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6 Steps to Experiencing Joy in Hardship

6 Steps to Experiencing Joy in Hardship

I saw the purest and most vivid example of true biblical joy displayed in a dying friend. She wasn’t celebrating her upcoming death by any means, but she did exhibit the quiet, immovable strength of a woman who had come to know Christ deeply, relied on Him fully, and trusted Him implicitly. Although her present circumstances were painful beyond expression, she knew her future would be glorious and was held secure. I found myself wanting to emulate her by implementing the lessons she revealed. 

Perhaps you do as well. 

Here are 6 ways to experience abiding and unshakable joy during hardships:

1. Recognize the Difference between Joy and Happiness

In our modern vernacular, we often equate joy with a fleeting, surface-level emotion based on pleasant experiences, but the soul-state Scripture refers to goes much deeper. It’s the steady assurance of God’s grace and all the gifts and realities that encompasses. Therefore, when Scripture tells us to greet our difficulties with joy, it’s not suggesting we deny, downplay, or suppress our feelings. That wouldn’t be honest or authentic, two character traits God loves. Rather, He wants us to inform our emotions with truth and to anchor ourselves in His care.

Paul, the ancient church planter who wrote a good deal of the New Testament, demonstrated such an elevated yet grounded perspective. Consider his letter to the Philippians, written while under house arrest. He told them that he thanked God for them and their partnership in Christ (Phil. 1:4-3), for God’s continual work in their lives (Phil. 1:6), and for the fact that his circumstances furthered the gospel. God’s hand and plan, not Paul's chains, brought him joy. 

2. Drive Your Thinking with Truth

Throughout generations, countless men and women have turned to the biblical book of Psalms for encouragement when enduring painful seasons. Numerous Bible scholars call these ancient prayers mirrors of the soul, and understandably so. These chapters, preserved by God, vividly express the fullness of humanity—our hurts, fears, frustrations, and blessings. They also provide guides that can help us process our feelings with truth.  

In Psalm 55, David, ancient Israel’s second king and someone God referred to as a man after His heart, wrote, “My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught because of what my enemy is saying, because of the threats of the wicked; for they bring down suffering on me and assail me in their anger. My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen on me. Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me" (v. 2b-5, NIV).

Notice the array of emotions expressed. David said he felt distraught, anguished, fearful, trembling, and overwhelmed. These are far from celebratory words; they’re the raw, real cries from a hurting and desperate soul. Yet, David didn’t allow his suffering to overshadow truth. Ten verses later, he wrote, “As for me, I call to God, and the Lord saves me. Evening, morning and noon I cry out in distress, and he hears my voice. He rescues me unharmed from the battle waged against me, even though many oppose me. God, who is enthroned from of old, who does not change—he will hear them and humble them, because they have no fear of God” (v. 16-19, NIV).

When life overwhelms us, we can follow a similar pattern. We can turn to God, the One who sees, loves, and promises to care for us. We can tell Him everything we’re thinking and feeling, and then we can remind ourselves of truth. This is what James meant when he told us to “consider”—or more closely related to the original Greek, “to meet”—our troubles with joy. In other words, to take control of and lead our thoughts with truth. 

This is truth: God is good even when our circumstances aren’t. He’s loving even when others respond to us with hatred. He is faithful even when we’re faithless. He is attentive and ever-present, even when we feel alone. And He declares Himself a mighty warrior (Ex. 15:3, Amos 3:13, Zeph. 3:17) who fights our battles and secures our victories. 

3. Seek God’s Wisdom

In James 1, Scripture tells us a few things. First, we should expect trials; second, we should remember that God will use them for good; and third, we should seek God’s guidance regarding how to respond. In verse five, we read, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (NIV).

When we’re going through difficulties, our world may feel dark and confusing. In our pain, we can easily feel like a victim rather than a loved and cared-for child of God. This distorted perspective, in turn, negatively affects our responses and, therefore, our recovery and long-term growth. 

As Bible scholar Warren Wiersbe wrote, “When trouble comes to our lives, we can do one of three things: endure it, escape it, or enlist it. If we only endure our trials, then trials become our master, and we have a tendency to become hard and bitter. If we try to escape our trials, then we will probably miss the purposes God wants to achieve in our lives. But if we learn to enlist our trials, they will become our servants instead of our masters and work for us; and God will work all things together for our good and His glory (Rom. 8:28).”

To make trials our servant, we must seek God’s will and ways and yield, in obedient trust, to however He leads.  

And this points to perhaps the most important step, choosing to trust. 

