When You Feel a Lack of Joy
By Bill Gaultiere | Soulshepherding.org
We all want to experience more joy in life. Jesus prays this for us, asking the Father for us to have the fullness of his joy (John 15:11, 17:13). Fullness of joy! His joy! That’s a lot of joy!
What can we do if we’re experiencing a lack of joy? How do we experience a joyful life? We get a lot of advice about this today, much of it is not very helpful. Back in the 19th Century, before there were many psychologists, F. B. Meyer helped people understand why we may not be overflowing with light, joy, and power. This famous English pastor was a Doctor of the Soul and he can help us today in our relationships with God, others, and our own selves.
In The Secret of Guidance one of Meyer’s main topics is experiencing the joy of the Lord. What is “the secret of a sweeter, nobler, and more victorious life”? (p. 34) Let’s step out of our culture that is dominated by emotion and go back over a century to listen to Meyer’s wisdom. I’ll add some of own thoughts as needed.
Emotions and the Will
Meyer teaches that a life of joyfulness requires that we learn godly and effective ways of dealing with our emotions. What are feelings? Often we say we “feel” something and we’re referring to our perception of what someone else feels. Our perception is likely to be based on our own emotion, but we may not be aware of or taking responsibility for that emotion. Emotions include sadness, fear, anger, guilt, happiness, gratefulness, and concern/care.
The tricky thing is that “We have no direct control over our feelings.” We can control our will (our choices), at least as they’re connected to our thoughts. “Our wills are ours, to make them God’s. God does not hold us responsible for what we feel, but for what we will. Let us therefore not live in the summerhouse of emotion, but in the central citadel of the will, wholly yielded and devoted to the will of God” (pp. 36-37).
“Our feelings are as changeable as April weather,” Meyer says. “They are affected by an infinite number of subtle causes — our physical health, the state of the atmosphere, over weariness, want of sleep — as well as those that are spiritual and inward” (p. 83).
Is he saying that emotions are a hindrance? No. But many of us feel that way! We don’t like being “emotional” or feeling “needy.” Meyer is teaching us the importance of differentiating emotion from choice. This is crucial. When the Bible refers to the “heart” it is not speaking about emotion — it’s referring to the will. In Renovation of the Heart Dallas Willard teaches that the heart is our capacity for choice; it is the center of our spiritual being and in Biblical language it is essentially the same as our spirit.
If emotions are the center of our being that’s driving us then we’ll be pushed and pulled all over the place, including into lots of sin and pain! But if it’s our will that’s our center then we can choose to live in submission to God and to follow Christ. A life of joy goes with a life of apprenticeship to Jesus!
Fact, Faith, Feeling
Meyer says that by nature we live Feeling, Fact, Faith, but we’re created by God to live by Fact, Faith, Feeling. First off, let me say that Meyer’s teaching on this has been misunderstood over the years! It’s been turned into a train that runs on reason alone and disregards emotion. And this is proclaimed as the “Biblical” way. An over-reliance upon reason is an attempt to feel in control and it puts God in a box. To live in the joy of the Lord we need to balance the way of Proverbs with the way of the Psalms.
“Facts” are not just intellectual information and historical data points, although these certainly are essential types of facts. In the larger sense, facts refer to reality, including spiritual reality. To live by facts is to live by knowledge that is reasonable, observable, and experiential, keeping these in balance. “Experiential” is part of what is factual. Experience is not equal to emotion, though it generally leads to emotion. Experience refers to things like our physical lives, relationships with others, attitudes, and character.
In Knowing Christ Today Dallas Willard teaches that we don’t live by faith as in a “leap of faith.” We live by faith environed in knowledge; we live by faith (trust and confidence) based on spiritual knowledge of God and his activity. Abraham travelled to the Promise Land by faith, not knowing where he was going, but his faith was founded on his experience (past and present) of knowing God and hearing his voice.
Stepping Stones in the River of Joy
“The facts… in the Bible are like stepping-stones across a brook,” Meyer says. “Before you reach the shallows where they lie, you wonder how you will get over, but when you step down to the margin of the waters, you see… When you have reached one you can step to another, and so get across. It is absurd to consult feeling, or look for faith, while still at a distance from the brookside” (p. 58).
What are these stepping stones? In the Holy Spirit inspired and authoritative Word of God they are revealed to us. Furthermore, we can observe and experience these in our daily lives in God’s kingdom. Meyer identifies these revelations of God that we must come to know to live a joyful life:
It is a fact that God loves each of us with the tenderest and most particular love… It is a fact that in Jesus every obstacle has been removed out of the way of your immediate forgiveness and acceptance… It is a fact that the moment a person trusts Christ, he is born into God’s family and becomes a child of God… It is a fact that God… is faithful… It is a fact that in Jesus Christ we are seated in heavenly places… It is a fact that… you have a share in that infilling [of the Holy Spirit]… that marvelous power in service that transformed the apostles from being timid sheep to lions in fight. (pp. 58-62)
Our soul will be vibrant and overflowing with God’s love to others, even in suffering, to the extent that we learn to live in the spiritual reality of the river of life that’s revealed in the Bible.
