“Enjoy the little things in life because one day you'll look back and realize they were the big things.” —Kurt Vonnegut
I framed this quote for my kitchen wall years ago, during a season when it felt like much of my day was spent doing inconsequential, little tasks. I needed this reminder whether I was continually washing a child’s dirty hands and face, picking up toys that were only going to get taken out again, or doing laundry with no end to the pile. Those days with littles are in the rear view mirror for me now, but my life is still full of little things: listening to an older loved one repeat stories I’d heard before, trying to respond with patience when someone is going slowly in front of me, and picking up the phone to listen to an aching heart instead of letting it go to voicemail. Then and now, I’ve always felt the temptation to rush forward toward “tasks that matter,” things that I can measure, accomplishments that make me feel productive. And God’s still small voice tells me to slow down, pay attention, and savor.
“But,” I remind the Lord, “You Yourself have a big and bold mission! Revelation 7:9 tells us that You are in the process of gathering together a multitude of people—a group so great that no man can number it, from every tribe, nation, people and tongue. And then You’ve invited us into that mission, to ‘go therefore and make disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28:19). ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few’ (Luke 10:2). So don’t I need to get going and do something that has far-reaching impact?!”
It is true that we worship and serve a big God who has a big vision for His people. Yet, despite the grandeur of His overarching plan for mankind, God has a remarkable love for the small. In fact, in God’s economy, it’s often the smallest of things that have the most significance in His eyes. In Matthew 6:4 we see that God notices us during small moments. It says that our Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward us. Jesus lauded the generosity of the widow’s mite—a tiny financial donation by worldly standards (Mark 12:41–44). And Jesus modeled and encouraged taking time to be with children (Matthew 19:13–15).
Yet I must admit, I often have trouble sharing God’s love for the small. When things start to feel small, I am prone to complain. I can wonder if my efforts are worth it. I feel hemmed in. Discontentment grows in my heart.
If you relate, perhaps you’ll be encouraged by the word of the prophet Zechariah in Zechariah 4. He spoke to his people who were captivated by a big vision, and it was a God-given vision to rebuild the temple. God didn’t tell them not to dream and not to work toward that goal, but He said this:
Do not despise the day of small things.
Zechariah was speaking to people who were returning from exile and were rebuilding the temple under the leadership of Zerubbabel. But these were people who could remember Solomon’s temple, and what they were building seemed so sad and small by comparison. They had dreams of former glory, but their dreams were dying in the day of small things.
They were weeping, but God was not. He had big plans for His people, but He valued the small steps that would bring that vision about. The fact that the progress was slow wasn’t a sign of His displeasure. God was with them, God had rescued them, and God’s plans were going to prosper, but there were going to be many “days of small things” along the way.
The Israelites wanted to see the glory of the temple restored, but the true temple was to be the incarnate body of Jesus. That miracle wasn’t to come for over 400 years. Our big God was patient enough to endure centuries of small days. His kingdom (which will one day cover the earth) did not begin big. It began with a baby in Mary’s womb and spread to twelve uneducated men. And then the world began to change, one heart at a time. Slow, but real, transformation.
The application for us is clear. While we might long for opportunities to serve that are worthy of a social media post, a platform, or at least a little attention, God longs for us to be content with faithful obedience in the small things. And if we will do these small things right away and with the right attitude, we’ll find that all these acts of obedience cumulate and ultimately change who we are. This allows us to leave a faith-filled legacy in our wake.
We can dream big and pray big and work for the big, and at the same time, remain faithful and content while devoting ourselves to what is small and hidden. Each little act of love matters. The day of big things is coming, but until then, we are not to neglect the day of small things.
Zechariah’s words again ring true: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). Our human efforts alone can never produce the day of big things, but if we invite God to work through our small offerings, His purposes will prevail. Big things will come. In the meantime, He asks us to be faithful, one small step at a time.
With you on the journey,
Recently, I opened my youngest son’s school folder to find an envelope addressed to him. I told him about it, and he excitedly rushed over to open it. And when he did, the biggest smile erupted on his face. It was an invitation to his friend’s birthday party. In the midst of COVID, the birthday party invite was one of a thousand things that we had to forego. My 7-year-old son has not been able to celebrate his own, his cousins’, or his friends’ birthdays together for more than 2 years, so this invitation was special. It was obvious that my son felt eager and excited for this party.
Tomorrow, we celebrate Ash Wednesday. On this day, we enter into a season of deep reflection and prayer. Our heavenly Father invites us on a 40-day journey into the desert. He invites us to be part of the crowd during a procession of palms and Hosannas. He desires our presence at a very special dinner and an evening garden gathering. And don’t forget, He invites us to play a part in a dramatic, yet real-life Passion play. The last place He wishes for us to visit is an empty tomb on an early Sunday morning. Will you be there? Please RSVP—ASAP.
Will you accept this invitation as eagerly and with as much joy as my 7-year-old accepted his birthday party invitation?
We often don’t think of entering into the Lenten season eagerly and with joy, do we? I know what you are thinking: Lent = sacrifice and fasting. And none of that necessarily equals joy. Or does it?
