Opening Our Hearts To Joy

Open Hearts to Joy

I don’t know what your specific circumstances are, and whether this feels like a joyous time of year to you or not. I do know that many, many different circumstances can threaten to steal our joy – not just during the holidays, but every single day of the year. A holiday that is supposed to be joyous can make the lack of joy in our hearts stand out even more.

Our human tendency is to want to blame other people or our circumstances for our lack of joy. Our singleness or childlessness, perhaps. A wayward child. A disgruntled family member. Our finances. The loss of a loved one. Having to work on Christmas. Not being near family. Our concern for someone dear to us. The state of our world. Our own doubts and fears.

Relationship with our Heavenly Father

But that’s why Christ came! He came to a hopeless world and to hopeless souls like you and me. He came because He knew our lives and world aren’t perfect, and He came to give us hope – a close relationship through Him to our Heavenly Father during our earthly life, and an eternity with Him ever after. He came to give this life that is full of so much pain and drudgery, purpose and meaning.

Jesus told His disciples that “A thief comes only to steal and to kill and to destroy.” We’ve all experienced that. Satan will use whatever he can to steal, kill and destroy our relationships, our sense of purpose, and most of all, our joy. But there is hope! Jesus said that He came “so that [we] may have life and have it in abundance” (John 10:10)!

Open hand to receive God's love and joy

While that abundant life may seem elusive at times, it truly is just at our finger tips. Receiving it is so simple, but oh so very difficult at times. The simple part is just opening up our clenched fists to Him so we can receive it. The difficult part is needing to lay down our resentment, our hurts, our anger, our pride, our insistence on having our own way. It means being open to what He wants to give us. It may be different than what we think we want, but I can promise you without any hesitation, that what He has for us will meet our deepest desires in ways we could not have imagined!

Choosing Joy!

Don’t be afraid to open up to someone close to you if your joy is lacking. Share the pain and the hurt and the sadness with someone you can trust to not only listen, but to help you find joy again in Jesus. Most of all, in the quietness of your own time alone with Him, open up your heart to receive the joy He wants so much to give you! He loves you more than you can imagine!

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A Single’s Guide to Thriving at Christmas

Single Christian's guide to thriving at Christmas

I started to write this blog post thinking it would be a guide to surviving Christmas as singles. So many of us – not just singles – think of the holidays from the perspective of just getting through them.

I don’t know exactly what it is about the holidays, but they seem to create unrealistic expectations which instigate a general sense of discontent, cause us to compare ourselves with each other, and bring out the worst in relationships. As a result it becomes easier to adopt a cynical outlook rather than a celebratory one as we approach this “most wonderful time of the year.”

But my purpose in life is to thrive, not just to survive, and as I thought on these things my thoughts started to change. How can I thrive this Christmas, and how can I encourage you to thrive, too? Once my thoughts started going down this more positive track, I quickly jotted down several ways we can glean the most from the true meaning of Christmas.

Celebrate Reality

Think about the reality of the first Christmas: a young couple, the woman about to give birth, traveling by foot at the mandate of the government to a town that had no room for them to stay indoors. Deeply devoted Jews, they were suffering the embarrassment and stigma of having a child out of wedlock. There were no doting grandparents along to coach the new young mother as she endured the pain and fear of childbirth for the first time, nor to welcome their grandchild into the world.

Accept Reality

Yes, they were treasuring in their hearts the messages they’d both received from God that this was no ordinary child – that in fact He would be the Messiah their people had long been waiting for. What all this meant they had no idea, but they knew something amazing was happening. By faith they knew this. But the present reality was not pretty.

It’s the same for us. The reality and messiness of our present circumstances is not the whole picture of what God is doing in our lives. God is always up to something bigger and broader than what we can see. And just as Mary treasured and pondered those kinds of matters in her heart while trusting her Heavenly Father for what was to come, so we need to also.

Know Our Identity

Just as our present circumstances do not define the bigger picture of our lives, neither do they define our identity. Whether you’re spending Christmas with a great big noisy family, a few close friends, or at home alone, the fact is that you are a much-loved child of God. He uniquely designed and created you with the personality, abilities, and appearance only you have. He chose the specific time in history for you to be born, and to the parents He hand-picked for you. These things may not always seem like good things to you, but in the grand scheme of things we can trust that they are and that He has  a purpose and plan for our lives for good. He loves us, more than we can ever imagine.