Are Emotions Serving Us or Controlling Us?
To live by feeling is to say, I want what I want and I do whatever I feel like doing! This is selfish and childish. It’s a way of life that may produce temporary gratifications, but it leads us into descending patters of disregarding God and harming ourselves and other people.
Here’s a key: it’s always helpful to be aware of our emotions, but it’s never good to be controlled by them. For instance, our emotions are controlling us when we lose our tempers, become impatient, isolate from people, overeat, or depend on feeling close to God to know that God is indeed caring for us in that moment. Ironically, a major reason why emotions control us is if we’re not aware of them!
Perhaps it’s not safe to be vulnerable or we’re afraid to be overwhelmed by our emotions. To deny emotion is to be controlled by it. When it goes out of consciousness it doesn’t go away, it goes into our bodies and influences us without our awareness or consent.
So it’s important that we give significant time and attention to becoming aware of, verbalizing, and praying about our emotions every day. We look within to our personal experience not to be self-absorbed, but to reach up to God from our inner depths, our real self. Ideally, each of us would share what we’re feeling and experiencing with someone we trust each day and do this as unto Christ. Rare is the person of mature faith who can experience joyful connection to God without frequently processing their emotions with someone in the Body of Christ.
Not feeling our emotions and not receiving the care that we need as it relates to our emotions is a major source of problems like depression, anxiety, being detached from people, experiencing conflict in relationships, eating disorders, and addiction. Denying or escaping emotions, like through intellectualization or busyness, eventually leads to a lack of joy.
“Do not chide yourself for feeling strongly,” Meyer encourages us. “Tears are natural. Jesus wept. A thunderstorm without rain is fraught with peril; the pattering of raindrops cool the air and relieve the overcharged atmosphere. The swollen brooks indicate that the snow is melting on the hills and spring is near. ‘Daughters of Jerusalem,’ says our Lord, ‘weep for yourselves, and for your children.’ (Luke 23:28).” (p. 93)
The bottom line is that emotions make wonderful servants, but horrible masters!
With these basic understandings of emotion in place let’s focus on joy more specifically. Joy is not an emotion, but it normally includes emotions. Joy without happiness wouldn’t be joy, but neither would joy be joy if it had to always feel happy. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). It’s a an encompassing state of well-being in which we’re lively, energetic, confident, and positive-minded.
No one feels joyfully excited all the time! But by continually encircling ourselves with Christ we can be joyful persons even in the midst hardship and stress. But if we rarely feel joy that is a problem that shows there is a brokenness in our personality that needs healing. Maybe we have repressed trauma, internalized anger (self-condemnation and shame), or given up hope out because we’re afraid to be disappointed again.
There is real life, eternal and abundant life, in the spiritual reality of our hidden life in Christ (John 10:10; Col. 3:3). Meyer woos us to wait on God: “When God’s secrets break open, they do so in glory. The wealth of the root hidden in the ground is revealed in the hues of orchid or scent of rose. The hidden beauty of a beam of light is unraveled in the sevenfold color of the rainbow.” (pp. 50-51)
“When we accept the fact of [Christ’s] existence deeper within us than our own and make it one of the aims of our life to draw on it and develop it, we shall be conscious of a glory transfiguring our life and irradiating ordinary things.” (p. 51)
Generally, “faith bears fruit in feeling,” Meyer says. Because “happy and blessed feeling is the effect of the Spirit’s work on the soul.” Love, joy, peace, and all the fruit of the Spirit normally include an emotional component. “These are the foretastes of the river of His pleasures” (pp. 68-69). Believing in the Lord, we experience “joy unspeakable and full of glory!” (1 Peter 1:8).
Four Reasons For a Lack of Joy
We Lack Communion with God“It is essential to be much alone with God,” Meyer urges us, “waiting at His door, hearkening for His voice, lingering in the garden of Scripture for the coming of the Lord God in the cool of the day. No number of Christian meetings [or socializing] with Christian friends, no amount of Christian activity, can compensate for the neglect of this still hour.” (p. 42)
Instead, “We must be still before God. The life around us, in this age, is preeminently one of rush and effort. It is the age of the express train and telegraph. Years are crowded into months, and weeks into days. This feverish haste threatens the [life of devotion to Christ]… We must beware that we do not substitute the active for the contemplative” (p. 71) How much more do we need help to be still before God in the complexities and speed of the 21st Century!