Today, I want to encourage you to accept this invitation extended by the Church and our heavenly Father WITH EAGERNESS AND JOY.
This Lenten invitation is gifted to us right in the middle of Ordinary Time in order to remind us that our Christian call is to be extra-ordinary. I don’t know about you, but I need the reminder right about now. In the middle of our ordinary lives, the Church, through the season of Lent, invites us to go deeper into the desert with Jesus. But we must remember, Jesus was not alone in the desert. Encountering Jesus there gives us the opportunity to become attuned and aware of who the other—very real—player is: the enemy of our souls. And the enemy would like nothing more than to distract us from our time with the Lord and lure us to join him for a succulent feast, tempting us with all of our favorite worldly desires, material goods, and pleasures.
The enemy tempted Jesus in the desert in three specific ways. He invited our Lord to do what FEELS right instead of what IS right, to question our heavenly Father’s love, and to desire His own glory over the Kingdom of God (Matthew 4:3–10).
I bet we don’t even have to think too hard to realize the temptations the enemy used with Jesus are ones that we are all too familiar with ourselves. How many of us, in the words of St. Paul, “do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19)? I know I have some bad habits that I just can’t seem to kick. Or I kick them for a time, but then slowly, when I’m tired, stressed, or frustrated, those habits start reappearing. How many of us hold onto the shame of a past sin—one that we’ve received absolution for but continue to beat ourselves up about? How many of us get caught up in envy or jealousy when we see another person garner attention or acknowledgement for something we desire? Each of these situations can lead us down the road to sin, and none of them result in joy.
Good thing the Bible didn’t end there in the desert. With each temptation offered, Jesus battled the enemy back with Scripture, “the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). And the devil left Him.
Sister, the invitation into the desert with Jesus is to remind us who has won. Jesus didn’t just win the battle in the desert—He won the war on the cross! Lent reminds us that He fought for us then, and He fights for us now. Can we allow this truth to spark in us a desire to enter eagerly into Lent, into the desert of our spirits? It is in this season of Lent, in the desert with Jesus, that we are given the opportunity to discern how the enemy tempts us, to identify his plays against us. We are given the opportunity to learn how we respond to those temptations, and where we need Jesus the most.
Here’s a hint: if we aren’t responding to the enemy with Scripture, as modeled by Jesus, then let this season be the time to change that. When we stop the enemy in His tracks with the truth of Scripture, he has no other play.
Sister, we have the blessing of knowledge on our side. We know what extraordinary events occur at the end of these 40 days. We know what happens the week after we read the Passion at Mass. We know that when Mary Magdalene and the other women approached the tomb of Jesus, the stone had been rolled away, and an angel greeted them and said Jesus was not there “for He has been risen, just as He said” (Matthew 28:6). What joy and eagerness the women must have felt as they set out to tell the other followers of Jesus! What joy and eagerness Jesus must have felt to be able to meet with His friends and His mother again, to reassure their doubts, to settle their fears, to forgive them and embolden them.
Let’s allow what we already know and who we know to penetrate our hearts. We know Jesus rose from the dead. We don’t have to wait until Easter Sunday to allow that joy to fill our hearts. We can choose to live joyfully through this Lenten season knowing the desert is not the end, knowing the cross is not the end.
Sister, this Lent, let us confidently accept the invitation of this season without reluctance or hesitation. Let’s resolve to be joyful in our discernment of what to abstain from each day or which spiritual book or devotion to begin. Let us choose to fill our hearts with a sense of extraordinary eagerness to return to confession, to ask for forgiveness, or to mend a fractured relationship.
And let us remember our Lord's words to His disciples and to us: “I have told you all these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Take heart, sister. He has won. Let’s celebrate the victory by having an extraordinary Lent. Let us RSVP to Lent—to Jesus—ASAP and with joy in our hearts.
Your sister in Christ,
The best way to spend the final week before Christmas is making a solo 1,370 mile drive with two dogs in the backseat. At least this is what I told myself when I set out to create an unforgettable Christmas experience for my family. I didn’t factor in the relationship my puppy wanted to develop with the dog staying across the hall at the hotel. She “talked” to our neighbor all night long, which contributed to a delightful sleeping experience along the way.
The thing is, I can justify almost any complication of an event if I am certain that making “it” happen will bring guaranteed delight to my kids. And everyone knows that puppies make Christmas extra magical. The way I have approached the holiday season (if I’m honest, it’s the way I approach my life) is to figure out what is possible. Can I somehow make it happen through grit, hard work, and perseverance? Then the juice is worth the squeeze! Until it isn’t.
I don’t know how you are approaching these final days before Christmas, but I would guess that most of you are starting to feel a little panicky over the things you have left to do, and as a result, you’ve got a creeping sense that you are going to be disappointed by the end result. Which just might be motivating you to run even faster and try even harder. At least that’s the way I have lived for decades.
