When my close friend Kara died of breast cancer a couple of years ago, the question I got asked most frequently was how her four small children were doing. It was a difficult question to answer; sometimes, an angry part of my grieving heart wanted to respond, They just lost their mother! How do you think they’re doing?! But even in the midst of our mourning, I knew that wasn’t fair because as Kara’s mentor and intimate friend observed, the children were doing well because their default was to choose joy—that children in general tend to make joy their mindset of choice. I mulled that over again and again—choose joy. That certainly wasn’t my default as an adult. My own mother died when I was 20, and I don’t think a day passed during that season of intense grief when the thought of choosing joy even crossed my mind. What would it mean to choose joy now? How would I do that and why?
Choose joy. The more I thought about it, the lovelier it sounded. It seemed simple, although not simplistic; hope-filled but not empty; intentional, yet certainly not easy. It also seemed biblical—scripture after scripture came to mind about joy: joy being a fruit of the Spirit (Galations 5), Psalm after Psalm praising God in joy; passages in the New Testament, like Philippians 4:4, which commands us to Rejoice in the Lord always; and one that I found particularly challenging, Habakkuk 3:17&18:
17 Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
Somehow, even though the writer speculates about life falling down around him and appears hopeless, he still anticipates finding joy in the Lord—he says he will choose joy, and choose it with determination: yet I will rejoice…I will take joy…And this declaration is after a confession of all that could wrong, an emotional vomit, if you will. I admit that I am no theologian so I don’t know the ins and outs of this passage, but even I can see the vulnerability in these plain verses. There is no false optimism or sugarcoating here. There are no conditions that if God provides what he wants or makes sure his family is fed, then he will choose joy. No! To the contrary, he says, yet he will rejoice.
I think back to when Kara died. She had been very present on social media, and to honor everyone who had been praying for their family, her husband posted a picture of himself with the kids out for ice cream so folks could be comforted by knowing they were doing okay. I remember the looks on the kids’ faces—they truly did look fine. They were smiling and their faces reflected the joy they were choosing each day. I remember thinking that joy doesn’t negate bad circumstances or make it go away. By choosing joy, we don’t also choose to pretend that our situation is okay or that our hearts aren’t breaking; joy and sadness can coexist, and maybe that’s the best place for joy to reside—next to sadness. Maybe sadness is the best companion for joy because it’s in the midst of sadness that we can best experience and taste joy. After all, how good can joy taste if we’ve never tasted the bitterness of loss?
I had my first baby when I was 35. He was a blessed surprise; I am always surprised at happiness. You see, after losing my parents in a car accident when I was 20, nothing in my life went the way I had planned. When you lose your parents at that age, you also lose your home and a large sense of your identity. I suddenly had no provider, no place to go on college breaks, no protector. During that initial, intense season of grieving, I wasn’t thinking about choosing joy, I was thinking about how to survive. I just wanted a normal life, but it became increasingly clear that was not going to happen. I fell into a deep depression that lasted for years and years. I became angry at God and walked away from him. I flailed for most of my 20s, trying desperately to just find stability through various ugly means. In the end, I realized that the only true security was in Christ.
Long story short, I married and had my babies in my 30s. And let me tell you—I don’t take one day of life with my amazing husband or precious children for granted. And it’s not because they’re so great, although they are, but because I remember so clearly how awful and tormented life was in my 20s. Joy is my companion today because sadness was my companion then; when sadness is my companion now, like when Kara died, joy remains.
And Joy remains because gratitude is present. I see that in the Habakkuk passage—the writer doesn’t simply say that he has random joy; his joy is rooted in the God of his salvation. He is joyful because God has saved him. At the end of the day, even if he loses everything, God has saved his soul. I understand the key to his joy—gratitude. And not gratitude for things going his way or all his awesome stuff or his dreams coming true, but for God’s hand on him. Wow.
Back to Kara—I can’t think about her without equating her death with joy and gratitude. Is that strange? We had so many conversations at the end where we would talk about heaven. She’d be in her bed or maybe her hospital bed, and I’d be right at her side, and we’d imagine what it would be like. She was so close to heaven in those moments; her body was in horrid physical pain, but she had an excitement to see her Savior, to look him in the eye. We’d dream about that together, joy filling our hearts, gratitude filling our souls. For how could we not be grateful that her suffering would soon end and she would be face-to-face with Jesus?! Yes, her family and friends would miss her desperately, but we couldn’t begrudge her the ultimate redemption that being in Christ’s presence would bring. Her suffering would become undone. God would wipe away her tears for the last time. Can you imagine that without feeling thankful? For me, joy flies on the coattails of that gratitude.
Of course, the tricky part is to believe that all of this truly is good. When my mama and daddy died, I didn’t believe; instead, I became angry and bitter. I was too focused on circumstances instead of God. I couldn’t see past my situation to thank God for his hand on me. I couldn’t trust his sovereignty and believe that he was using ugly, broken things of this world for beauty and his glory. I couldn’t believe that he wouldn’t withhold anything good from his children (Ps. 84:11). Yet the Lord has saved me from the mire of that muck of disbelief, and I am so grateful. My gratitude isn’t because I’m not angry and bitter anymore, but because I’m saved. Does that make sense? The gratitude that fills my heart, with joy on its coattails, isn’t rooted in the relief of not being a bitter, angry 20-something woman, but in God’s salvation. I don’t think, Thank God I’m not bitter and angry anymore (because, by the way, as long as I’m on this earth, I will still struggle); no, I think, Thank God that he saved me! Thank you, Jesus, for loving me and drawing me close to you and lavishing me with your love and delight even when I’ve done nothing to deserve it! That is the true foundation of my gratitude. God is a god of mercy, salvation, and love! And through that lens, I see everything differently. Kara didn’t simply die and leave her four children; she walked cancer and death beautifully with deep grace, inviting others in and opening the door for thousands of people to hear the gospel and be introduced to Jesus. Her children were transformed because of how she used her illness and death to point them to the Lord. And she has been united with her Savior, who has erased her cancer and made her new again, restoring her to him. This is cause for joy, this is cause for gratitude.
So will I choose joy today? Tomorrow? I think the deeper question is if I will choose gratitude. Will I choose to believe that God loves me, he delights in me, he doesn’t withhold anything good from me or any of his children, and he promises eternal redemption of his creation? If so, how could I not be grateful? How could I not be joyful? As Henri Nouwen says, We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day. It is a choice based on the knowledge that we belong to God and have found in God our refuge and our safety and that nothing, not even death, can take God away from us. Thanks be to God!
About the Author:
A freelance writer and editor, Blythe Hunt is also an orphan who once could not have fathomed the love and safety she would eventually find in community. In her mid-twenties, God rescued her from a den of depression, loneliness, and isolation by restoring her heart through the love of others. Her passion is building community, which includes hosting parties and asking awkwardly personal questions; she is currently writing a book on introverted hospitality. Blythe and her husband Aaron have two children, live in a bungalow in downtown Colorado Springs, and dream of being minimalists. She can be found all over social media at Mundane Faithfulness.