Enjoying communion with God ultimately means learning to practice his presence. “We cannot live [a joyful life] till we have learned to avail ourselves of the riches of the indwelling Christ,” Meyer explains. Then he illustrates, “Amid the heat of an argument [a man prayed], ‘Calm me, O Lamb of God!’ But we may go further and say, ‘Lord Jesus, let Your patience arise in me, as a spring of fresh water in a briny sea.’” (p. 53)
In addition to quiet prayer and meditation upon Scripture to build our intimacy with God, we also need to engage personally and vulnerable with people in the body of Christ who can help us to experience reconciliation with God (2 Cor. 5:20). Love for God is inseparable from loving one another.
We’re in a Time of Testing
“But the lack of feeling does not always indicate we are wrong,” Meyer cautions. “It may be that Christ would teach us to distinguish between love and the emotion of love… Our Father sometimes cuts off the supply of joy and allows us to hunger that He may know what is in our hearts and whether we love Him for himself. If we still cling to Him as Job did, He is glad and restores comforts to His mourners with both hands” (pp. 69-70). We may have to wait through a Dark Night of the Soul and, as was the case for Mother Theresa in her later years, we may go many years or even to our death without enjoying a rich sense of God’s presence and blessing.
As when Jesus was tested in the Garden of Gethsemane we need to come to the point of praying, “Your will, O God, and not mine.” Meyer says, “Say it repeatedly, whenever the surge of pain sweeps through you… A great calm will settle down on your heart, a peace that passes understanding, a sense of rest, which is not inconsistent with suffering, but walks in the midst of it as the three young men in the fiery furnace, to whom the burning coals must have been like the dewy grass of a forest glade.” (pp. 94-95)
We Need to Repent of Sin
Another reason Meyer gives for a lack of joy is unconfessed sin. The pleasures of sin are not only wrong and dishonoring to God they also are harmful to us and others, leading to diminishing joy in our lives. Sin enslaves us, as we have to keep sinning with ever-increasing intensity to get the excitement, absence of pain, better image, or control that we want.“The perpetual filling of the Holy Spirit is only possible to those who obey Him, and who obey Him in all things… Like the apostles of old, we must seek perpetual refillings” (pp. 122-123).
We’re Burned Out
Being burned out is a common reason for a lack of joy. When we keep overdoing or stressing ourselves in ministry, caregiving, or work we’ll eventually burn out. We need to appreciate and enjoy the great reality of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). Meyer puts this so beautifully, “He indwells the heart by faith, as the sun indwells the lowliest flowers that unfurl their petals and bare their hearts to its beams.” (p. 47)
Meyer says that the way into the spiritual renewal of appreciating the risen Christ within is through Sabbath rest. “The secret of Sabbath-keeping is in the absence of burden-bearing” (p. 75). What blessed words the Lord spoke through the prophet when he said, “Bear no burden on the sabbath day” (Jer. 17:21). “Worry will break the rest of soul as much as sin does. And there is no hope that we should know the peace that passes all understanding till we have learned the art of shutting the door against the long train of burden-carrying thoughts that are always coming up” (p. 76).
Become Indifferent to All But Jesus
Meyer advises us, “Be indifferent to emotion. If it is there, be thankful; if it is absent go on doing the will of God, reckoning on Him… Then joy will overtake you as a flood” (p. 70). Indifference to emotion leads to a flood of joy. Detachment from selfish desires lead to being “possessed by strong and passionate desire” for God, a “fixed determination” and “settled purpose of the will” to “take the kingdom of heaven” (p. 72).
Mary shows us a beautiful example of this divine paradox. She detached from the worry and weight of kitchen work to set at Jesus’ feet; she chose the “one thing” that is needful and experienced the great joy of beholding Jesus’ face in her heart and living off his words (Luke 10:38-42).
But what if joy does not overtake you as a flood? What if you persist in this indifference to what you want which goes with earnest and emotionally honest discipleship to Jesus and you continue to feel empty, even dead inside? You need to seek Christ-centered psychotherapy, healing prayer, or another form of soul care. Rather than assume you’re in a Dark Night of the Soul like Mother Theresa’s, thoroughly explore the possibility that the reason for your lack of joy is that your heart is wounded or your emotional development is arrested and with God’s help you can be released from this into new experiences of blessing and joy.
Trusting God with Our Emotions or Lack of Emotion
We all have emotional challenges and at times feel a lack of joy. Meyer shows us the hand of heaven reaching down to us: “As we pass down the dark staircase [of feeling or not feeling], let us hold fast to the handrail of [God’s] will, willing to do His will, though in the dark.” (p. 83)
We can’t produce our own joy — it’s a fruit of the Spirit that grows naturally on a healthy tree. What we can do is plant ourselves in an orchard of Christ-followers, dig our roots into the rich soil of God’s love, and stretch our arms upward to the heavens to receive the rain that falls. “Get into the presence of Jesus,” Meyer encourages us, “and you will not be left to hazy questioning and doubtful disputations, but will be told clearly and unmistakable His will, and always definitely one point at a time.” (pp. 84-85)
May the joy of the Lord be your strength today and everyday! (Neh. 8:10).