But I am trying to make a change, and although I still justified the drive with the dogs, I can see some glimmers of transformation. Instead of asking myself, “Is this possible? Can I somehow make this happen?” I am asking myself, “What’s the simplest option here?” I am growing in my appreciation for the simple, and it’s not just because I’ve read Marie Kondo’s book. It’s the result of realizing that nothing satisfies me like a quiet and still heart. I’ve learned that in order to encounter the Lord, everything in my life needs to slow down. It’s not about getting everything done and then giving myself permission to stop. I need to set a goal of doing less, so I can create space for Him.
When there’s a little space, I have the chance to ponder what I’m going to offer Jesus as a gift for His birthday. Typically, I offer Him a nicely decorated house, bulging Christmas stockings, loads of food, and Christmas presents spilling over the floor in front of the tree. But when I stop to think about it, none of these things are for Him. They are for my family. And while I know Jesus feels loved when I love well, I am kidding myself when I ignore the fact that any thoughts of Him are pretty far away when I’m doing all of that prep.
What gifts were given to Jesus when He came to earth and was born in a manger? It was simply the gift of people’s presence. In the midst of the mess of the stable, the noises of the animals, and the emotions that accompany things when they don’t go according to plan, Mary and Joseph let the rest of the world fade away and just welcomed their baby. Their hands were empty, which meant there was room for Him.
Instead of patting myself on the back when I can present Jesus with a picture-perfect Christmas, I have come to see the value in offering Him a calmed and quieted soul (Psalm 131:1). Instead of feeling like I need to come with all my to-do’s wrapped up in my hands, I’ve learned that the gift He likes best is my empty hands, upturned in humble worship.
Padre Pio has been ministering to me these months with these words,
Live simply. Eat simply. Love one another simply. Do not complicate matters unnecessarily. How do you live simply? You remove activities that are not necessary or that pull you away from duty…Apostles of Jesus Christ must set an example of service and obedience but not hectic service. There should be calm and if there is not calm in your life, change your life and keep changing it until you find calm.
There is still time to do what matters most this Christmas season. I’m not talking about the gifts, the cookies, the decorations, or the parties. What matters most is finding a pocket of calm, emptying your hands, and upturning them to offer thanks. A humble thank you to the God of the universe because He stepped into our mess as Emmanuel, God with us. Take a deep breath, my friends. Your peaceful presence is more important than the perfect present. That’s what is remembered most.
So offer Jesus your empty, upturned hands this Christmas. There’s no better gift.
With you on the journey,
“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” (Proverbs 4:23)
Life has kicked into gear around here. No more sipping iced tea on the porch. Summer is over, and September calls for organization and productivity. It can feel like a shock to the system after months of an easier pace. Do you have so many balls in the air that you are afraid one is going to drop? Are you hustling through your day, yet in the evening, doubt that you have done enough?
We live at a time in history that is more productive and efficient than ever before, yet so many of us are walking around (rushing around) accompanied by a strong sense that we fall short of who and what we are supposed to be. If this describes your life, how long has it been like this? Weeks? Months? Years?
We can so easily fall into the habit of just existing. Of measuring the value of our lives by our productivity, by whether or not we get the job done, by how far we climb up the ladder. But none of those things can give us joy. I was talking to someone about this pace the other day. She said it sounded to her like I was treading water while trying to keep a bunch of balls in the air, which sounds pretty much impossible. That description wasn't news to me. It didn't feel particularly insightful, just observant. But then she went on to say something that really stopped me in my tracks. “I think that at the same time, you are kicking your heart away from you. Not because you think your heart doesn't matter. You just don't have time to stop and take care of it.”
I haven't been able to get her words out of my head. I know that, above all else, I need to guard my heart. I believe wholeheartedly that everything I do flows from my heart. The heart is the essence of who I am, not what I do. It's where joy is found.
Joy does not reside in a life that is all about checking the boxes, even if the boxes are for really good things like spiritual growth, service, and loving your family. When most of what we do is preceded by “I should” or “I must,” then there's a pretty good chance that we are lacking in the joy department. But this is a tricky thing. God asks us to obey Him, and so a ton of things get put on our “I must” list. People around us need to be actively loved, and that makes the “I should” list a million miles long.
I'm committed to wrestling through this paradox. I want to continue to be sold out for Christ. I want to love people tangibly, and I want to obey God completely. But I want to figure out how to do those things in a way that doesn't feel like one enormous should. Not just because it doesn't feel good—it's because the motivation isn't right. And when we operate for too long simply because we must and we should, we become robotic and a little bit dead inside. I want to avoid this at all costs, and I'm sure you do, too.
I want to fight for joy, because “the joy of the Lord is my strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). If I don't have joy, I'm weak—prone to burnout, discouragement, and frustration. I believe “the joy of the Lord” comes from knowing we are God's beloved daughters and living out of that reality. As a loving father, God wants us to experience getting lost in pure delight. He wants us to be replenished. He wants the blinders off our eyes so that we can see all that we have to be grateful for. He wants us to take time to rest. In fact, He's commanded that we rest (Exodus 20:8). He knows us completely—we are the apple of His eye (Zechariah 2:8). He wants us to take the time to figure out what truly brings us joy. Not what numbs us, distracts us, or just keeps us busy.
