Why I Won’t Say “Choose Joy”

“Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda.”  Proverbs 25:20 [ESV]

Some precious friends who also know the horrific sting of child loss were recently sent a post on social media outlining how they must choose joy and not sorrow.  My heart ached for them as I read it.  The reality is this sweet family has done a remarkable job of demonstrating faith, perseverance and joy in the midst of deepest loss.  I have no doubt the sender was well-meaning and motivated by love, but it was obvious the post was written by one who lacks the understanding and wisdom gleaned from the depths of sorrow and loss that these dear friends intimately know.

There may be times in life when the mantra “choose joy” might be fitting and appropriate, particularly when spoken inwardly as a challenge to oneself.  However, when dealing with deeply wounded, grieving or struggling people, those two words may do more harm than good.

Saying “choose joy” implies they aren’t “choosing joy.” 

It’s been fourteen months since Sarah left and I have made progress in learning how to carry the weight of sorrow.  But some days are still of the magnitude of the very first days, staggering, take you to your knees, struggle to breathe days.  A few days ago I had one of those days.  No major trigger or cause, I just felt the full weight of missing my little girl.  I longed to be sharing in the excitement of her beginning college, to celebrate the next round of milestones with all her peers and their parents.  My heart and eyes were overflowing with sorrow intermittently all day.  If you had seen me that day you could have reasonably, yet wrongly, concluded I lack joy.

If you aren’t intimately walking alongside a broken person on a daily basis it is impossible to accurately assess the presence or absence of joy in their lives.  If they happen to reveal or share the weight of sorrow in their heart, it is not an indication that their heart is void of joy.  Likewise, if they share the joy of their heart, that does not indicate their heart is now free of grief and sorrow.  Even if you are confident in your assessment that a broken person is lacking joy, I beg of you to reconsider advising them to “choose joy.”

Saying “choose joy” implies joy and sorrow are mutually exclusive. 

“But it is still my consolation, And I rejoice in unsparing pain, That I have not denied the words of the Holy One.” Job 6:10 [NASB]

The exhortation to “choose joy” is rooted in truth but lacking context.  It fails to acknowledge the proper Biblical context which consistently shows sorrow or distress and joy or rejoicing existing simultaneously in the lives of believers.  Saying “choose joy” implies that joy and sorrow are mutually exclusive, that one must choose either joy or sorrow, one or the other.  Therefore, if you are experiencing sorrow you must be failing to choose joy.

No right minded person would ever choose to feel sorrow or bear grief.  For most, if not all, it is inescapably thrust upon us.  Sarah will not come back and my sorrow will not go away this side of heaven.  If sorrow and joy are mutually exclusive I can never have joy.  Praise God, that is not true though.  Joy and sorrow are NOT mutually exclusive.  Joy and sorrow coexist, we can and do experience them simultaneously.

Saying “choose joy” conveys you believe sorrow is no longer appropriate. 

“I am weary with my sighing; Every night I make my bed swim, I dissolve my couch with my tears.” Psalm 6:6 [NASB]

If a deeply wounded person shares the details of their sorrow with me and my response to them is “choose joy,” I risk conveying to them that I believe their pain and sorrow is no longer appropriate.  It may be perceived as indicating that I believe it is time for them to move on from their sorrow, to no longer feel it.   Should they receive it that way they will likely no longer feel safe to be transparent with me about their sorrow.  The end result potentially further isolating them in their pain and sorrow.

Saying “choose joy” is not actionable advice.

“Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I [am] pining away; Heal me, O LORD, for my bones are dismayed.” Psalm 6:2 [NASB]

In the midst of their brokenness and sorrow a challenge to “choose joy” is little more than an exhortation to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” While it sounds slightly more spiritual or religious, there is very little difference between saying “choose joy” and saying “don’t worry, be happy.”  How do you choose joy?  If my soul is overwhelmed with grief, would I not prefer to feel joy if I knew how? How do I make it happen?  Where does joy come from when your heart is completely shattered and the life you knew is no more?

 I won’t say “Choose joy,”  but I will weep with them.

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Romans 12:15 [ESV]

Weep with those who weep.  Such simple instruction but so profoundly impactful.  We were sent so many thoughtful gifts, cards and letters, and the vast majority were precious, encouraging and meaningful.  I in no way want to diminish the value of them, but the greatest gift we have been given over the past year is the tears of those who have wept with us.

Just a couple of weeks ago I met someone whom I had not previously met. He shared with me that he had prayed for us and wept on our behalf in the days and weeks following Sarah’s departure.  As he shared, his eyes once again filled with tears.  My heart was instantly knit to his, as was Scott’s when I shared with him.  His tears and sharing of our pain were a comforting balm for our sorrowful hearts.

I won’t say “choose joy,” but I will walk with them.

“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2 [ESV] “…encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone.”  1 Thess. 5:14 [NASB]

There is no end for some sorrows on this earth.  It is not a sin for sorrow to linger.  With that in mind, through the power and love of the indwelling Holy Spirit I will continue to walk with my wounded friends.  As the Holy Spirit leads I will share comfort from the comfort He has given me (2 Co 1:3-4).  I will prayerfully “put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” to bear with the broken and sorrowful around me (Col. 3:12).