Accept the Greatest Gift

Gift of Grace

The greatest gift ever is the gift of grace – the free and unmerited favor of God that came through Jesus. When we recognize Jesus as our Savior, God transfers all of Jesus’ goodness and righteousness to us, and all our strivings to be right and good need to cease. God has said that any efforts on our part to make ourselves good will never be good enough, and that those efforts are as pitiful as trying to clothe ourselves with filthy rags. Jesus came to give us His pure robe of righteousness, so that when God looks at us, He sees Jesus’ goodness, not our futile efforts.

You may have been a Christian for a long time,  yet not fully realized it isn’t up to you to be good enough for God. You can’t, no matter how hard you try. What you can do, and what He asks of you, is to consecrate yourself to Him. Surrender everything – who you are, your wants and desires, your struggles to be something – in exchange for His grace. And then watch and see what God does in and through your life. I can assure you it will be amazing!

Worship with Abandon

We know that on the night Jesus was born there were shepherds in the fields surrounding Bethlehem making sure their sheep were safe through the night. Can you imagine what it must have been like for them, settled in for another uncomfortable night away from their soft beds, to have the sky light up brighter than day, and an angel stand before them? The angel’s announcement that the Messiah they as a Jewish people had been waiting for had been born not far from them that very night must have been incredible to them! The angel told them they would know this was true if they found the baby in Bethlehem, wrapped snuggly in cloth and laying in a feeding trough. They made no delay in going to find this child, and find Him they did! Their response? Glorifying and praise God for all they had seen and heard, and that it was just as the angel had told them it would be!

Worship with abandon

I, too, want to be so filled with awe and wonder at the coming of Jesus and all that means to me in this life and for eternity, that my spontaneous response is to praise God with abandon. The shepherds didn’t seem worried about what others thought. Surely it must have seemed to their families and friends that their long nights in the fields had gotten the best of their senses! But the shepherds knew without question what they had seen and heard, and couldn’t help but be filled with praise and joy! Their lives must have changed forever that night. May our lives also be changed and overflow with worship as we encounter Jesus and all His coming means for us!

Look Beyond the Festivity and Glitter

So much of the customs, traditions, decorations, and partying surrounding Christmas has nothing to do with Christ’s coming. More often than not they distract us from seeing and experiencing the depth of the true meaning of Christmas. If your expectations of a wonderful and festive Christmas are not being fulfilled for whatever reason – consider that may be a blessing in disguise, freeing you to focus on and experience the real reason Jesus came. Take advantage of the freedom you have as a single – likely more free from the entrapments of family activities than most – to bask in the real meaning and wonder of Jesus the Messiah!

I wish you all a wonderful Christmas as you worship and celebrate Jesus, who came to live within us and among us. May His presence be constant and comforting to you, not just at Christmas, but every day of the year!

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How Jesus Defeated the Grinch

How Jesus Defeated the Grinch for Singles

The signs that Christmas is coming soon are all around us now. Christmas music follows us everywhere we go, decorations line the streets and cover homes and lawns, people are scurrying around in stores agonizing over what gifts to buy, and the mail carrier is getting later every day as the volume of  Christmas mail grows more abundant. You may find yourself groaning, celebrating, trying to ignore it all, or becoming depressed.

The Grinch

Sometimes I’m not sure what to feel, and so I just wait, ignoring all the Christmas activity for awhile. I hate getting caught up in the frenzy, some of it rather meaningless or just time-consuming. Depending on the year my initial response to the Christmas activity ranges from being simply annoyed to slightly depressed.

But sooner or later the Christ of Christmas breaks through my grinch-like attitude as He reminds me Who He is and why He came.

Isaiah gave a glimpse of Who this Messiah would be when he wrote, “For a child will be born for us, a son will be given to us, and the government will be on His shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6 HCSB)

It was more than a prophecy about the birth of the Messiah. It was a promise of Who this Child named Jesus would be for those who believe in Him for milleniums to come, which includes us. He is our wonderful Counselor, our all-powerful God, our Father forever, and the Prince who brings peace in every situation. He can give us the wisdom and insight we need for perplexing and complex situations. He is sovereign as God over our lives, determining the outcome regardless of our poor choices. He is a Father we can completely rely and lean on. And He gives us peace that is beyond our understanding to fill our hearts no matter what storm is going on in our lives.

