’t we see that He is enough?
Because we are human.
The world tells us every day that we need earthly things to fulfill us. Money, success, friends, vacations, relationships… everywhere we look we are bombarded with messages that we will not be happy until we have those things. And sure, these things may make us happy, but they will not last.
Only Jesus can give you the kind of joy that will last. The kind of joy that cannot be dimmed by the things of the world. The kind of joy that Paul had while being chained up in a cold prison cell. Take a moment to spend time with Jesus in worship, prayer, or with a group of friends.
Things will not always go according to plan. There might not always be a “bright side” to your situation. But God is always working. I will someday look into the eyes of my Savior, and when I do, nothing else will matter. I won’t care about what I did and didn’t have here on earth. I will spend eternity in the presence of God. And because of that truth, I have joy.
In 2020, I felt empty and lost. Like I was swimming in the middle of the ocean with no land in sight. But the good news is: my God walks on water.