July 14, 2021
By David VanEpps
As I crossed the finish line at the Tulsa Marathon, I felt surprisingly strong and incredibly joyful. The events that morning were the most atypical of any marathon I had experienced.
If you’d have told me that I would eat donuts, stop to take selfies, enjoy a mid-race slice of pizza, and partake in jello shots during a marathon, I’d have said, “You are nuts!” None of those activities are consistent with optimal athletic performance. However, I truly enjoyed this marathon because I set aside optimal athletic performance in exchange for quality time with my daughter Lexi, as we raced together, laughed together, and enjoyed life together.
Live With Joy
The most fascinating experiences of my life have been those where I’ve seen joyful people who, by most earthly standards, have no business being joyful.
On each of my three mission trips to Haiti, I struggled to wrap my head around how joyful the Haitians were. These beautiful people live in the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and they have limited food, clean water, sanitation, educational opportunities, health care, or material wealth. Yet, I’ve never met people who were so fun, stress-free, relational, and joyful.
Unlike their American counterparts, the Haitian kids didn’t have cool toys, fun gaming systems, or iPads to provide hours of entertainment. They made their own fun, and they did it in the context of building relationships with others. They also had the most unbelievable faith, which is likely a byproduct of spending time building relationships with both people and Jesus. The atmosphere at the Haitian church service was electrifying and powerful. People celebrated Jesus Christ as if it was the Super Bowl. Hands raised, singing, shouting, praying, high-fiving, and cheering. It was truly one of the most joy-filled experiences of my life.
Happiness Isn’t Joy
Happiness and joy are not synonymous. Happiness comes and goes based on circumstances and external factors. True joy is an emotion that comes from within and can be celebrated despite what’s going on around us. Joy comes more from who we are connected to than our circumstances. No matter what may be happening around them right now, joyful people are able to look at what lies ahead. Joyful people know that when Jesus walked out of the grave, He conquered everything that can rob us of our joy.
As a parent of young children, I had always believed that I wanted my kids to be happy. Later in life, someone argued that you shouldn’t want your kids to be happy, you should want them to be joyful. Their logic was based on the premise that happiness is a fleeting feeling, while joy is at the core of who you are. Bad things will happen, and no one can be happy all the time, but if one is deeply rooted in joy, those bad things will be less impactful. I believe our Heavenly Father focuses more on our joy than our happiness, and for good reason.
God Wants You to be Joyful
Towards the end of the Bible is a series of chapters written by the apostle Peter. Peter was one of Jesus’ closest friends, and he wrote these letters to fellow Christians. In 1 Peter 1:8 (NIV), he says, “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.” This inexpressible and glorious joy that Peter speaks of is not based on fleeting feelings. This joy is deeply rooted in love and faith.
In the book of Romans, Paul speaks of how God fills you with joy. Romans 15:13 says, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
And in Galatians 5:22-23, he writes, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” These attributes are collectively known as the fruits of the Spirit. They manifest in the lives of people who are filled with the Holy Spirit.
The defining moment to me came just a few miles into the race. Someone had bought a box of donuts and was in the middle of the road offering them to runners. It didn’t even register to me, but Lexi stopped and grabbed a donut. She asked if I was having one, and I said no. I was content with my water, Gatorade, and energy gels. Lexi nudged me and encouraged me to have fun, so I threw out my race nutrition plan and had a donut. We laughed as our frigid hands could barely hold the donuts. Just a few blocks later, some spectators were offering jello shots and pudding shots to the runners. Lexi and I looked at each other, laughed, and said, “Why not?” For the first time in my racing history, I wasn’t racing against myself or a clock. I was just out there enjoying the experience and having fun. We continued to stop for non-approved race nutrition and extra boosts of jello and pudding. We also took quite a few pictures along the way and didn’t worry about our times. Our goal was to run the race together and have fun while doing so.
As we approached the last three miles, Lexi was in apparent pain. Her training injury was haunting her, and she wondered if she could go the distance, but that didn’t change her outlook. She continued to laugh and smile, although there were moments I couldn’t tell if she was laughing or crying from the pain. Nonetheless, we made it to the finish line, and she completed her first major race. We took our pictures at the finish line, grabbed a slice of pizza together, and celebrated the rest of the day.
I learned a lot that day. I learned a lot about the priority of joy and the difference it can make in everyday life. In particular, I learned to always be joyful and to always compete with joy in my heart.
- Compete with joy. As an athlete, God wants you to compete with joy. He wants you to be joyful whether you win or lose, whether you have your best performance or struggle, whether the calls go in your favor or not, and whether you’re happy with the outcome or not. Know that what your future may hold pales in comparison to who holds your future. That connection, that victory, is your source of joy.
- Choose joy in life. God wants you to live your life with joy. He’s less concerned with your level of happiness based on external circumstances and more concerned with you living with genuine joy that comes from your belief in Christ.
It’s so easy to get caught up in our circumstances. We strive for happiness, and when our circumstances challenge us, that happiness quickly disappears. Don’t miss out on God’s plan for your life. He wants the best for you. He truly wants you to wake up every day feeling joy, not just happiness, because of who you are and because of what He’s done for you.
I challenge you to start each day by looking in the mirror and seeing yourself as a child of God. Realize that He loves you, He’s forgiven you, He extends to you His never-ending mercy and grace, and He wants you to live joyfully, knowing that Jesus has already won every battle for you.
Photo Credit: Zac Durant