Whether struggling to deal with life alone, conflicts with others, difficulties at work, or the complexities of church life, we can turn to Him to be all these things for us. To me the most wonderful part is that He’s available when no one else is: in the middle of the night, in the midst of a difficult conversation and at our wit’s end, and when it seems no one fully understands.

But that’s not all. Because Jesus came and died for us making us God’s children, we have an eternal inheritance.

“When the time came to completion, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba, Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” (Galatians 4:4-7 HCSB)

Christmas and the Christian single

Jesus left the warmth of His Father’s Home to come to earth to experience all that we do: physical needs and discomforts, human desires and disappointments, rejection from others, and disloyalty from those closest to Him. He did this so we could also become children of His Father and eventually join Him in the warmth and joy of His Father’s House in heaven. There we will receive our ultimate inheritance with Jesus.

But for now we can experience part of it, which includes full access at any time to our Heavenly Father and to His Son, Who is our Wonderful Counselor, our Mighty God, our Eternal Father, and our Prince of Peace. We don’t have to feel like the Grinch at Christmas simply because of our circumstances. No matter what they are, or even if we spend Christmas alone, He is all these things to us.

Do you find Him to be these things to you? Is it easier or more difficult to experience them during the Christmas season?

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What Are Your Top Three?

Thanksgiving

It’s that time of year again in the United States when many gather around Thanksgiving Day dinner tables laden with food and surrounded by relatives and friends.

But many also don’t. You know who you are. Your parents may be gone, siblings celebrating with in-laws, and friends with their own families. Or perhaps your spouse is gone, your children are with your ex or grown doing their own thing, and everyone else assuming you’re with someone else. Or perhaps there’s not enough money to travel or your job doesn’t allow enough time off. The reasons are endless why you may be alone on Thanksgiving Day.

No matter our circumstances the very purpose of this holiday — being thankful — often takes backseat to everything else. To counteract this lack of thankfulness, we often hear challenges to make lists of all we’re thankful for. I’ve done this, but the list can be endless and after awhile it feels a little pointless. Where do I start and stop? And then there’s the problem that not everything I list as blessings sparks the thankfulness the exercise is intended to invoke.

This year I made a challenge to myself to name my top three blessings, and I’d like to challenge you to do the same. These three should supersede and perhaps even encompass every other blessing you have. So think about this for a bit before writing them down, and don’t just name the first three that come to mind.

Then this week as you’re either busily preparing gobs of food or packing your suitcase, or perhaps busily combating feelings of isolation and loneliness, be mindful of these three blessings and spend time thinking about the amazing difference they make in your life. Perhaps write them on your bathroom mirror, on sticky notes here and there, or whatever you do to remind yourself of important things. Share them with others if you’d like. But most of all keep them close to your heart and thank God for them!

I’ll share my top three to help you get started. If they resonate with you and you want to adopt them as yours, please feel free. But make sure you also own them and that they truly are your top three.

1. God’s Love

At the core of everything God does is love, because He IS love. Without it I wouldn’t have anything else, and especially not human love from friends and family, since all love originates with Him. Without His love Jesus would not have come to earth live among us, die for our sins, and gain victory over death so we can live forever.

God's Love

His love has sustained me through the heartache from betrayal by others, the passing of people I love, and the absence of loved ones because of distance or busyness. His love is always there. It’s often been in the absence of human love that I have most experienced God’s love for me in personal ways. I wouldn’t wanted to have missed those times for anything!

I recently heard a sermon by David Denison in which he said that faith doesn’t come from intellectual understanding, but rather from experiencing God. I believe this to be true. God can’t be proved. We don’t have the capability of scientifically measuring Him or testing for His existence. It’s when we experience His involvement in our lives in a personal way that we know not only that He is, but that He loves us deeply!

