Provided that you’ve been married for more than a few months, you’ve probably gone through seasons of sadness, bliss, frustration, exhaustion, and joy. Sometimes, it feels like we are riding an emotional roller coaster with little or no ability to control the speed or the duration of the trip! Though we may not be able to choose some of the circumstances in our lives, we do have the power to choose how we respond.
Several years ago in the midst of an exceedingly difficult season, I realized I had morphed into Eeyore. As I studied Scripture, I began to notice how often God’s word encourages us to choose joy. (For example, James 4:7-10). Joy 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. Joy runs deeper than happiness because it can transcend the details of our lives.
With regard to marriage, joy functions like engine oil. It reduces relational friction, which not only helps us uphold our commitment to each other but also rejoice in it. 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 is not a sentimental emotion. Nor is it a facade. It is a mighty river that flows from the headwaters of God’s fierce love for us. It does not swallow up our grief or mourning. In fact, it seems that the ability to experience joy is directly related to the capacity to feel pain. Author Jerry Sittser observes that the “soul is elastic, like a balloon. It can grow larger through suffering.… Once enlarged, the heart 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.
When we choose joy in the midst of our suffering, we defiantly proclaim that death and destruction will not have the final word; we’re choosing to trust God even though we may not understand how things will play out. In order to choose joy and prevent death and destruction from defining us, we need to stay connected to the source of all joy and keep our hearts responsive to each other and to God.
Connection to God can take many forms, but two of the most important ones are worship and gratitude. To worship means to submit one’s voice, mind, and body to God. Worship involves speaking and singing, but also physicalizing praise.
It’s not enough to just think about God. We’re flesh and blood, and, our earthly worship has to involve all of who we are. For my husband, worship often means sitting down at the piano and singing his favorite hymns or contemporary worship songs. I experience God most intimately when I walk in the forest or kayak down a lazy river.
Worship and gratitude are intimately connected. Like worship, gratitude is rarely our default response. Perhaps it’s endemic to American culture, but we always seem to want more. To choose gratitude is to reject both greed and entitlement. This has been an ongoing struggle for me.
Throughout our marriage, Christopher has encouraged me to get away once a year. I typically drive to a friend’s cottage and spend several days reading, walking along the beach, and praying. It always restores my soul and resources me to re-engage with life. If I return from my mini-sabbatical and discover that the dishes have piled up, the laundry is not done, and the dog has vomited in a remote corner (and strangely, no one else has noticed), I have a choice to make. Will I become indignant and express my disappointment or will I hug Christopher and express my gratitude? When I choose poorly, the benefits of my time away instantly vanish. 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.
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 take ourselves so seriously. According to Margaret Feinberg, “Joy is a far more dynamic, forceful weapon than most of us realize. The abiding sense that you are fiercely loved by God? That kind of joy empowers you to rise above any circumstance.” We all need that assurance as we face the inevitable challenges of marriage. Thankfully, our heavenly Father is well aware of this reality and generously provides His joy to strengthen and sustain us on the journey.
This excerpt from Making Marriage Beautiful is printed with permission from David C Cook. All rights reserved ©2016