In our 30 years of marriage, my husband, Larry, has preferred to be the driver on vacations because, in his own words, “I want to get there.” He was not implying that if I drove we’d get lost and never get there but that I’d drive slower. And he wanted to get there.
Now that we’ve hit the empty nest stage of life, much has changed, including Larry’s internal impetus to get everywhere as fast as possible. In fact, I take the wheel on our day trips around Dallas most weekends, and, what’s even more exciting, we’ll stop any time something catches our fancy. These unexpected stops have brought us joy we hadn’t gone looking for — maybe because we made space for joy to happen.
A Journey of Joy
My friends, we have stepped through a significant threshold. We are no longer preparing ourselves for adventure because our Journey of Joy has begun in earnest. We are present-tense, happening-here-and-now traveling.
In our travels, it’s good to remember that this is a journey OF joy. We’ve already been learning that joy isn’t a one-and-done discovery — it’s something we seek intentionally and something we can have along the way. Just as Larry and I are figuring out in our weekend jaunts, it’s good for us to become less focused on the destination and more open to what each moment of the journey has to offer. Our awareness of what steals joy and gives joy will be key.
The way of joy is presence — God’s and ours. Let’s take last week’s lesson with us so we’ll remember that joy is first and foremost found in God’s presence. God also blesses us with joy as we journey, so if we’ll look, listen, and lean-in to whatever God has for us, being as present in the moment as possible, we might find ourselves grateful for the stops along the way.
When Plans Can Be Joy-Robbers
Whether it’s our incessant need for efficiency or our driven tendency to refuse changes to the itinerary, our preset plans and mindsets can dominate our decisions, causing us to miss moments God intended for our good, for our joy.
If you haven’t picked up on this planner personality trait of mine yet, I’ll just come clean and admit I like plans. A big surprise on this Journey of Joy for me has not been so much how fear in general can steal my joy but how my tight grip on set plans reveals my fear of losing control. On the surface, it’s easy to agree and say, I have control issues. But what I wasn’t prepared for on this journey was the revelation of how many different ways I can shift into planner overdrive as a coping mechanism, as a means of avoiding hard things — like feelings.
When I worked on staff at our church, I coped with the chaos of ministry by creating plans. I’d outline in great detail all the ideas, supplies, or roles that were needed. Many times, my lists were well received, even appreciated. But there were times that my plans came out of a subconscious need for control when the situation I lived in was out of control. In those instances, I clung to my outlines with ferocity. Panic would creep in if I thought they wouldn’t be accepted or if I felt they were being challenged. I lost all sense of collaboration and flexibility because of my underlying fear of losing control of the situation or my emotions.
I’ve responded similarly in nearly every season of stress. Whether with a spiraling relationship, a life-changing move, or a modification to an itinerary, my response has been a tight-fisted grasp on plans.
What I’m not saying is that planning is bad because it is often good and necessary. Without a game plan, it’s hard to win the game. Without a strategic plan, it’s difficult to get people organized and moving in the right direction.
But. Sometimes. Plans own us. Sometimes, plans keep us from taking stops along the way.
I’m curious where you stand. If you’re a planner, do you relate? If you’re not much of a planner, how does making unplanned stops make you feel? I ask because it occurs to me, not everyone will react negatively to spontaneity.
I do suspect, however, that most of us do live distracted most of the time.
Distractions As Thieves of Joy
Phones buzz. Kids holler. Ovens beep. TVs blare. So much demands our attention. How much life do we miss when our eyes fail to take in what’s around us because they’re focused on all the distractions?
Traveling in the backseat of our family’s car as a girl, I almost always had my nose in a book because it helped pass the time. My boys were the same way — passengers focused on the movie or phone or game in front of them as we rolled along the highways. My inner child understood their desire to distract themselves till we arrived, but the adult in me urged them to look out the window to notice the mountains, the trees, the ocean, the people. But instead of eager attenders, I mostly got distracted grunts and shrugs.