When my mother was on her death bed I sang to her one day when she was feeling restless. It seemed to calm her as she laid with her eyes closed. When I started singing the lullaby she had made up and sang to us when we were little, her eyes flew open and she smiled at me. I treasure that memory!

Several days later as she became unresponsive I started hearing a familiar tune almost as though it were coming over the hospital’s sound system. It puzzled me why I kept hearing this tune over and over. It was familiar, but I wasn’t recognizing it. Then, as I was walking down the hallway hours before she died dreading her imminent death, my heart cried out, “Who will be my mother now?” Immediately I heard God say to me, “I will,” and just as immediately I recognized the tune I was hearing incessantly — it was my mother’s lullaby! God was singing it to me now, and it wasn’t coming over the sound system, it was coming from Him. In that moment I knew (experienced) in the depth of my being how much God loves me, and knew that though my mother was going to where I could no longer hear her words of love, affirmation and encouragement, He wasn’t!

2. God’s Grace

The more I learn about grace the more I stand in humble joyful gratefulness, and the more I realize I don’t and can’t understand it fully. We rattle off the definition so glibly — free and unmerited favor. But we fail to grasp the depth of what that means. It means there is nothing — absolutely nothing — we can do to gain salvation or God’s favor, because Jesus has already done it all! His work on the cross is complete. Any attempts on our part to somehow sweeten the deal are, as the Bible says, like filthy rags. In other words, not only are our efforts worthless but they are offensive to Almighty God to whom we try to present them. He’s already given us Jesus’ pure robe of righteousness, and trying to add filthy rags to that outfit is just ludicrous.

God's grace

God’s job is to not only save us but to transform and sanctify us, too. We have but one part — not necessarily an easy one, but just one — and that is to surrender fully and completely to Him, over and over and over again, each and every moment.

I am so grateful for God’s grace because it means all my inadequate attempts to live the right life and be the right person are covered over and superseded by Jesus’ righteousness. This doesn’t mean I can do whatever I want and purposefully sin. It means that it is Jesus who does a transformative work in me as I allow Him to take over every aspect of my life.

Coming to know God’s grace more accurately — that He does the work while I surrender to Him — has given me much freedom of heart and mind as I am neither paralyzed by the belief I need to get everything absolutely right, nor am I passive in living out what He has taught us. I am actively and gratefully submitting to Him and His work in and through me.

3. Purpose

I am deeply grateful that God created me for a reason and that He designed me to be uniquely equipped for that purpose. He determined — among many other things — when in history I would be born, what the geographical location would be, who would be my parents and siblings, what my personality would be like, all the details of my appearance, and yes, even what my marital status would be and for how long. All these aspects precisely and strategically designed by God so I can fulfill the special purpose He has for me. The same is true for you and every person who has ever lived and will live.

Surrender to God

I have mentioned before that I believe loneliness doesn’t always come from lack of human interaction. Many times it comes from lacking a sense of purpose. The more I understand and live out God’s purpose for me, the fewer times of loneliness I experience. In my younger adult years I often felt varying levels of depression, especially as I watched my friends and siblings marry, have children, and settle into the life I had always thought I’d have. I thought I was missing out on the best of human experiences and couldn’t understand why God would deprive me of this ultimate earthly fulfillment.

Today, I realize all the faulty thinking and belief systems that led me to that conclusion. I now live a happy life living out my purpose and realizing that marriage and children would have hindered me in what God created me to do. I don’t have the blueprint for the rest of my life; it’s imprinted on God’s heart and that’s the only place it needs to be. But that also means I don’t know what He has for me in the future and I realize it may be very different from today. I know whatever it is, it is also lovingly planned by Him as the best possible way to continue living out the fulfilling purpose He’s given me. While living this earthly will always have its struggles, the depression I used to experience has been replaced by a deep sense of destiny, identity, and meaning!

One of my Facebook friends often makes detailed posts about his day or weekend with just the right amount of humor thrown in, and each he time concludes by writing, “I am indeed a blessed man!”

That’s how I want to conclude this blog post. When I look at these three top blessings God has given me and all they encompass, how can I say anything else but,

“I am indeed incredibly blessed!”

How about you? What are your top three blessings? Once you identify them, is it a natural and almost spontaneous response to also say, “I am indeed incredibly blessed”?

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