There will always be many things that simply need to get done. Laundry doesn't fold itself, and the bills need to be paid. But let's make sure that we lift up our hearts each day and give them a little tending. That we hold them up to our heavenly Father and ask Him to pour out His love and grace over them. He never withholds that request. And let's look for the little things that bring us joy, and give ourselves permission to lay down the uncompleted to do list and do something that simply breathes life into our hearts.
May we truly LIVE EVERY DAY of our lives and continue to fight for JOY.
This post originally appeared on the WWP blog on September 1, 2015.
You know the conversation gets good when the person on the other end of the phone leads with, “I love Jesus, but what I really struggle with in the Catholic Church is…”
We all struggle with our faith. Whether it be with a long personal suffering, a devastating betrayal from our church leaders, or a hard teaching to accept, at one point or another, we will scratch our heads and wonder what on earth have I signed up for? And while it is good to wrestle with and question matters of faith, we have to be careful to whom we bring such questions, because often, it is here in this place of doubt that the enemy senses an unsteady soul. And then we are presented with a choice: Do I jump ship, and settle for earthly consolations because this faith is too difficult to understand and live out; and if I am being honest...it’s totally impractical and irrelevant and besides I am super tired? Or, will I choose to be spiritually grounded and unmovable; like a peg driven into a firm place (Isaiah 22:23), will I remain steadfast no matter the size of the waves or the length of the trials?
I think the reason why so many of us are disappointed, questioning our Church, and completely over our suffering is because we have a shallow understanding of Christ. We want to believe that we are all in for Jesus, but when pushed to the edge of endurance, our thoughts and actions tell a different story, don’t they? Oh, we have faith...to a point. But when the rules feel too rigid and the tests too long, even the most holy among us can begin to wonder, what’s the point?
For years, I wondered this. Why get up before dawn every morning to seek Jesus in silent prayer only to discover that His plan is to break my spirit before lunch? Why volunteer at my parish, write books, or speak at retreats sharing the joy of the Gospel if I am just going to continue to be tested? Why all the rosaries, why all the tears, why all the mortifications if nothing ever changes? And better yet, what if it changes for the worse? Again, I ask...what’s the point?
“The point” was unexpectedly discovered and shared by actor John Voight in an interview with Tucker Carlson. “I was in a lot of trouble,” he confessed, “...and I was really suffering for many reasons...and I found myself on the floor saying, ‘It’s so difficult. It’s so difficult.’ I said it out loud. And I heard in my ear, ‘It's supposed to be difficult.’” It was an audible voice; one of wisdom, kindness, and clarity, and it spoke into Voight’s ear what he will never forget and what forever changed him: It’s supposed to be difficult.
It was on a silent retreat, in the worst accommodations you could ever imagine, that I made the decision to embrace the difficult by surrendering my whole heart to Jesus. And I mean all of it. As in, take what is most precious to you, carry it up a mountain, strap it to wood, and sacrifice it to the Lord kind of surrender. I had been withholding this piece of my heart for years, too afraid to give it to God out of fear of losing it forever. But after years of being tossed about, trying to pray the difficult away, I realized that until I embraced the difficult, I would forever miss the point. And do you know what happened when I offered God what I love most? Do you know what happened when I embraced the test with unwavering confidence in my Lord? I learned to live at God’s pace. I grew in holiness. I began to cultivate a worthy heart. I experienced a holy joy. Not because the trial was over. Not because things got easier. But because I chose obedience in the midst of the difficult.
“Count it all joy” looks great painted on shiplap or printed on a cute mug, but if we stop at the joy we miss the point. The full verse from the Letter of James reads, “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2-3). Drop down a few more verses and we are assured that “blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12). I read this, and it all sounds very clear; difficult to obey, perhaps, but not to understand. There is a point to the tests. They steady our soul, detach us from the world, keep us from getting tossed about, earn us the crown. And so I can’t help but wonder. Could it be that we are standing on shaky spiritual ground not because our God is too demanding or the Church outdated, but rather, because we are holding God to promises He never made?
It would be wise to get to know this God better, lest we become victims of deception. Practically speaking, what does this look like? How do we become steadfast?
Whatever trial you are facing, please know that God is not out to break your spirit. I speak this with authority as I know all too well the risk of surrender. The cross you carry is the same cross that Christ carried; not meant to crush your heart, but to widen it. So stand firm and claim God’s promises. Surround yourself with people who encourage you to embrace the difficult, not remove it. There is a point, my friend, and you can count it all joy. You can even go ahead and paint that on shiplap if you want. I won’t judge. And when you find yourself on the ground asking “what’s the point?” remember this: a faith tortured by questions and still believes is far greater than the faith that never questions at all.
“Behold, we call those happy who were steadfast.” (James 5:7)
With love and prayers for you,
Are you feeling depleted—like you’re running on fumes and you still have a hill to climb? Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to be infused with exactly what you need for the week ahead? These questions remind me of a recent visit to my son in Los Angeles. We were strolling through the streets of Santa Monica and happened upon a shop where they were giving people drip IVs for fatigue, hangovers, migraines, and colds. The sign in the window promised that these super-doses of vitamins and minerals would get right into your bloodstream for immediate impact. Walk-ins were welcome, and if you bought four shots, you got one free. I’m not endorsing this therapy, nor did I try it, but I must admit, I found the concept intriguing. It sounded like instant relief.
