Living With Joy
Lessons From My Garden
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13).
Definitions: These are my definitions, and I use them somewhat interchangeably because I find that you cannot have joy without peace, nor peace without contentment, and joy is hard without contentment and peace and contentment lead to hope and joy.
Joy – An emotional response of extreme gladness or great happiness. Joy is exultation, inspiring leaping, shouting, or even dancing. Clapping and other outward displays are often the result of joy. Joy is most often inspired by God.
Peace – A calmness of spirit between you and God.
Contentment – Being “okay” with where God has put you, who he has put in your life and what he has given you.
Intro: My Soil, Your Soil, Paul’s Soil
As I prepared for this topic I began to see the lessons I was learning from Scripture played out in a practical way in my garden. If you aren’t a gardener, you may not find the illustrations as potent and real as I do, but His eternal power and nature have been clearly seen through what He has made, so you may be able to see these lessons played out in your area of interest. I think God shows us practical illustrations when we are open to learn from his Word and are listening to his voice.
If we are intending to grow a garden of Joy, Peace and Contentment, we all come from a different set of experiences, upbringing, and personality—your “soil”—that affect how easily we can grow a lush garden.
My soil is of the more barren variety. I am by nature and upbringing rather melancholy, tending toward depression and without a huge capacity for or experience of happiness. The last seven months or so have been incredibly difficult. We have had a struggling small business for some time, but about seven months ago the bottom dropped out. A contractor put a stop payment on over $20,000 and cancelled our contract without warning. This began a period of daily crises and really difficult financial struggles. Each day I would struggle to trust God in the midst of one bad crisis or piece of bad news and would just get to the point where I could say, “I will trust you,” when the next crisis would occur. No sooner would I get to my feet than I felt like the rug was pulled out from under me and I was flat on the ground again.
It has been a time of real struggle and pain. Several months ago I found myself unable to think of any good thing to say when someone would ask me how I was or how things were going. I knew life couldn’t be as bleak as it appeared, but I could only see darkness and got really sick of myself. So when a friend and I reached the end of our 40 week study (which took us nearly two years), she asked me what we wanted to do next and I told her that I needed an attitude adjustment. I needed to be able to see good things again and to know joy. So we began studying Philippians, and from the first day it has made a difference.You see, Philippians is one of Paul’s epistles, written close to 30 years after Christ’s death and resurrection while Paul was imprisoned in Rome. This kind of jail meant that Paul was likely chained to guards day and night and probably reliant upon friends to provide food for him. When you read this letter (and I recommend you read it start to finish, aloud, in one sitting) you will hear a different Paul than the stereotypical Paul. In this letter he is tender, loving, and joyful. The strident, type-A, my-way-or-the-highway personality that seemed to come across in his writings is just not what I see here.
Let’s take a look at Paul’s soil. Paul says of himself that he was a Jew’s Jew. He was a Pharisee’s Pharisee. He was well-educated, devout, and had all the right credentials. He was so zealous regarding his beliefs that he persecuted Christians. He persecuted the church right up until he had a personal encounter with God. God struck him blind and spoke to him through this blinding light. Paul (who had formerly been known as Saul) was never the same. From persecuting the church he became it’s most ardent supporter, preaching the good news of Christ around the known world. He was so devoted that he wasn’t stopped by beatings, imprisonment, shipwrecks, accusations, or anything else. You might say his soil was rich.
What is your soil like? Is your soul so parched that your faith barely stays alive? Are you so starved for nutrients that your produce is feeble and frail? Or is it easy for the Word to take root in your life and produce rich fruit? The good news is that God can take any soil and enrich it if we ask him to, and then step back and allow him to do his work in you. Just a note though, do you know how gardeners enrich poor soil? You till in manure and rotted vegetable matter. So if your soil is poor, you may require the addition of crap and rotten stuff and getting your surface torn up to make you fruitful. Are you ready?
