How can we have the joy the Bible talks about when we feel unhappy?

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Being happy doesn't require us to turn a blind eye to troubles such as crime and natural disasters. Neither does it mean we chant shallow platitudes such as "Don't worry, be happy." Like most attributes we long for (peace, patience, goodness), a happy heart takes root in the discipline of giving thanks. It's the secret weapon of the joyous Christian.

Happy in the Lord

The Old Testament is loaded with verses that instruct God's people to "remember" his goodness, such as 1 Samuel 12:24: "Be sure to fear the Lord and serve him faithfully with all your heart; consider what great things he has done for you."

Whenever I struggle to feel joyful, I choose to reflect on how God always meets my needs. Time after time, I've seen God put forgiving love in me right where angry resentment had been half an hour before, simply because I asked him to.

As my relationship with God grows, my love for him becomes more deeply entwined with my gratitude to him. The more I remember his goodness, the closer I feel to his comfort, peace, and presence.

Surefire Strategies

If developing an "attitude of gratitude" is difficult for you, take heart! You'll be surprised how a little bit of discipline goes a long way toward giving you a joyful spirit. Try these action steps:

1. Start a joy journal. Keep a small notebook by your bed, just for jotting down a few good things God's done for you that day. This doesn't take long—especially if you use one or two key reminder words. At the beginning, or on a day when your heart's heavy, this may take some work. But even on those days, try to come up with three items, minimum. It may help to look back over the other days' entries to spark thoughts of God's faithfulness to you. As your thankfulness "skill" develops, this exercise becomes a pleasure.

2. Find something to be thankful for, no matter the circumstances. In every situation, there is something to be thankful for, if only you look for it (1 Thessalonians 5:18). My former coworker really seemed to loathe working in our office. Day after day, her list of verbal gripes grew longer, which didn't do much for my morale. Finally, I suggested she list what she did like about her job. The next day she surprised me by showing me her list. She admitted she'd been so busy focusing on her grievances, she'd forgotten to notice the good things in the office.

For years I assigned myself the annual task of making a list of "100 things to be thankful for." I typically find the first 20-30 easy to come up with, then get bogged down in the middle. But all of a sudden I find myself remembering little things that have built my trust and confidence in God. I always manage to come up with 100. Give it a try

All-or-nothing thinking is common when you feel discouraged, but don't fall into that trap. There usually are a few times, at least, when things go right. So look for the silver lining.

3. Say "thank you" before "please." When it comes to prayer, don't jump directly into your list of wants and needs, no matter how pressing those may seem. God loves to hear us appreciate him. Start by praying the way Jesus taught his disciples in Matthew 6:9-13, by honoring God ("Hallowed be your name"). Your praise will naturally include thankfulness for his faithful love, the daily help of his Holy Spirit, and his provision for you.

4. Try a Scripture search. Remind yourself of the importance of rejoicing by searching the Bible—both Old and New Testaments—for God's instructions in this area. It will spur you on to "consider what great things [God] has done for you." 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 reminds us it's God's will that we be "joyful always" and "give thanks in all circumstances."

5. Just ask. When you struggle to obey God in the area of giving thanks, don't hesitate to ask him to show you how. He's longing to draw you close, to give you strength for the challenges of every day. So ask for his help. God wants us to have a happy heart as much as we long to be joyful. It's not all up to us; God's there, waiting to give us joy.

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