But even if there was something I could safely and instantly take that would boost my energy, it still wouldn’t get to the root of what I desire most. What I really long for is connection—connection to God and to other people. Isolation, we have all discovered, does not make us feel better long term. It’s one thing to have a few hours of solitude with a good book and a great cup of coffee. It’s quite another to feel like you are doing life alone and there’s no one to give you a hand when the road gets rough. I want deep, authentic friendship with people who are running their race with their eyes on Christ. I agree with Ecclesiastes 4:9–10, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up.”
Another thing that I long for is to see some improvement in areas of my life where I struggle with habits I hate. St. Paul writes about this in Romans 7:15: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Can you relate?
Do you want to quit eating so much sugar but you crave the pleasure it promises?
Do you want to drink less but find that you keep faltering in your resolve because you think you need it to relax/have fun/loosen up?
Do you long to be more hope-filled and positive but find that your words and attitudes are as negative as a newsfeed?
Do you want to follow Christ and obey Him but find yourself in the familiar rut of the same old sins, over and over again?
Maybe you, like me, have made yourself all sorts of promises, have set goals time and time again, only to find that old patterns of behavior die hard. Something I know beyond a doubt, one of the reasons I fail is because I try to do things on my own. I want an injection of everything I need so I don’t have to rely on anyone. Self-sufficiency sounds strong and appealing. But God asks me to lean on Him and others. He invites me on a journey where I’ll need to reach out for help instead of turning to self-reliance.
Do you want to grow spiritually but you feel stuck?
Are you longing for friendship, acceptance, meaning, and a weekly shot in the arm?
Are you tired of running your race alone?
Do you want strength to get through your next week?
How about reassurance that you aren’t crazy for the way you look at the world from a Christian perspective?
If you are longing for these things, I wonder how you are attempting to satisfy those desires. One thing I know for sure, there is nothing like a regular gathering of a small group of like-minded women to make all the difference in the world.
I’m not talking about a group known for its uniformity, rather its unity. I’m not talking about a group of women who are holier than you. I’m describing a group of friends who are on a spiritual journey together, women who have taken off their masks and are honest about the difficulties of life. It’s a judgment free zone—a safe place to share a part of your soul with women who understand. It’s relaxing to be able to talk about your faith and who you really are.
If you are not connected to a Walking with Purpose small group, I want you to prayerfully consider why not. It could very well be that THIS is exactly what you need—this is what would be the game-changer for you. Better than an IV drip full of vitamins. Better than a workout class. Better than a boozy mom’s group. There is support out there. You don’t need to figure your life out on your own. We are here to help you connect to God and sisters in Christ so that you are infused with true, lasting wellness.
Click here to see if there’s a WWP group near you.
No group near you? Could it be that God is tapping on your shoulder, asking you to be the connector, the instigator, the one to gather just a few women who are longing for the same thing as you? Click here to see how we can help.
With you on the journey,
Last month, I had a field day fostering my anger while doing the dishes. Who was the perpetrator? My husband. His crime? Going to dinner with his dad. Ok, well, it wasn’t just that. I had held down the fort for three nights while he was on a work trip. He had come home but had made dinner plans with his dad leaving his poor, pregnant, martyr of a wife to handle bedtime yet again. Dish by dish, my resentment grew as I spun a story with me as the hero and him as the villain. I repeatedly told myself some iteration of, “If only he would _____, then I would be happier. Is that so much to ask?” I admit, this isn’t me at my best but it’s true, and I’m guessing you can relate.
My husband eventually came home and immediately apologized over the length of the outing. We talked about it, and I forgave him. With the ordeal over, I settled in to finish The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. If only I had known what I was about to read, I might have put it down to avoid the uncomfortable truth headed my way. The Lord brought me face to face with myself.
If you haven’t read The Great Divorce, it is a fictional story of characters living in hell but are not stuck there. The main character boards a bus with his fellow resident and travels to the foothills of heaven. At the foothills, they find that they are too weak to make the journey up the mountain. Each character meets a representative from heaven who will accompany them up the mountain and help them gain strength along the way. All they have to do is let go of anything keeping them from God, and heaven will welcome them. Sadly, most of the characters refuse to give up what is necessary to climb to heaven and receive God Himself. They freely choose to head back to the bus and spend eternity in hell. The moral of the story is that many of us will choose heaven only if certain conditions are met. In doing so, we choose to stay in hell.
At the end of the story, the main character witnesses a woman come down the mountain to try to convince her earthly husband to make the journey with her to heaven. Obsessed that she doesn’t “need” him, he throws himself a pity party and eventually returns to the bus. The main character is offended by the woman’s refusal to follow her husband into hell and her attempt to force him to join her on the mountain. As he tries to work out what he perceived as a lack of sympathy, his heavenly mentor corrects his perspective.
“Son, son, it must be one way or the other. Either the day must come when joy prevails, and all the makers of misery are no longer able to infect it: or else forever and ever the makers of misery can destroy the happiness they reject in themselves.”