The Guilt I Grew Up With:
Perpetual Joy – Christians must live in joy all the time or they are ungodly. Wow. The incredible guilt that sets in when you struggle or have pain and don’t feel the way you think you are supposed to feel as a Christian. I just want to give you the verse God gave to me as I was thinking about joy:
Hebrews 12:2 Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of [our] faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. (KJV)
Do you get what that is saying? For the joy that was set before him (future tense) he endured (present tense) and despised. God in flesh endured and despised in anticipation of future joy. I checked with my local Greek scholar and lo and behold, the tense is correct. The joy was future. Oh the relief. Now I know that it is okay to endure and despise in anticipation of joy that I don’t feel today, but will in the future.
Growing Joy: Lessons from the Garden
Pulling the Weeds: What Chokes Out Your Joy?
Trials/Suffering: Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. James 1:2-4
Anxiety/Fear/Worry: Don’t worry over anything whatever: tell God every detail of your needs in earnest and thankful prayer, and the peace of God, which transcends human understanding, will keep constant guard over your hearts and minds as they rest in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7
Disobedience: Because of your wrath there is no health in my body;
my bones have no soundness because of my sin. Psalms 38:3
Busyness: “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” Psalm 46:10
What are the weeds you deal with? Is your crop being choked by your busy schedule? By TV? By pleasing others without any consideration for what pleases God and without concern for how He created you and what He wants you to do? Are you so busy with what you are doing that you have forgotten why? Have you lost your vision and mission? Are you so lost in your physical suffering or the trials of the day that you have forgotten everything else?
With weeds there are a few interesting facts I want to share. Weeds are best caught early before there roots get too deep. For two years I carefully watered and cultivated rhubarb in my front garden bed and was puzzled that the stalks never fully developed and never turned red. Well, when I planted the rhubarb, apparently some sorrel got in there instead, and I had been carefully growing a weed! Sorrel is practically immune to weed killer and close to impossible to eradicate once it is firmly established because it grows a taproot at least 4 foot deep. I allowed it to become firmly established in my garden and now have to uproot the shoots whenever they start to appear. This is now a weekly chore because I allowed it to become firmly entrenched. Some things we allow in our lives may have to be fought off for the rest of our lives if we allow them to become firmly rooted. For some, the surgery required (like digging up a 4 foot taproot) may not be possible, but if it is it will be radical and deep. It will take a firm intention to rid yourself of a deeply rooted problem once and for all.
Some hurts, like parental neglect or abuse, or sexual abuse may require us to deal with the thoughts, fears and anxieties each time they pop up, but sometimes an intense radical therapy is needed to get to the base of that tap root and rid yourself of it forever. So, whenever possible rid yourself of the weeds early and often to avoid letting them get firmly rooted.
Usually, it isn’t possible to recognize weeds when they are too small. At the earliest stages a marigold looks like grass which looks like dianthus. Until you are an expert at weed-pulling you may have to wait a bit before you recognize certain things for the distraction they are. Don’t beat yourself up for that. Just uproot it as soon as you know what it is!
One last thing about weeds. What is a weed for you may not be for someone else. I spent one summer growing a bed of chamomile with thoughts of harvesting and drying for my homegrown medicinal tea. After a summer spent watering, weeding and enjoying watching it grow and flower, I looked up proper harvesting and drying techniques and was annoyed to discover that chamomile is in the ragweed family and people who are very allergic to ragweed probably shouldn’t drink chamomile tea. So I had spent an entire summer growing something to which I am allergic. Great.
I have a friend who does not watch TV. At all. He cannot, because he has a hard time with the advertisements and the shows which inspire lustful thoughts he must avoid. I don’t have that problem, though I cannot read romance novels or watch soap operas because they make me so dissatisfied with my life and my husband. I begin to long for him to be romantic in that storybook way and completely miss his very excellent qualities and the ways he shows his love for me. For the same reason, I toss sales flyers whenever I am overly stressed or under financial strain. For me, they breed dissatisfaction with what I have. Suddenly the wastepaper basket that I have been casually thinking about replacing for the past three years becomes an urgent priority, and I simply must replace it today. So, for me, those things must be avoided.
