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.