I reread it. At some point, misery must lose its ability to infect joy. Ouch. I have been a maker of misery for far too long, only accepting joy when my self-imposed terms have been met. No wonder joy is constantly slipping through my grasp.
This attitude that I and so many others have embraced is the attitude of joy if. It’s a joy with conditions, and I have a million conditions. I think I’ll be joyful if my husband acts in a way that pleases me. I will have joy if my kids are healthy and kind. I will be joyful if things go well at work, if COVID goes away, if the government does what I think is right. If all these external circumstances bow down to my will, then I will be happy. How exhausting. How common. How many of us are joyful Christians only when the stars align and our wills are fulfilled? That joy then rarely comes, and if it does, it certainly doesn’t last. There is too much out of our control for us to allow our terms to be the dictator of our joy. In the end, “joy if” isn’t joy at all. It is preference, and in God’s eyes, it is disobedience. He wants more for us.
The Lord commanded over and over again that His people live with His joy. Romans 12:12 tells us to “be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” Scripture goes further in James 1:2: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, wherever you face trials of many kinds.” St. Peter echoes the same idea when he wrote, “But rejoice in as much as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13).
If we know this and repeatedly hear that we should be joyful in all things, why is it so hard to accomplish? I believe it’s because most of us never move from “joy if” to “joy even if.” God offers an “even if” type of joy. It is a true joy. It transcends the ebbs and flows of circumstance because it does not depend on conditions but rather, on the faithfulness of God, who is always faithful.
Every few weeks, when I am on Instagram stories, I ask for your prayer requests, and I am always blown away by your answers. From illness to high-risk pregnancy, infertility, employment issues, anxiety, family issues, and worries about the future, you are dealing with it all. Ladies, you are amazing. You carry a broken world on your back, and so often, you do it with unbelievable strength. When I pray for you, I pray that you can hold onto your joy even if your suffering is great. I pray that your spirit holds on to the hope Christ offers you and your mind is filled with the truth that He is always with you. I don’t necessarily mean happiness or positivity. Joy is more than an emotion. It is a disposition of being that is marked by the truth that, in the end, our situations will bring us closer to God and His glory.
If you have fallen into the trap of “joy if,” ask Him to transform your thinking to “joy even if.” After all, this is exactly how the Lord loves you. He loves you even if you turn away from Him. He is faithful even if your sins are many. He carries you even if you are trying to hold up the weight of the world by yourself. And He offers you His joy even if your life is far from perfect.
“Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails, and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights.” (Habakkuk 3:17–19)
 C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001), 136.
What a start to the year. Just when we’d packed away the Christmas decorations and swept away the pine needles, chaos erupted. Some might say things have gotten worse; others would say it’s always been this messy, and we’re just seeing more evidence of what lies below the surface. Regardless of all that I see that is not right, my faith tells me that there is much that is right, and I need to build on that. I don’t know about you, but I need to have a fresh attitude as I journey through January, even if my circumstances haven’t changed much.
This has led me to delve into some reading about the virtue of joy. If you’ve spent much time in a Walking with Purpose Bible study, then you’ve already encountered the truth that joy is not found in a perfect state of affairs. Whatever it is that we think will guarantee happiness is simply the next rung on an ever-expanding ladder. We never get to a place where enough is enough, and those who keep trying to get there end up disappointed and often bitter. But even when we understand this lesson and know that perfect circumstances will never be our reality (they won’t satisfy anyway), we can still find joy to be elusive.
We’re promised in Galatians 5:22 that joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit, which means it’s a gift given to us—something supernaturally infused into our being. That being said, I think that for many of us it resides deep down in the soul, so deep down that it doesn’t make its way up to our faces. In Great Expectations, Charles Dickens described one of his characters as a woman “who called her rigidity religion.” Sadly, there are quite a few examples of this in our day as well, but that would never have been said of Jesus.
Jesus has gone before us and gives an example of how to live joyfully in the midst of unrest and severe hardship. We read in Hebrews 12:2 that Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross.” We’re encouraged to “consider him” so that we don’t “grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:3). St. Catherine of Siena’s words, “All the way to heaven is heaven,” suggests that it is possible to follow His example.
What do we do when the way to heaven doesn’t feel very heavenly?
Where does joy come from, and how can we get it to bubble up so it’s our lived experience, rather than a virtue just out of reach?
And does it really matter?
What’s at stake if we lack joy?
In his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson wrote about a friend who was a dean in a theological seminary. He would occasionally call a student into his office to share these words:
You have been around here for several months now, and I have had an opportunity to observe you. You get good grades, seem to take your calling to ministry seriously, work hard and have clear goals. But I don’t detect any joy. You don’t seem to have any pleasure in what you are doing. And I wonder if you should not reconsider your calling into ministry. For if a pastor is not in touch with joy, it will be difficult to teach or preach convincingly that the news is good. If you do not convey joy in your demeanor and gestures and speech, you will not be an authentic witness for Jesus Christ. Delight in what God is doing is essential in our work.