I won’t say “choose joy,” but I will pray for them…

“Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Romans 15:13 [NASB]

I believe scripture makes it clear that our joy and our hope are inextricably linked.  There is no joy apart from hope.  If we are truly struggling to experience joy, then our hope is likely fractured or failing as well.  If we fix our hope completely and properly, our joy will soon be “fixed” as well.

God fills us with joy, it is fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22).  We can not simply muster it up, or will it into existence.  Rather, as we crucify our flesh and fix our hope completely on the grace to be brought to us at the revelation of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit Himself will produce in us the joy God commands us to have (1 Pet. 1).

What a breathtakingly powerful encouragement it is that the God of Hope will fill us with all joy and peace as we choose to believe upon Him, and that we will abound in hope!  Beautiful confirmation that it is not something we must muster, but that it is by the power of the Holy Spirit! (Rom. 15:13).  Hallelujah, Praise the Lord!

… to be empowered to greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory!

If you, my precious brother or sister, find yourself feeling crushed beneath the weight of sorrow today, I pray for you as I pray for myself, and as Paul prayed for the Ephesians:

  • that our Father may give us the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him
  • that the eyes of our hearts may be enlightened
  • that we may know what is the hope to which He has called us
  • that we may know what are the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints
  • that we may know the immeasurable greatness of His power toward us who believe,
  • that we may know all of this according to the working of His great might  that He worked in Christ when He raised him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places

That even in the midst of our deepest sorrow, we may be empowered through the working of the Holy Spirit, and through the glorious hope of His grace yet to be delivered, to greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory! (1 Pet. 1:8; 13)

“I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers,  that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him,  having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints,  and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might  that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places,  far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.” Ephesians 1:16-21 [ESV]

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Artwork: Sarah Harmening

8 thoughts on “Why I Won’t Say “Choose Joy”

  1. thank u for your biblical insight!!! our daughter would also be starting college right now and the pain of seeing all our friends begin that phase of life is just excruciating. your r right in that joy and sorrow can coexist!!! blessings and hugs from another grieving mama💜🙏

  2. “Choose joy,” is also unhelpful to those who suffer with major depression as I did for many years. Empathetic love and companionship are much more valuable to anyone who suffers. Well said, Sarah.

  3. Karen,
    The entire response is right on target and hopefully it will help many people who mean well and just do not understand the comments are sometimes hurtful. I’ve heard things like “Grief is your choice”, “Get over it”. and even the words “I understand how you feel” (All by persons who have not lost a child and have no way of understanding the depth of the loss of a child).
    I still experience joy and grief co-existing and have done so for 9 1/2 years of the 11 1/2 years the girls left.
    Hugs help!

    If you know someone who has lost a child
    Now with their lives all torn apart
    Understand they aren’t who they were
    Their lives have been altered, and joys cut short

    Greet them with open arms and hugs
    You will see both smiles and tears
    They want you to say their child’s name
    And speak memories of their child’s past years

    Please do not turn away
    When you see a tear in someone’s eye
    Remember, this altered life is not their choice
    They just need a friend, when they cry

  4. You are so awesome, Karen! Thank you for sharing once again. I didn’t have a chance to read this earlier because I only had my phone. I agree with you. Sympathy cards are so hard to choose for anyone and so hard to select. My Sunday school teacher has commented in class so many times about speaking to friends who are grieving. Words just fail us so often despite our vocabulary. Sending you love and hugs and would love to see you one day just to spend time with you.

  5. I have not suffered the same loss that you have, but I do struggle daily with great physical (bodily) suffering. In the course of this, I have thought frequently about the topic you present very well here. I am still thinking, trying to wrap my arms around the meaning of joy for a believer in the midst of suffering. One thought that I have had is that “having joy” is not necessarily the same thing as “enjoying” something. As Jesus saw the sin in the world, was beaten, carried His cross, hung on the cross, and experienced rejection from humans and (temporarily) from God, I cannot imagine that He was enjoying it. The physical and emotional pain was as real for Him as it is for us. However, “for the joy set before Him,” He endured it (Hebrews 12:2). He knew that He was in God’s family, His Father was in control and working, and that He would ultimately be with Him where He would no longer experience the pain. I turn to this example when trying to understand “joy.”

    An additional thought: A friend told me that John Piper refers to a Christian’s joy as a “quiet joy.” I have not researched and read this reference for myself, but I imagine that Piper may be saying that “joy” does not mean that I have a big smile on my face all the time. Rather, it is something inside of me that comforts me when I reflect on my salvation and what that truly means.

    1. I agree, Kim. I read Piper’s definition of joy not long ago, “Christian joy is a good feeling in the soul, produced by the Holy Spirit, as he causes us to see the beauty of Christ in the word and in the world.” I like that he also pointed back to the fact that it is produced by the Holy Spirit. That is one of my primary hang ups with saying “choose joy.” If I fix my thoughts on my need to attain joy I don’t feel joy, but if I fix my thoughts on the hope we have in Christ it always leads me to joy. So perhaps we should say “Choose Hope” not “Choose joy.” 🙂

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