For you, you may have other things. Perhaps going to the Parade of Homes breeds in you a discontent with your home and with your financial situation…whatever it is, for you then, it becomes a weed.
The 15 foot view: Changing Your Focus
I subscribe to an email gardening newsletter, and in a recent edition he talked about taking the 15 foot view. The idea is that if we focus on each damaged leaf, each tiny hole, each spent blossom, each spot of mold, that we are tempted to rush in with the toxic chemicals to fix things which are really minor problems. They become major problems because we don’t take a step back and focus on the big picture. The garden is beautiful from fifteen feet. The minor imperfections are just that. Don’t focus on the immediate troubles, the bugs, the damaged leaf, the spent blossom of your life, instead make the effort to take a step back and focus on the good things, learning to be content with imperfections, and learn to enjoy the promise of the future.
What Paul says from prison:
for I have learned to be content, whatever the circumstances may be. I know now how to live when things are difficult and I know how to live when things are prosperous. I general and in particular I have learned the secret of facing either plenty or poverty. Philippians 4:11b-13 No big screaming fits here when there is no money. It doesn’t mean he is thrilled or that it is comfortable to be impoverished. Somehow, though he has learned to see things differently, and the book of Philippians describes some of that.
Focus on good things:
I thank my God for you Christians at Philippi whenever I think of you. My constant prayers for you are a real joy, for they bring back to my mind how we have worked together for the gospel from the earliest days until now. Philippians 1: 3-5 This is one of the first things that jumped off the pages when I read Philippians through. His delight in what I am calling his Spiritual Co-Workers is his focus rather than the chains that bind him. I’ve thought about this a lot. The sense I get is that he has never had reason to be disappointed in them. Not that they are perfect, but that they have been faithful in the cause of Christ. I have found great comfort and strength and joy in listing my Spiritual Co-Workers. There are many people I know who have spent their lives working for the cause of Christ. Their focus has not been themselves and their own selfish pursuits, but their genuine desire has been to be more like Christ and to see his cause fulfilled.
You may have a long list like mine (request a copy of my handouts in the comments) or you may just be starting on this journey. One of the pleasures you will have is in locating and recognizing your own spiritual co-workers. Understand that there are many people who will start well but will turn away. Don’t let that deter you, instead keep your focus on the faithful ones. Knowing them and knowing their walk and their heart will strengthen you when you are weak.
Focus on the Future
I feel sure that the one who has begun his good work in you will go on developing it until the day of Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:6
Don’t beat yourself up for your current struggles and imperfections! You aren’t finished! I’m not finished. When I try and fail, or have a bad attitude today, or a screaming match with my husband…the battle isn’t over. I am being perfected. I’m not already there. One of the concepts in I Corinthians 13, sometimes known as “the Love Chapter”, is that love bears all things, believes all things. My interpretation of that is that Love believes the best. Love patiently bears the momentary snipping and snarky attitude believing that the other person loves them but isn’t showing it right now. Love believes the best. If I love someone I don’t assume that our relationship is over and that everything hinges on one bad conversation or one bad afternoon. I have a friend who perfectly illustrates this to me. Because of her faith in her husband’s love and her belief in his good nature and good intentions, she quietly endures the momentary bad mood, the cutting remark, knowing that he will regret it and apologize, and believing that he is a better man than his worst moments indicate. Wouldn’t we all like to have that kind of love? He once told me that he strives to be the man that she believes he is, and that because she believes him to be a better man than he is, he has become a better man. What an incredible compliment to my friend living out love believes all things.
See, her focus is not on the moment, but on the relationship and she knows that in an hour or by the next morning he will have gotten over his temporary moodiness and will be contrite and striving once again to be the man she believes him to be.
In my home, in my life, in my church, in my friendships, do I believe that God will keep working on me? That he will keep working on my spouse, on my children, on my pastor, on my fellow church-goers, on the undependable friend?
