We seem to be hardwired to root our happiness in our circumstances. It comes naturally to us. We are happiest when things are going well; we are saddest when things are going badly. Our mood is determined by the up-and-down roller-coaster of life’s ever-changing circumstances. We do it at age 4. We do it at age 24. We do it at age 44. And we do it at age 14. Today I want you to meet Tessa. She is a 14-year-old listener to the podcast who writes us today. “Dear Pastor John, hello! Thank you so much for this podcast and for the ministry of Desiring God. All of it has been a huge blessing in my life. Recently, I have been feeling more and more that my happiness depends on the circumstances around me. Will you please offer me biblical guidance on how I can root my joy in Jesus instead?”
Well, I feel so thankful for this from a 14-year-old. When I think back on the things that I struggled with when I was 14, I don’t think I posed the question the way I should have. So let me just encourage you that your very way of asking this question is a sign of significant, growing spiritual life and maturity, for your age especially. So take heart: from where I sit, it looks to me like God is at work in your life, and that is always a wonderful miracle.
Before I give you some suggestions from the Bible for how you can shift your circumstance-dependent happiness onto Jesus-dependent happiness, let me also say that this battle that you feel right now, you will be fighting sixty years from now if you’re still alive and Jesus hasn’t come back. Because that’s how old I am.
“God is much more committed to building godly joy into his children than we are committed to finding it.”
Actually, I’m one year older than that — 75, not 74. And I have to address this issue of where my joy is rooted every day — every morning in battle against the devil and the world and the flesh — rather than letting the old nature, which the Bible calls “the flesh,” lure me away from Jesus to earthly things as more valuable. Every stage in life — a 14-year-old stage and a 75-year-old stage — has its unique allurements away from Jesus-dependent happiness to world-dependent happiness. It does. So, you’re going to have to fight this all the way to the end, so it’s good to get a good start now and learn your battle strategy.
Four Ways to Root Your Joy in God
So, let me make four suggestions for how to root your joy in Jesus and not in circumstances.
1. Get to know God’s purpose for the troubles in your life.
God is much more committed to building godly joy, happiness, into his children than we are committed to finding it. And one of his ways of doing this is by seeing to it that we walk through enough trouble to make us give up on finding our joy in a trouble-free life. Get to know the passages in the Bible that teach this. For example, Romans 5:3–5:
We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
In other words, the joy of hope is intensified when our faith endures through trouble. Or in 2 Corinthians 1:8–9, Paul says,
We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.
In other words, the joy of complete reliance upon Jesus is God’s purpose when he brings us to the very brink of death. So, suggestion number one: Get to know this biblical teaching for the rest of your life. It will serve you very well.
2. Form the habit of finding God everywhere.
It’s a little unusual. Think it through with me. I suggest that you take all the natural pleasures that God gives you, which are not sinful, and make the conscious effort to see and to savor, or taste, God himself in and behind those pleasures. In other words, the best way to keep a God-given pleasure from becoming your God is to push into the pleasure and through the pleasure to the Giver of the pleasure, who is trying to show you something about himself and how satisfying he is.
So for example, the Bible says that God’s word is sweeter than honey (Psalm 19:10). And the Bible says that Jesus is the light of the world (John 8:12). And the Bible says that he’s like living water (John 4:10–14). So when you taste anything that is really delicious, or when you pass out of a scary darkness into some beautiful light and brightness, or when you really, really, really are thirsty and you drink a glass of cold water, at every one of those points, say to yourself that Jesus is sweeter than honey, and he wants me to taste him in the gift of honey. Say to yourself that Jesus is brighter than this beautiful light, and he wants me to enjoy him in his brightness. And say to yourself that Jesus is more satisfying than this great thirst-quenching water, and he wants me to be satisfied in him like I feel right now with this water — only better.
In other words, form the habit of finding God everywhere that there is goodness in this world. This will keep you from treating the goodness as God, and it will keep you from scorning the goodness of God by rejecting the gifts. All God’s good gifts are meant not for idolatry; they are meant to give us a taste of the one who created them and to show us something of himself.
“Form the habit of finding God everywhere that there is goodness in this world.”
And I find it helpful to add this: since I’m a sinner and deserve nothing from God but judgment, therefore, every good thing that comes to me as a child of God was purchased for me by the blood of Jesus, without which I would only be condemned. I would base all that on Romans 8:32. Therefore, every good thing not only points me to the goodness of the Giver, but it points me to the infinite price that was paid by Jesus so that I could have the gift and the Giver. This helps me love him as I ought. I hope it does you too.
3. Make Bible reading personal.
Make your Bible reading every day very personal. Don’t just think about learning how to live from guidelines in the Bible, which are important, but every day, think about what you can know of Jesus, the Son of God, and God the Father, and God the Holy Spirit — what you can know about them as persons. In other words, read the Bible to get to know the person of God. Always think: I love a person. I love a person. God is admirable. God is strong. God is wise. God is kind. God is patient. God is just. God is merciful. And as you see these traits in God, love him because of them. Find the person himself to be your treasure. Make Bible reading personal.
4. Remember your coming death.
And finally, even though you’re only 14, keep death regularly in your mind — not all the time; just regularly return to the thought that you’re going to die. And the point of this is not to make you scared. It’s not to make you sad. It’s not to make you morose. Just the opposite. Everybody is going to die unless Jesus comes back first. It might happen when you’re 15, it might happen when you’re 95, but it is going to happen.
And when that time comes, everything but Jesus will lose its comforting power. All our possessions, all our accomplishments, all our personal looks and intellect, all our family and friends, all of them will fail as a foundation for hope and joy in our dying. But if you know Jesus personally, the day of your death will not be a day of just leaving things behind that you’re familiar with, but it will be a day of stepping into the presence of the one that we care about most.
So thank you for asking such a very good question at age 14. I’m really excited about what God is going to do in your life between now and when you’re 24.