4. Trust God’s Heart

Years ago, a pastor I served under gave me advice that has greatly impacted all my interactions. Every situation carries with it a gap of information, and I insert trust or distrust within each. 

For example, when a friend is late for a get-together, I may know the time we agreed to meet and that the person hasn’t arrived. What I don’t know, however, is why, and that represents a gap of information in which I could insert numerous causes. What I fill in that gap, in many ways, depends on how much I trust the individual. If they are known for being punctual, then I’ll probably assume they got stuck in traffic, had car trouble, or perhaps encountered a family emergency. If the person frequently behaves selfishly or irresponsibly, I’ll likely assume they didn’t value me or my time enough to keep the engagement. In the first scenario, I’m inserting trust; in the second, distrust. 

We do the same with God each day, often without even realizing it. Let me give an example. Years ago, I went through a challenging season in my career where it seemed as if God was killing a longtime dream. I felt as if I was losing something that brought me incredible joy and fulfillment. Initially, focused on the problem, I became increasingly melancholy. Frankly, I was angry at God. It seemed as if He had led me in a certain direction for decades, had ignited a passion in my heart, and called me to sacrifice certain things to pursue it, only to take it from me. 

Had I remained in that mindset, I would’ve only increased my misery while growing blind and deaf to all God was doing in that season. But then one day, in the middle of a mental rant, the Holy Spirit reminded me of a verse I’d memorized not long prior. It’s found in Psalm 147:5, which states, “Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit” (NIV).

I realized I either believed that verse, and on a wider scale, that God was who He said He was, or I didn’t. But because I knew, and chose to believe, that He was indeed all-powerful and wise beyond my comprehension. Because He was indeed good, my circumstances had to be good as well, regardless of how things appeared at the moment. Armed with the heart-exposing power of Scripture, I chose to hold tight to God’s promises and placed truth over my temporary emotions. 

With every encounter and ordeal, we can assume that God is loving or apathetic, attentive or neglectful, benevolent or unscrupulous. The more we recognize God for who He is, and align our lives accordingly, the greater our joy.

5. Regularly Reflect on the Cross

Romans 12:1 states, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (NIV). 

In view of God’s mercy. In view of all He has done and the price He paid, offer your entire selves—your dreams, questions and doubts, hurts, and desires—to Him, knowing that this is the greatest praise you can offer. 

Years ago, I watched The Passion of the Christ movie, and seeing all that Christ endured so that I might live completely wrecked me. I left the theater overwhelmed with gratitude and a desire to surrender my life more fully to Him. 

That is the only way you and I will experience the full, overflowing, beyond-expectation life Christ promised. 

6. Cultivate Anticipation for Heaven

As I indicated previously, when I watched my friend dying of cancer, I saw her intimacy with Christ grow. As it did, her desire for all that awaited her, when her faith became sight, increased as well. This brought her a deep and enduring joy. She didn’t deny the pain she felt as her body steadily weakened. She wasn’t excited about the prospect of temporarily leaving her loved ones. But nor was she despondent, because hope—her assurance in Christ and His goodness—undergirded her sorrow. She knew, in a way only the dying can, that her suffering today would not win, because Christ already had. 

1 Corinthians 12:9 states, “However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” — the things God has prepared for those who love him—” (NIV).

In other words, our human minds cannot fathom the incredible pleasure awaiting us. That moment when God will banish all sickness, hardship, and sorrow from our lives for good. But we’re not there yet. We’re like that kid stuck in a van without air conditioning headed towards Disney Land. That child feels as if her journey will last forever, and because this will be her first amusement park experience, she’s not even certain her pain is worth it. But once she’s there, riding her first roller coaster, that long stretch of highway will be long forgotten. 

We are that child, only we are headed towards something much better than the most creative amusement parks, pristine beaches, or anything else our brains could conjure. Whenever we remind ourselves of this and receive this assurance to the core of our being, we are experiencing soul-deep joy. 

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Tara Moore

Jennifer Slattery is a writer and speaker who hosts the Faith Over Fear podcast. She’s addressed women’s groups, Bible studies, and writers across the nation. She’s the author of Building a Family and numerous other titles and maintains a devotional blog at JenniferSlatteryLivesOutLoud.com.

As the founder of Wholly Loved Ministries, she’s passionate about helping women experience Christ’s freedom in all areas of their lives. Visit her online to learn more about her speaking or to book her for your next women’s event  and sign up for her free quarterly newsletter HERE  and make sure to connect with her on Facebook and Instagram.