These three seemingly simple words that will surround us over the next month, are actually filled with so much more meaning than nice, often throw-away season’s greetings. These three words are so complex, inexplicable and counter-cultural. They can be so life-changing when we put them into practise. I have found they have completely changed my perspective on things, no matter what the time of year. And these three words are so closely intertwined with maybe the most difficult word of all: trust.
Happiness is circumstantial. Joy is inexplicable.
My previous youth leader’s oldest son was born with severe heart problems. He told me once that he obviously wasn’t happy when he looked at the tiny baby in the ICU, but he was joyful because he knew that God was working through the situation and had promised to heal him. I was amazed when I heard this, and it was my first introduction to the transforming power that God’s joy brings.
More recently, about 10 months ago, I was in a really low place after very suddenly starting to struggle with anxiety. I would often go for walks to one of my favourite places – a hill near my house where you can see beautiful views of the Shropshire countryside. One afternoon I sat on a bench and watched as this enormous storm cloud rolled over the Stretton Hills towards me. When the storm hit my hill, I realised this cloud was full of hail. And after a while, so was I.
The weird thing was, despite being battered from all sides with hail and wind, I couldn’t stop laughing. It was the first time I had done so in months. I felt so rejuvenated and full of God’s presence. Even though my situation at the time was so difficult, and I was in no way feeling happy in the everyday, God gave me this joy which strengthened me. My situation didn’t change, and I didn’t miraculously get better, but the joy was God reminding me that He was still working in my life, He was still with me and holding me, and that there would be victory.
That’s where the trust comes in. God’s joy is a gift, and it comes from trusting that He is faithful and there is nothing that can separate us from His amazing, all fulfilling love. It’s so easy to fall into despair when things are going wrong- and it really is true that ‘satan tempts [us] to despair’- but ‘the joy of the LORD is our strength’. Despair means giving up. Asking God for more of His joy when we feel we aren’t coping is such a powerful thing to do – He is faithful, and will strengthen and sustain us.
‘Peace that surpasses all understanding’
A couple of years ago my friend was going through a really difficult time with family troubles. She couldn’t hear God’s voice or feel His help at all. She started to believe that He loved everyone else but her, and that He just didn’t care about her. This broke my heart every time she said it. I felt so angry that the enemy was telling her these lies. I knew God was telling me how much He loved her, and how angry it made Him that the enemy was telling her these lies. I got so frustrated that He was talking to me not her; I kept pleading with God, ‘Please, please just tell her you love her, why can’t you just solve this now, can’t you see how much she’s hurting?’ The only response I got was ‘Trust me’.
But I was getting so angry at God, ‘Why can’t you just do it now?’ Again the reply I got was ‘Trust me, have my peace’.
Asking God for more of His joy when we feel we aren’t coping is such a powerful thing to do – He is faithful, and will strengthen and sustain us.
Finally I managed to let go of the anger and the ideas that I had about what God should be doing, and accepted that He really was in control, even though I couldn’t see the big picture. After I let go and gave into trusting Him, I did feel that peace, and it’s true, it does pass all understanding.
I still don’t fully get it, how we can feel this overwhelming peace even though we’re frustrated and we don’t know what’s going on. Especially when I was feeling constantly on edge with the anxiety, accepting God’s peace was such difficult thing. Paul says in Philippians, ‘don’t worry about anything, but pray about everything… and then you will experience peace that passes all understanding’.(Phil 4.6-7)
So when you catch yourself feeling stressed or worried about anything – whether that be personal, busyness, struggling to support a friend or looking at the unjust situations in the world, turn that worry into a prayer. When we give it to God and accept His peace, we can ‘find new strength. ‘[We] will soar high on wings like eagles. [We] will run and not grow weary. [We] will walk and not faint.'(Isaiah 40.31)
It doesn’t mean we don’t care, just that we’re giving everything to God – which shows how much we care, because His hands are the safest place for that situation to be in. Even when we can’t see a way forward out of the injustice or the busyness, God can give us peace, and we can trust that there is a better way forward.
I refuse to believe that any situation is hopeless.
I think nowadays, the word hope has become synonymous with wishing. It’s become an airy-fairy type of wishful, overly-idealistic thinking. It’s often about something that is unlikely to ever happen. But the Bible talks about a certain hope. I didn’t really understand what this meant for ages – how can hope be certain?
I think the most important ‘hope’ we have is that Jesus will return, and one day there will be no more suffering and there will be perfect peace (Check out Matthew 24-25, Revelation 21, and Romans 5). We know this is a certain hope because the victory has already happened – 2,000 years ago when God himself gave up everything and died so that we could be with him forever. But the final victory isn’t complete yet, which is why satan still has power and there is still evil in the world.
A few years ago I went to work in Calais with a group of friends in a warehouse that sorts and distributes the donations people have given to the refugees in the camps there. One of the things that all of us found difficult was that there didn’t seem to be a way forward. What would the future be like for these people? I felt God keep saying to me, ‘just because you can’t see a solution, there is hope. With Me there is hope for every situation’.
Here’s the thing – despite everything that the enemy can throw at us, we know that God has already won, and that this suffering is temporary. There will be a full, final and complete victory. That is the certain hope that we can cling to. Whatever is happening in the world, however evil and unjust, God can work through it, and there will be a day when there will just be God’s perfect kingdom, and all suffering will end.
I know what you’re thinking, ok that’s great, but how does that help in the situations now? Well another ‘hope’ that we can cling to is that God ‘works all things for the good of those who love him,’ (Romans 8.28) and that he will never leave us nor forsake us (Joshua 1.5).
I strongly believe that God can and will make something good out of every situation, no matter how bad. I refuse to believe that any situation is hopeless. This is where hope links so much with trust – sometimes it feels like everything is going wrong, and we can’t feel God with us at all.
But relationships aren’t always about feeling nice all the time. We know how strong the relationship is when we stick at it – when it doesn’t need to feel all good and fluffy and nice. And it’s this hope that gets us through. God gave us these promises that we can hold onto when we can’t feel Him, and so we need to trust that He will bring the good out of situations and strengthen us through anything that gets thrown at us.
So, remember that these three small words can be life-changing if we allow them to be part of our everyday life (and not just our Christmas). When we look at the seemingly hopeless situations around the world, remember in your prayers that no situation is hopeless, and God can, and will, bring joy and peace into everything – however big or small, however difficult or hopeless it may seem.
What can you do this Christmas…
1. Download our free ‘God with us’ youth/small group session and work through material like this with your youth or small group…
2. Send a Christmas message of hope to young Christians in Algeria whose churches have been forcibly closed…