There were smiling faces gathered on the front porch of that house on the corner as I drove by that day. The house long neglected, with peeling yellow paint, a missing screen door and the worn couch that sits outside on the bare dirt with patches of grass. It’s a neighborhood I pass through often, where poverty is generational, and hope seems out of town. The Christmas lights were strung across the porch, and the “Just Married,” sign caught my eye. A celebration, however simple and low budget it may have been, was underway, and something about it pierced my heart and made my eyes brim. The sun was shining on that spring day like it was invited to the party and accepted the invitation.
It was a season of great difficulty in our lives. One where it seems like everything is coming against you and there is a conspiracy you are unaware of. I was starting to wonder if the hardship of the season had shown up to stay. Perhaps it had gone to the post office and changed its address to the same as mine. In the weariness of it all, I began to feel like joy was eluding me. Like the time I watched a yellow balloon slip from the chubby fingers of a little boy standing in front of me. Floating up and away as he stood on tiptoes and reached as high as he could. He added a little frustrated jump for extra measure, and although the balloon had only floated to the ceiling, that white string was still beyond his grasp.
My life felt like an empty playground, where all the children have gone home, and the swing sits vacant with no one to swing. Where there are no sounds of laughter as little ones chase each other and squeal with delight.
And deep within my heart, I knew it wasn’t supposed to be this way. I remembered the moments in my past when it felt like night would never end. I remembered the strength and peace I used to draw upon to help me get out of bed in the morning with the hopeful expectation of the day. A joy that was not dependent on my circumstances, and I wouldn’t settle until I found it again.
What I am learning on my journey back to joy is this: Honesty is a really good place to start. There is nothing wrong with you because you are having a hard time experiencing joy right now. God knows the reasons, and He cares about those reasons deeply. Like when Jesus encountered the woman at the well in John 4 and told her all about herself. Not to shame her, but because she was thirsty and looking for water in all the wrong places and He knew her thirst could only be satisfied by the One who knew all her details and loved her still. Be honest with God about how you are feeling and invite Him into those spaces.
Sometimes there is a ceiling to the level of joy you can experience because of an area of your life that still needs healing. Maybe it’s self-forgiveness and the inability to fully experience life in the present because you are still punishing yourself. Or perhaps it is someone else you need to forgive in order to set yourself free. Maybe it’s the need to surrender your unanswered questions of brokenness, anger, and pain to God, even if they don’t get answered on this side of time and eternity.
I have also learned that joy is not a feeling, and if I wait for my emotions to show up to experience it, I might spend a lifetime waiting.
“the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Nehemiah 8:10 NIV
Not circumstances or destinations. Not determined by other people, or by how I am feeling in the moment. Everything I need to cultivate and experience joy is already inside of me. Like that person who sits there in the room smiling quietly because they know something I don’t. It’s an invitation that is waiting for my acceptance, to show up to that porch style wedding reception with the handmade sign and the lemonade that’s a tad too sweet and to drink freely and join the party.
When I saw the balloon float away from the little boy in front of me that day, I grabbed the string and pulled it away from the ceiling and handed it back to him as I watched the light return to his eyes. Joy is not elusive. It hasn’t floated off to the ceiling. It hasn’t been carried away by the wind and beyond your ability to reach it or grasp it. It’s inside of you because “the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
It’s being handed back to you today. May you open your heart to receive it.