Transplanting: Rearrange Your Priorities
Exchanging the Good for the Best
Yes, and I look upon everything as loss compared with the overwhelming gain of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord. For his sake I did in actual fact suffer the loss of everything, but I considered it useless rubbish compared with being able to win Christ. Philippians 3: 8
Talk about exchanges. Paul lost everything but was able to say it was all useless by comparison to what he had gained. He lost everything but gained Christ. Even though the losses can be painful and stressful and ongoing, still, they are useless rubbish compared to winning Christ. I’m afraid this is one of those lessons which can only be understood and truly learned by suffering. But even if we aren’t asked to lose everything, we can still concentrate on what we have gained, which is Christ. Gaining the lover of my soul is of great value.
In a lesser way, this played out in my garden recently. I have wanted clematis for years, but the most ideal spots were already taken. I had planted three tiny little tarragon plants which grew into huge shrub-like plants. I harvested and harvested last year, drying sprigs of tarragon all over the kitchen. I had so much I couldn’t give it all away! So this year I have taken what is good, some of my tarragon, and transplanted it. I gave some away and moved some to the far side of the yard, so that I would have room for clematis. I gave up good for better.
I think we often have to do this in our lives if we are to experience true growth in our Christian walk. We have to give up some time with family or friends for study, we may have to give up a promotion at work because of the long hours and travel it requires so that we can be able to work in the children’s ministry. Some people give up their summer vacation trip to go and build houses in third world countries or help fix up churches or community buildings on the reservations. Is there anything wrong with a vacation? Not at all. But giving up good for better is the choice some are making.
In my life it means turning off the TV to prepare for this. It means giving up fun times to head to a funeral, or to be with a housebound friend. It means being at church on Sunday morning when the hills are calling my name. For you it may mean…giving up a magazine subscription to give to missions or to have money to take a hurting friend out for coffee or to buy a study book. It may just mean taking some of your relaxation time to brainstorm ways to befriend your neighbors. Just be prepared to set aside the good for the better.
On the Rocks: Reassessing Troubles
No Bad Thing
When my friend Judy and I began to read Philippians, we read it in the Phillips translation. My resident Greek expert (my dad) confirmed that it was a very accurate translation, not word for word as much as translating the intent and idiomatic sense of the original language. That first night we read it through twice and the caption at the top of Philippians 1:12-30 says “My imprisonment has turned out to be no bad thing”. The phrase “no bad thing” captivated my attention.
The passage says in part: Now, concerning myself, I want you to know, my brothers, that what has happened to me has, in effect, turned out to the advantage of the Gospel. For, first of all, my imprisonment means a personal witness for Christ before the palace guards not to mention others who come and go. Then, it means that most of our brothers, somehow taking fresh heart in the Lord from the very fact that I am a prisoner for Christ's sake, have shown far more courage in boldly proclaiming the Word of God. Philippians 1:12-14
I started thinking about the things in my life which could be considered “no bad thing” because there was some unseen purpose, some unknown effect that God was bringing to pass. So I took a sheet of paper and drew a line down the middle. On one side I wrote “NO BAD THING” in huge letters. On the other half I wrote a series of lines upon which I wrote many of the difficult circumstances I was facing. (A copy of this is available to you by commenting to this blog and requesting the attachments.) It is not that the things aren’t bad, unpleasant, painful or just plain crap, but that they are serving some purpose. I have had to discipline myself to think that I am spiritually a three year old who doesn’t understand why I’m given a shot, or made to take a bath or made to eat my vegetables. Somehow these things are good for me, I just don’t see it.
Scripture / Prayer – Utilities Locate
When you are landscaping, you may need to put in a sprinkler system or dig a hole for a pond, or put in fence posts or plant a tree. Anytime you do any but surface digging you must call for a Utilities Locate so that you don’t do what we did and cut phone and cable wires (or worse). You must find out what the non-negotiables are and work around them. In the same way, we need to find out where God’s utility lines are so that we don’t do damage and cost us much pain and suffering. Practically speaking, how do we do that?
