How Can We Be Happy When Life Is Sad? Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.
I have a wonderful life. I’ve been married to my best friend, Jason, for sixteen years. We have three beautiful daughters, who are brilliant, hilarious, feisty, and imaginative. We live in a pretty house in a safe neighborhood, with a mischievous husky puppy named Luna and a chronically underwhelmed cat named Shadowfax. Jason’s parents live just a few minutes away, so every busy week is punctuated with family gatherings where Papa and Daddy grill dinner, and Gramma coordinates crafts or gardening projects. Not everything is perfect and we have our days, but in many ways it’s an idyllic life.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting next to my youngest daughter. I can’t remember what we were talking about (probably Minecraft, toads, fashion, or one of her friends), but suddenly I was overwhelmed with joy and gratitude for her. She’s a spunky and precocious first grader with curly hair, missing teeth, and bright blue eyes like her daddy’s. Looking into her eyes is like seeing God’s promises fulfilled, because she has come true. I never thought I would have these blessings. I never thought life could be this happy. Because it wasn’t always this way.
I grew up in a churchgoing, homeschooling family, with four younger sisters. My mom was a talented artist who loved to paint, draw, and teach children. My father had a PhD in biology, taught Sunday school, and could debate any theologian. But despite all his education and intellect, he couldn’t seem to understand love. Despite every reason and opportunity for happiness and health, our home was marred by abuse.
Child abuse may seem like an odd thing to talk about in a book about joy, but in order to uncover joy, we must understand what hides it. What are the sins that blind us to it? What are the traumas that make it difficult to grasp? What are the fears that stifle it?
For me, I was taught that my emotions didn’t matter or weren’t real. If I was offended by my father’s cruel or perverse words, I was told to stop being dramatic and act happy. If I was frightened by his violence and unchecked rage, I was told to honor him and act as if he were honorable. Even if my dad didn’t apologize, I was told to forgive him, which—at least in our family—meant pretending that everything was fine.
So, by our definition, to forgive was to lie. I had to tell him I forgave him, even though I wanted to run away. I had to tell him I was okay and then go ice my hand-shaped bruises. I had to thank him for his “compliments” and then go put on another layer of clothes. But if I didn’t “forgive”—if I refused to lie and expressed my sorrow, pain, or anger—I was told that God would not forgive me. As a result of this manipulative theology and twisting of words, I felt guilty when I forgave but feared damnation if I did not. God’s Word was weaponized to control my behavior, destroy my hope, kill my faith, and eradicate my joy.
When the outside world looked at my family, they saw a conservative Christian facade, but in the privacy of our home, we were broken, depressed, and terrified. We lived a lie devoid of joy. I think deep down I always knew it was a lie, but I also didn’t understand the truth. How can an abused child distinguish between what’s rational and what’s irrational—what’s healthy and what’s dysfunctional? Abuse is what I was used to, and joy was alien.
Even as an adult, just a few years ago I couldn’t say for sure I’d ever felt real joy. I had escaped my abusive home and was happily married with three little girls of my own. Nevertheless, joy was an elusive emotion. I heard joy sung about in Christmas carols but never experienced it, at least not fully. I remember being thrilled by its presence at my wedding or while opening gifts on my birthday or when holding my newborn baby, but just as I’d reach out to embrace joy, it slipped away like the memory of a dream.
Have you ever felt the same? Have you ever felt so broken and worn down by sorrow that you weren’t sure you could ever feel happy again? Have you ever been so exhausted by suffering that you didn’t have the energy to muster up happiness? What hardships, losses, or troubles have made—or are still making—joy feel unattainable to you?
My friend, I am here to tell you that there is a joy available to you that transcends human happiness. It’s a joy that can be found only in God. A joy that doesn’t depend upon us or our past or how wise or good or positive we may try to be. An inexplicable joy that shines so brightly that its rays of hope pierce our darkest nights.
But if this deep joy is accessible, why don’t we experience it? Our own human frailty, fears, and traumas often blind us to the brilliance of this joy. If we do manage to grasp it even for a moment, many people seek to snatch it away. You see, there’s a spiritual war raging around and within us. False teachers in the church, worldly philosophies, and shallow spiritual platitudes tenaciously work to stifle, cheapen, and distract us from joy. Twisted Scripture
An interaction with Walter, a pastor I once met, left me particularly unsettled. “You should have rejoiced when you were abused,” he said. “The Bible says, ‘The joy of the Lord is your strength’ and ‘Count it all joy when you’re persecuted!’1 Nothing you can suffer in this life is nearly as bad as what Jesus went through, so to complain about being abused is ungrateful. If you’re a real Christian and truly have faith, you should be thankful and joyful that you were abused, not depressed about it.”
I knew the verses he was referencing, but at the time, I didn’t have a solid understanding of what they meant. I asked myself, how can we have “the joy of the Lord” amid terrible suffering? How can we “count it all joy” when we’re miserable—as we’re burying a loved one, battling cancer, negotiating a divorce, or desperately searching for employment? How can we feel happy when we feel betrayed, abandoned, lonely, or oppressed? Does joyful even mean happy? And if we don’t feel joy, are we sinning?
Then I wondered, can joy and sorrow coincide? Are they truly opposite emotions, or can they flow and blend together like watercolor paints on the canvases of our souls? Like blue and gold, darkness and light, hot and cold, can they run together like the pigments and shadows of a sunset? And is sorrow really the antithesis of joy, or do they work in tandem to make our love more beautiful to God?
I knew Jesus well enough to recognize that Walter’s application of God’s Word was wrong. I also knew, through painful experience, that spiritual abusers cherry-pick verses, rip them out of context, and twist them to mean things God does not. The Bible expressly warns that the wrath of God will be poured out against those who lie in this way.
Walter’s particular twisting reminded me of a scene in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
, when Ron Weasley half-heartedly tries to read Harry Potter’s future through tea leaves. Ron dubiously tells his best friend, “You’re gonna suffer, but you’re gonna be happy about it.” Those teen wizards knew that was a bad read. Professor Trelawney instantly dismissed it as ridiculous. As Christians, we should too.
Hopefully, not many Christians are reading tea leaves like Ron, but sadly, Christians like Walter are common. Too many of us have shallow understandings of Scripture. Some have embraced secular ideologies or invented unwise doctrines based on what they wish were true. Some may feel their faith shaken by the depression and suffering of others, so rather than try to understand or help, they seek to hush it up. Hypocrites and spiritual abusers intentionally weaponize Scripture to deceive, manipulate, and silence the hurting, while others who mean no harm may genuinely misunderstand Scripture or passively accept bad theology passed down to them by their parents and church leaders.
When we listen to these lies, the result is unbiblical theology that’s more akin to a “gong or a clanging cymbal” than to the love of Jesus. It wrecks our efforts to counsel wisely. It impedes our ability to pastor and preach to the brokenhearted effectively. It garbles our ministry to the point that when unbelievers hear things like what Walter told me, they hear the very opposite of the truth. They’re left thinking Christians are apathetic or disconnected, that the gospel is unrelatable, that God’s love is unattainable, and that the Bible is not applicable to their lives or experiences. Joy, they think, must be found outside of faith.
But nothing could be further from the truth.