On this journey and in life, we will miss so much of what God has for us if we keep living distracted. That adage, “stop and smell the roses,” became a famous saying because of its truth. Friends, if we don’t pull over for a few stops along the way, we’re going to miss great chances for joy.
Changing from Reactors to Observers
When plans go bust or people move slowly, we often overreact. We might pout, yell, withdraw, or passive aggressively insist that everything’s fine. Whatever our reaction, the people around us can see, perhaps more clearly than we, that things are not fine.
I’m learning that it’s best to go into every trip — and life — with a clear understanding that there will always be unplanned stops, which helps me set my expectations appropriately and hold my plans loosely. I also want to be aware of how I react when plans change. Our word of joy this week can help us figure out how to overcome our overreactions.
My fellow believers, when it seems as though you are facing nothing but difficulties, see it as an invaluable opportunity to experience the greatest joy that you can!James 1:2, The Passion Translation
Most of us are more familiar with the NIV version, consider it pure joy…whenever you face trials of many kinds. As I read both translations, I become aware of the connection between trials and joy — and it’s hard to imagine being able to have joy in trials. But. Let’s try to imagine.
Picture yourself heading out on vacation. Car’s loaded. Snacks are handy. Goody bag with your new book or puzzle is at your feet. You’re mentally ready to arrive at to the beach by 5pm so you can get dinner started before everyone else arrives. Joy anticipation is high.
This scenario doesn’t feel like a trial so far, but the minute the person driving decides to take an unplanned detour, your angst rises. You pause and breathe — one stop won’t hurt anything.
Back on the road you come upon an accident. The traffic is at a standstill but your heart is racing. Anger rises as you look at the clock and think of all that needs to get done. To make things worse, someone in the backseat suggests playing a game to pass the time. A game. Of all things. You “politely” decline.
By the time the road is cleared, you’ve created a new plan based on the new schedule, and you feel better about things — just about the time the other backseat passenger says they feel sick. And you yell at them to get over it.
Now this has become a difficult situation. Not only have you lost your joy but you’ve caused everyone else in the car to lose theirs. This is when James’ advice looks like pure wisdom. If only you hadn’t overreacted to all the other stops along the way, you might not have lost your temper. You might have had compassion for the one who got sick. You might have had joy.
Lysa TerKeust has been known to say that our emotions should be our indicators, not our dictators. That means at the first sign of agitation, rather than letting feelings dictate our reactions, we look to our feelings as indicators — of habitual patterns that need to change, of thoughts that need redirecting. When we make adjustments to the underlying causes of our overreactions, we become better able to take James’ advice of seeing the trial as an opportunity to experience joy.
Friends, we seek joy. We don’t give in to the joy robber. We look to the Joy Giver.
All the Thanks
When we look a bit deeper at our word of joy this week, we see there’s the inference of an ongoing difficulty, a season of trials that threatens faith in God:
…when it seems as though you are facing nothing but difficulties, see it as an invaluable opportunity to experience the greatest joy that you can!James 1:2, The Passion Translation
While a lot of our difficulties result from our own decisions and reactions, some of life’s hardest trials are completely out of our control — illness, death, weather, and people’s choices, to name a few. James is telling us that even in these hardest seasons we’re meant to look for joy.
Seeking joy in the middle of tragedy is about as hard as giving praise and thanks in the middle of it, yet Paul exhorts us to do so as we saw recently in Philippians 4. Here’s the same passage in The Passion. See what common elements you notice in comparison to our James verse:
Be cheerful with joyous celebration in every season of life. Let your joy overflow! And let gentleness be seen in every relationship, for our Lord is ever near. Don’t be pulled in different directions or worried about a thing. Be saturated in prayer throughout each day, offering your faith-filled requests before God with overflowing gratitude.Philippians 4:4-6, The Passion Translation
Do you see it? Look for joy in EVERY season — planned or unplanned, happy or tragic. This verse reminds us that we’re to rejoice because His nearness changes the situation. God is with us through all the hard things, so we rejoice! And all that praising of the One True God helps us choose, and even feel, gratitude.