Aligning your plans with God’s truth. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will. Romans 12:2 Scripture tells us where the non-negotiables are. Prayer helps with the other stuff. Should I buy a car? Should I take this job or that? How do I answer this person? How do I deal with my kid?
Avoiding Damage and the Cost
Proverbs 1:7 The fear of the LORD [is] the beginning of knowledge: [but] fools despise wisdom and instruction.
Proverbs 2:8-12 for he guards the course of the just and protects the way of his faithful ones. Then you will understand what is right and just and fair—every good path. For wisdom will enter your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul. Discretion will protect you, and understanding will guard you. Wisdom will save you from the ways of wicked men, from men whose words are perverse
To find wisdom from God is a valuable thing. But how do we hear God’s voice? I’ve heard more than one person recently bemoan that they don’t hear God speak to them. Why might this be? One is that you must be his. “My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me,” it says in Isaiah. If you are his, it may be that you simply are not recognizing his voice for what it is. Another might be that he has told you something that you are refusing to do.
When I was seventeen I asked God for wisdom for a big decision I was making. I pleaded with God to give me clear direction. What I really wanted was fire insurance. I wanted not necessarily to do what he wanted, but to be kept from harm. I was continuing to practice a sin and I am certain that God was gently saying, “Really? You really want my opinion? I’ve already told you what to do in this other area. Do this and then we’ll talk.”
Obedience to what we have been given is important. Prayer, not just the “I want” “I need” prayers, but time spent listening, and time spent really trying to understand what God’s word is saying to you. I also believe you should ask. Ask and keep on asking to hear his voice. He is faithful.
Trellis – A Network of Friends & Fellowship
Sometimes in our lives we need the support of others, just as clematis need a trellis to reveal them in full glory, or tomatoes need support or their fruit will rot on the ground. God has provided this for us in the church and in Christian fellowship. I’ve been thinking about Pastor Jim. Pastor Jim headed up a church we attended in California. For many of us in this church it was the church the way God intended it to be. This church was the family which was closer than the one you grew up in and seemed to be what the New Testament talked about. One day, however, Pastor Jim’s wife called the elders to come help because he was out of control. That afternoon he actually attacked one of the elders in a drunken fit and was hauled off by the police. What we would learn is that Jim was involved in many things we didn’t know about. The other elders didn’t know about half of the ministries he was involved in, and he did not share with them these things and his continuing struggles with addiction out of pride. Pride and fear kept him from being open and vulnerable to the very people who would have come alongside him and supported him.
Recently the church has been rocked by the very public struggles of Pastor Ted Haggard. When the whole thing unfolded I couldn’t help but see the correlation. Yes, the sins needed to be dealt with, but how did it get this far? Pride and fear led Pastor Ted to hide his struggles from the very men who would have helped and supported him and held him accountable.
At the time I was making the connection, I couldn’t help but think about my own situation. Here I was in one of the most intense struggles of my life, plagued by doubts, suffering in a very real way, struggling to understand who God is and how these trials fit into my picture of God, struggling to trust, and just living in intense pain, both physical, emotional and spiritual, but I hadn’t really told anyone at my church the depth of my struggle. I began to open up to people. It was not easy. I come from a background that punishes the struggler, that withholds support and encouragement from the distressed and that preaches to the heart that is crying out for love and understanding. I decided that this was a litmus test with this church. I had left a church which I felt was critical and demanding, lacking in grace and mercy and very judgmental just a few years ago and for all I knew this one could be the same when the rubber hit the road.
I am happy to report that I have been supported in a real way. I have been prayed with and prayed for, had someone sit with me, call me, listen to me and affirm me in such a godly way I am helped and strengthened and nourished by their touch.
