Fighting for Joy: Part Three

Put into Practice

We are looking at practical instructions the Apostle Paul gave us in Philippians 4 to help us fight for joy during difficult times. In part one of this blog series, we examined the importance of prayer. In part two, we discussed the need to fill our minds with life-giving thoughts.

The third practical suggestion Paul gives for pursuing joy is to put into practice those things God has taught us to do. The Apostle writes, Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (v. 9). 

Don’t read this verse as a harsh command demanding moral perfection. I am confident the Apostle did not intend these words to be a burden to his readers. This verse is a treasure map that marks the way to a precious secret. What is the secret? The secret is this: We are not slaves to our emotions. We are not imprisoned by feelings beyond our control. There are actual things we can do that lead us to joy.

In his book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, James K. A. Smith teaches that spiritual transformation never results merely from the acquisition of knowledge. You can read a million Christian books and hear a million Christian sermons and remain basically unchanged. To experience true character formation, you need to change what you love. You need to fall in love with the things of God.

But how do you do this? Smith contends that we can change our hearts through our habits. Through engaging in regular routines (like the practice of daily Bible-reading or the ritual of weekly worship) we slowly train our hearts to love those things that bring us joy. Smith writes, “The orientation of the heart happens from the bottom up, through the formation of our habits of desire. Learning to love (God) takes practice.”

How many times have you experienced something like the following? You wake up on a Sunday morning feeling grumpy and tired. More than anything else you want to eat pancakes and go back to bed. But, over the years, it has become your weekly habit to gather with other Christians for Lord’s Day worship. So, almost without thinking, you get up, get dressed, and make your way to church. The hymns are not necessarily your favorites. The sermon is passable, but not great. The words inviting you to the Lord’s Table are the same words you hear every week. But, after engaging in the routine of worshiping God with other believers, as you walk home from church you feel a small glimmer of joy.

Isn’t that amazing? You changed your feelings through something you chose to do.

I’ve experienced this after finishing my monthly volunteer shift at the food pantry. I’ve experienced it after visiting a shut-in member of our church. I’ve experienced it when I’ve turned off the TV and gone for an evening walk in the park. I entered these activities reluctantly, secretly wishing I could do something else, and I finished my time with a heart filled with joy. Habits can shape the heart, and the heart is the doorway to joy.

In John 13:17, Jesus said, “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” The word translated “blessed” is the Greek word for “happy”. If we put into practice the simple (and sometimes mundane) things Christ has taught us to do, we will be making a choice that leads us to joy.

So how do we fight for joy in difficult times? We seek the Lord in prayer. We fill our minds with life-giving thoughts. We engage in regular practices that connect us with God. We pray. We think. We do. And amazingly, as we take these steps, God graciously gives us joy.