Chasing Joy in the Midst of Depression

Whilst we can’t meet together as churches right now, that hasn’t stopped us coming together virtually. At The Globe Church one of the main ways we do this is through weekly Bible studies. And during lockdown we’ve been looking at something the Apostle Paul talks about in his letter to the church in Galatia: the fruit of the Spirit.

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit let us keep in step with the Spirit.

Each week we’ve been taking one of the fruits (love, joy, peace etc.) and have discussed what these words mean, how we see them in Jesus’ life and how we struggle to live them out in our own. The conversations have been so great, and much of the thoughts put forward by this blog must be credited to the wonderful small group to which I belong.

Yet over the last two weeks the peace and the joy that we are talking about just feel so distant. It’s not that I’m in a constant state of despair of anxiety, its just that I rarely reach a state in which I consider myself joyful or peaceful. This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and so I thought I’d think about how mental illness comes into the battle to live out these ‘fruits’.

What is joy?

The Bible describes joy as something very different to happiness. Whilst happiness is connected more to circumstances and to the the changing nature of our feelings, joy is something far deeper. Happiness only lasts as long as things are working out for us, joy is something that endures.

Joy is a deep sense of satisfaction and delight. And for a Christian, that joy is found in God, in recognising who he is, and in trusting in his goodness and his plan. We learnt, during the Bible study that joy, as the Bible describes it, is contentment regardless or even despite our circumstances.

And in working out what joy is, we considered its opposite. The answer provided is as follows:

Despair in our attributes, frustration and envy and what we don’t have.

As I read these words all I could think was ‘this is me!’

Instead of satisfaction and contentment, I far more often feel dissatisfaction and discontent. I know that much of this is down to putting too much emphasis on my attributes and circumstances and I know that joy feels further away when I struggle to pray or forget to recognise God for who he truly is. There are so many ways that I am yet to grow in my understanding and longing for joy. But I know that this battle isn’t made any easier by the negative thoughts and hopelessness that depression brings. Joy is hard to grasp onto for most people, but I do think depression makes holding onto joy even harder.

Where does joy come from?

So, if joy doesn’t come for our circumstances or our feelings, where does it come from? In Hebrews (a book of the Bible), the write considers how Jesus faced his crucifixion:

‘For the joy set before him, he endured the cross.’

Hebrews 12:2

Jesus is about to be executed by crucifixion. Nails are about to be driven into his hands and his feet. He is completely innocent, and yet he is about to face the punishment of the guilty. The Bible describes how he is about to be punished for our sins, to be forsaken by his Heavenly Father so that we never will be.

His joy was not found in the present, his circumstances spoke only of pain, loss and death, and yet there was joy. Joy in the assurance of future circumstances, in the hope of new life and in the work that he was completing on the cross.

If joy is about our future then it enables us to endure in the present. When all you feel is hopelessness, despair and self-hatred, you can still know joy by trusting that one day your pain will be over, and that just as Jesus rose from the dead after he was crucified, so will we rise if we are trusting in him.

But joy doesn’t just come from future hope, we can know joy now because we are shown in the Bible how joy comes from God. In the Psalms we see how joy is found in God’s presence and in the certainty that God will not abandon us.

This challenged me, if joy is found in God’s presence, and if Jesus’ death was to bring me into God’s presence, always able to pray and to reach out to my Heavenly Father, then why do I still feel no joy. Why, so often when I pray, do I feel nothing? I want to rejoice in what God has done for me, in who I am in God, but this deep sense of satisfaction just seems so far away

The Bible is full of commands to rejoice, and when you feel no joy those commands can feel quite crippling, but joy isn’t about what we feel, it is about the God we trust in and the hope that we have in him.

What is more, God doesn’t ask us to rejoice on our own, he gives us his Spirit, and as we depend on him he will teach us what joy is, he may even help us to feel joy, but perhaps most of all he will enable us to know joy in him, to know who he is and what he has done for us, even when that doesn’t reach our feelings.

My experience of joy, and by this I mean both a sense of contentment and a satisfaction and delight in God, is not always something I feel. I do pray that it is something I would feel, and I trust that the Spirit can grow that joy within me. But I am comforted by the fact that even when I don’t feel joy, it is still something that I know.

How can we pursue joy?

It helps me to remmeber that joy is a choice, not a feeling. A good friend made a Christmas decoration for me last year with the single word ‘joy’ painted on it. This hangs on my wardrobe to remind me as I start each day to choose joy. To choose joy even when I don’t feel it. To choose joy when my circumstances tell me otherwise. To choose joy when I can’t fathom the motivation to get out of bed.

And instead of letting my depression-driven negative thoughts win, I can speak to myself, remind myself of who God is, of what he has done for me and of the hope of that one day when there will be no more depression, no more pain, no more tears.

And finally, instead of resigning myself to a joylessness, I can choose to ask the Spirit to give you joy, praying as someone in my small group did: ‘May we fight for joy in the power of your Spirit.’

Sometimes I’ll feel that joy and sometimes I won’t, but as I trust in God and as I let his Spirit work within me, I will continue to know that joy.