You need the supporting trellis when you are weak. It is not easy to be that vulnerable. You must be willing to be hurt. Not everyone can be that support you need. Some aren’t capable. Use your best discretion when it comes to choosing your trellis, but find those that can support you and can be supported by you in return. Scripture says:
Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! Ecclesiastes 4:9-10
Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another-and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:25
We need each other. It’s as simple as that.
The Desert Place – Bringing out the Flavor
Herbs require stress to bring out the most intense flavors. If their soil is too rich and they are watered lushly the oils which give their leaves such intense flavors are diminished making them less useful. Sometimes we need to be stressed to bring out our best flavor, to make the most of who God created us to be. But here we come full circle:
Romans 5:3-5 - This doesn't mean, of course, that we have only a hope of future joys - we can be full of joy here and now even in our trials and troubles. Taken in the right spirit these very things will give us patient endurance; this in turn will develop a mature character, and a character of this sort produces a steady hope, a hope that will never disappoint us. Already we have some experience of the love of God flooding through our hearts by the Holy Spirit given to us. (Phillips)
Remember that I started out with the fact that Jesus was living in anticipation of future joy and that I need not expect to live in joy at all times? Well, this passage says that we can be full of joy here and now, even in our trials and troubles. Then the passage proceeds to tell us that the trials produce good things in us. Patience and endurance and maturity and hope. Somehow all these things are a part of our joy. That joy is from the experience of the love of God flooding through our hearts by the Holy Spirit. But how are these good things, these aromatic oils brought forth? In the desert place—the trials and troubles of our lives.
Refocus – Whatsoever Things…
Here is a last piece of advice. If you believe in goodness and if you value the approval of God, fix your minds on the things which are holy and right and pure and beautiful and good. Philippians 4:8
I have already mentioned my struggle with romance novels and sales flyers. Well, those and other things are not where I should focus. I should not focus on my trials (though I find it is not even possible to completely ignore them). Instead we need to think about things that are holy and right and pure and beautiful and good. In this way we are creating a heart of gratitude and praise, and joy! This is a discipline, so don’t expect it to occur overnight. It is a practice of focusing on what is right and pure and beautiful and good instead of the ugly, the horrors that can surround us in this life. Often this will mean focusing on the inner life rather than the outer life. My brother says that only Christians truly understand “The Matrix” because we understand that what is unseen is more real than what is seen, and that the visible contains so much untruth in it that we cannot rely on what we see.
Exercise Changed Thoughts
Complete the following: (request by adding your comment to this post: Please send attachments)
NO BAD THING list -
Your list of spiritual coworkers
What do you think about?
Winter Kill – When We Lose
Just before I came to talk about this subject for the first time, I had a call from a dear friend from our church telling me that they were leaving the church. I finally knew what I had been struggling to see in the winter kill this year. If you don’t garden you are probably going to think me a little nuts for this next one, but here goes: For the past couple of years I have grown and harvested rosemary at the corner of my garden. I walk by the plant every time I go in or out of the front of the house, often stopping to crush a leaf to smell the pleasant aroma. I think rosemary may be my favorite herb. It is a hardy woody evergreen, but this winter it had 4-5 feet of snow on top of it for a long time. It couldn’t take it and is as dead as dead can be. I had some lavender do the same thing. Here is the hope which I want you to embrace: Jeremiah 29:11 For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
People leave us, sometimes willingly, sometimes through death. Plans change, dreams turn to nightmares, hopes are dashed, kids go astray, friends turn cold, marriages are torn apart. I don’t know why these things happen, just as I don’t know why these plants in my garden died. I have spent entirely too much time bemoaning the loss of those few plants instead of rejoicing over what I still have. People have left our church in the past and will continue to do so, some for good reasons, some for bad, people in your life will do the same. Our mourning doesn’t stop, but we cannot invest so much of ourselves in mourning what we’ve lost that we miss those who’ve stayed.
Do your best to rejoice in the friends who have not deserted your church. Rejoice in the kid who isn’t astray. Take comfort where you can—think on those things that are still good. God's plans for you are good. It will keep the dead areas in our gardens from stealing all our joy.