Friends, our reactions to all the “stops along the way” of life either dictate a spiral further down the Path of No Joy or indicate a way forward on the Path Full of Joy. In each challenging moment, we get to choose our reaction — we have the choice of which path to take. With the strength and power of the Holy Spirit, with intentional pausing and praying, we CAN choose the Path Full of Joy. And, as Paul points out, gratitude is part of the process.
Gratitude Is Attentive
In his book, Ruthless Trust, Brennan Manning helps us pull all this together when he says “gratitude is attentive” (31). In your journal, describe what that means to you. How is gratitude attentive? Listing real life examples may help you see how gratitude emerges from an attentive awareness.
Stops along the way give us the chance to be attentive. And if we’re looking for God in those moments, gratitude seeps into our hearts. Brennan helps us visualize this::
“To be aware and alert to the presence of God manifested in a piece of music heard on the car radio, a daffodil, a kiss, an encouraging word from a friend, a thunderstorm, a newborn baby, a sunrise or sunset, a rainbow, or the magnificent lines on the face of an old lobster fisherman requires an inner freedom from self, created through prayer. Gratefulness is born of a prayerfulness that helps us notice the…marvels of God.”Brennan Manning, Ruthless Trust, 32
When we can free ourselves from distractions, including our own habits of busyness and control, to embrace the present moment and notice the marvels of God, we’ll feel grateful. These trouvailles become conduits for joy. Joy is found in the present moment, which is how Jesus can tell us to stop worrying about tomorrow — because He is enough for the moment (Matthew 6:34). And, noticing the marvels of God elicits gratitude, which is how Paul can tell us to give thanks in everything — because in the present moment it’s possible to be grateful no matter our circumstances (Philippians 4:6).
Just as Paul exhorts us to be saturated in prayer, Brennan encourages prayerfulness because living surrendered to God and His plans makes our overall attitude more prayerful. When we die to self and seek God’s presence, we enter His love, His peace, and His joy. Gratitude becomes our new response, and joy isn’t far behind.
For the rest of our journey, I’d love for us to implement a practice of gratitude:
In your journal each night before you go to sleep, list three things from your day you’re grateful for. This gratitude practice will help you stay in the present moment — it’ll help you look for what God is trying to show you, and it’ll open you to His joy.
We’re learning on this Journey of Joy that in seeking God’s presence, we become present to everything each moment affords. Our prayerful hearts show us when we need to let go of plans, distractions, and reactions so we can embrace each stop along the way, giving space for gratitude — and joy — to happen.
- Don’t forget you can check out The Joyful Life* website. This ministry offers studies, solid devotional books, and most uniquely, a quarterly magazine — all with the focus of JOY!
- This week’s journaling prompt about gratitude being attentive will help personalize this part of the journey. And, our daily practice of writing three things we’re grateful for will train us to be present to each moment. I’d love to hear what you’re seeing and learning through these practices, so comment below.
- Just for fun — find the “Easter egg” in this week’s post! It’s a travel word.
- Last week’s travel word was a crazy one — resfeber, Swedish for the restless race of a traveler’s heart before the journey begins — when anxiety and anticipation are tangled together.
- I mentioned Brennan Manning’s book in today’s post. Ruthless Trust* pretty much rocked my world. I suspect it will be a book I’ll pick up to reread many times in my life. Specific to this week’s topic: Chapter 2 is called “The Way of Gratefulness,” and offers so much insight into this idea of godly gratitude, and Chapter 11 is called “The Geography of Nowhere.” It packs a punch about living in the present moment. So. Good.
- Our Journey of Joy playlist on Spotify follows this journey — music is an incredible conduit for entering into God’s presence. I’d love to hear what songs have moved or challenged you.
*This is an affiliate link, so I’ll receive compensation for any purchases made.