St. Teresa of Calcutta said that “joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.” Our authentic witness for Christ is on the line. We are what He has chosen to work with, for better or for worse. We are “ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20). So how do we grow in the virtue of joy? I have discovered three things that are currently helping me in this regard.
#1: There is joy in obedience
The equation “joy = obedience” is one I was taught as a young child, and I am so grateful for it. There’s so much that we cannot control, but we can always choose how we respond to our circumstances. While we don’t know what God thinks about every subject, there is a tremendous amount that we do know in terms of how He wants us to react and behave. When we live in such a way that we can end our day knowing we did all we could to obey God, a deep sense of satisfaction results. We remain under the umbrella of God’s eternal protection, and this brings us an abiding joy, uncoupled from our circumstances.
#2: There is joy in managing expectations
One of the biggest barriers to joy is unmet expectations. Things don’t go as we hoped, and discouragement sets in. But what if the expectations were problematic to begin with? I have found that when I’m disappointed, it’s good to examine my expectations by asking myself the following questions:
What expectation did I have that’s not been met?
Was that expectation based on a promise of God that I can find in Scripture?
What should I do to change the expectation?
What can I learn from this that will affect my expectations in the future?
#3: There is joy in Jesus
Jesus is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (CCC 1324). He is joy itself. If we really believe that Jesus is present in the Eucharist (John 6:51), if we really believe the He is present in the body of believers (Ephesians 1:22-23), if we really believe that where two or three are gathered in His name, He is there (Matthew 18:20), then we need to really pause and consider what we are missing if we are not gathering for worship. We need Him. If you haven’t been able to go to Mass since the pandemic began (I know this varies from diocese to diocese), then you are going to feel that absence. He is not absent, but one of the primary ways He infuses us with joy is something that, for many, has been out of reach.
So let’s cling to Jesus in whatever way we can, trusting Him to fulfill His promises. This is the path where joy is found.
Grace and peace,
 Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (New York: Heritage, 1939), 198.
 Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Dowers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 191.
Deep abiding joy—the kind that helps us to rejoice even when weary—wouldn’t that be the most amazing Christmas gift? This is what we long for, but for many, it’s difficult to hope because 2020 has held many disappointments. Plans haven’t gone the way they should. Words have been spoken that have pierced many hearts. Much is broken, and we aren’t sure how to put it all back together again. In the midst of a Christmas with more chaos and confusion than we’d like, does the night of our dear Savior’s birth still make a difference?
The ancient words of St. John Chrysostom give me food for thought…
“On this day of Christmas, the Word of God, being truly God, appeared in the form of a man, and turned all adoration to himself and away from competing claims for our attention. To him, then, who through the forest of lies has beaten a clear path for us, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Spirit, we offer all praise, now and forever.”
Could it be that experiencing deep abiding joy is connected to what we adore? Is it possible that some competing claims for our attention have gained our primary focus this year? Has our gaze shifted, and have our bodies followed our eyes into a forest of lies?
I’ve discovered some things about myself this year. All the changes that COVID has brought have made it clear that I adore the following: My comfort. My well-laid plans. Experiences that give me something to look forward to and a burst of joy when I’m in the midst of them. These aren’t the only things that I adore, but when they are taken away, I wilt a little bit.
Since all three of those things have been hard to rely on this year, I can see competing claims for my attention at work. When I lose control on a macro level (hello, pandemic), I try to control things on a micro level. I do this without even thinking about it. I push the dig deeper button, get to work, and rely on grit. My ability to control something as small as my to-do list competes for my attention with “the better part” that God offers me—the invitation to come away and rest a while.
When I ignore His invitation to rest, I’m led into a forest of lies—lies like:
“It’s all up to me.”
“It doesn’t matter how I feel.”
“Things will never get better.”
One thing is for sure—I’d better get out of that forest of lies if I want to have the kind of Christmas that includes rejoicing despite weariness. And here’s the good news: Jesus has beaten a clear path through the forest of lies to bring me to the Father. He’s cleared that path for you, too.
When I say, “It’s all up to me,” Jesus says, “No, my sweet sister. It was all up to me. And I did for you that which you couldn’t do for yourself. So lay down your burden (Psalm 55:22). The earthly work will never be done. I invite you to rest in my all-sufficiency and let me take care of the things that you didn’t finish.”
When I say, “It doesn’t matter how I feel,” Jesus says, “No, you’re wrong on that point. The heart of the Father is always turned toward you with tenderness, and He has put your tears in a bottle (Psalm 56:8). He cares deeply about what’s going on inside you. He is listening. He is paying attention. He neither slumbers nor sleeps (Psalm 121:4).”
When I say, “Things will never get better,” Jesus says, “Don’t you remember what I said in Revelation 21:5, ‘I make all things new?’ I am at work, I promise! Don’t forget the truth of Isaiah 43:19, ‘Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.’”
When we feel too weary to rejoice, we can receive God’s joy as a gift—as a present—delivered by the Word of God incarnate through the Word of God inspired. So let’s declare truth as we leave the forest of lies and journey to the manger in Bethlehem.
For I declare that God gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might He increases strength (Isaiah 40:29).
I declare that God will satisfy the weary soul, and every languishing soul He will replenish (Jeremiah 31:25).
I declare that those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint (Isaiah 40:31).
I declare that the Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18).
I declare that my flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever (Psalm 73:26).
I declare that God’s presence will go with me, and He will give me rest (Exodus 33:14).
I declare that I will lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety (Psalm 4:8).
I declare that weeping may last for the night, but joy comes with the morning (Psalm 30:5).
Oh that we would rejoice despite our weariness, celebrating the One who has led us out of the forest and into a place of true rest for our souls.
Praying for a merry and refreshing Christmas for you.
Last Sunday, my second daughter, Eliza, turned three. If you don’t already know this, it’s because you don’t live in my town. She told the whole town. And whoever may have missed the news undoubtedly heard it from her older sister, Penny, who was also shouting it from the rooftops. My three-year-old basked in the joy of her birthday all weekend. She listed off the presents she received at every chance she got, and her older sister did the same. One’s joy was the other’s as they soaked in the glory of this great celebration. As I watched them, it dawned on me that it is hard for adults to do this. It is hard for us to embrace joy, share joy, and celebrate with others. Joy takes courage.
It is so much easier to focus on all that goes wrong in our lives and the lives of other women. All too often, when women get together, it isn’t long before the conversation turns negative and stays negative. Someone starts to share about her struggles and before long, everyone has jumped in. It has become popular to label those conversations as “real” or “raw,” and while they can be genuine, they easily devolve into unnecessary complaining.
Please don’t misread this. We should not float along as if nothing ever goes wrong or hide a bad day by pushing our feelings under the rug. Life can be messy and difficult. We need to be able to share honestly with trusted friends for comfort and advice.
That being said, it is much more difficult and risky to focus on and share about the good things that happen to us. There is more at stake. For starters, focusing on the bad is normal. We expect things to go wrong and so when they go well, we don't know how to handle it. Vulnerability researcher Dr. Brené Brown claims that, “Joy is the most vulnerable emotion we experience.” Most of us have not been trained to live with a joyful disposition. Even if we find ourselves experiencing it, we dare not share it with others. Being positive, if we are honest, can be downright annoying. No one wants to be a Pollyanna in a Kill Bill world.
Sharing joy is not only risky because we might annoy someone. We also risk the possibility that we will magnify another woman’s pain. If we share that we received a raise at work, will we hurt the woman who just got laid off? If we share that we are connecting with Jesus in our prayer lives, will another woman feel like she is not enough because her prayer life is dry? What if our kids are behaving, and we are genuinely enjoying our time with them? Will this news twist a knife into the heart of the mother who is struggling to have a relationship with her kids? We are keenly aware that it may seem like we are bragging, and we are all too familiar with the jealousy we have felt at the good fortune of another. With these things in mind, we keep our joy to ourselves or downplay it when we are in a group of women. This is a mistake.
Joy is not a finite resource. God created each of us to share in His infinite joy and to celebrate when good things happen to others. For example, Elizabeth was joyful at Mary’s news that she was chosen to be the Mother of God. She was not jealous, but instead she celebrated with Mary as they glorified God together. Mary, in turn, celebrated with her the news that she was pregnant with John the Baptist against all odds. There is plenty of goodness to go around.
So where do we start? How do we shift our focus and become courageous? How do we embrace joy in a cynical world? We start by sitting with the God who is joy. We start by allowing Him to renew our minds so that we can recognize His goodness, share His goodness, and celebrate when He reveals His goodness in the life of a friend.
In the new Walking with Purpose devotional, Rest: 31 Days of Peace, Lisa Brenninkmeyer shares how we are to renew our minds. “We saturate our minds with what is true—and that’s found in the Bible. This is God’s love letter to us. He is not silent. He speaks to us through His Word.” When we renew our minds by sitting with Him daily in His Word, He gives us the rest we need to discover the joy that He has reserved for us. He blesses us with a spirit of gratitude that enables us to be joyful for others.
Romans 12:15 implores us to “rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.” There has been so much weeping this year. At every level of society, there is tragedy. Every morning we can wake up and be overtaken by the nastiest news cycle of our lifetime. We can look in the mirror and remember just how hard the last year has been. For honesty’s sake, we may need to do this, but where does it lead? Does it lead us into the spiral of despair, or does it lead us to our Savior who endured the very cross for the sake of the JOY set before Him (Hebrews 12:2)? Jesus did not wallow in His suffering for the sake of seeming “real” or “raw.” He endured it, honestly, and held on to the joy, the never-ending joy, that awaited Him. He offers the same to us. He celebrates His goodness with us. We need not be afraid to feel it. We need not be afraid to share it. What is going well in your life? Are you recognizing it with humble gratitude? With whom can you share it? How can you rejoice in the joy of another?
This, dear sister, is the attitude shift that could change the tone of your year and the years to come. Take courage. Take the risk, and reveal your joy.
 "Dr. Brené Brown on Joy: It's Terrifying," SuperSoul Sunday, Oprah Winfrey Network, (YouTube Video, March 17, 2013), 5:58.
 Lisa Brenninkmeyer, Rest: 31 Days of Peace, (Walking with Purpose, 2020), p 67.
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