A Surprising Key to Lasting Joy
By LESLIE LUDY
She extends her hand to the poor, Yes, she reaches out her hands to the needy … Strength and honor are her clothing; She shall rejoice in time to come.
Proverbs 31:20, 25
The restaurant hummed with activity as I sipped my ice water and sat across the table from a friend — a godly older woman from my church whom I admired and respected. She’d been a missionary overseas for many years, and now even despite many health and financial challenges, she was constantly serving others with a happy, joyful spirit.
I wanted to know her secret.
I was eighteen. I was a strong Christian, loved my family, had wonderful friends, and was watching God unfold an amazing love story in my life.
But more often than I cared to admit, I struggled with stress, anxiety, and feeling overwhelmed. I knew that I needed more joy and less stress. But I wasn’t sure exactly how to make that exchange. Should I be praying more? Memorizing more Scripture? Spending more time with my Bible?
What was it that gave this woman her continually buoyant attitude? She had a zest for life and a love for others that I’d rarely seen, even among Christians.
Slowly, I began to explain the issues I was struggling with. “I love God and feel close to Him,” I told her. “But I feel like I need less stress and more joy in my life.” I asked her if she had any advice for me.
Smiling, she nodded. “It’s simple!” she announced. “You need to be doing more serving.”
I was taken aback by this unexpected reply. This was the exact opposite message I’d been hearing from the trendy “self-help experts” of the time and even from many Christian leaders in my life. So often, I’d been told that I needed to protect myself, take a break, and put boundaries around my time serving others so that I didn’t burn out. It seemed that the “look out for yourself” message was the prime recommendation when it came to reducing stress and gaining joy.
Serving and giving more to others seemed counterintuitive. How would that possibly bring less stress into my life? Wouldn’t my own needs fall by the wayside if I did?
My friend went on to tell me about times in her life when things were very stressful — her health was falling apart, her ministry was under attack, her finances were in turmoil. And each time, God had directed her to purposely get outside of herself and her own issues and serve others. She said that each time she obeyed, she found incredible joy and peace in the midst of her trials. She started worrying less about her own issues and discovered the thrill of working in cooperation with God’s Spirit to see lives eternally changed. And as she did so, many of her own issues began to resolve themselves.
She suggested that I look for people in my church and community who had needs and make myself available to meet those needs in any way that I could. “Worrying about your problems drains you,” she told me. “But forgetting about yourself and helping others invigorates you!”
I decided to begin putting this principle to the test. A woman in our church was sick — I volunteered to clean her house and help her with meals. My brothers and I began to visit a hospital for terminally ill lung patients. We visited weekly, sang to them, and read Scripture to them. I became involved with an inner-city outreach. I visited orphan homes overseas with a group from my church. My family and I began working with foster care children.
Incredibly, I found that my friend had been right. As I began turning outward and sharing the love of Christ with others, I lost sight of myself and my own problems, and discovered the incredible joy of giving. My stress began to melt away, and even some of the distracting health problems I’d been suffering from disappeared.
As hard to believe as it seemed, developing an attitude of outward living was a better “cure” for anxiety, stress, and depression than any self-help suggestion I’d ever heard of.
It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.
Whenever life seems to be weighing me down, I’ve learned that making a purposeful effort to turn outward and serve provides an amazing way to exchange sorrow for joy.
I once heard about a woman who came from a very abusive and tragic background. She gave her life to Christ around the age of sixty, after decades of hardship and sin. The missionary who won her to Christ struggled with helping this woman overcome the scars of her past. She thought, “If we have to talk and pray through every horrible thing that has ever happened to her, it’s going to take forever!” But then the woman discovered an unexpected solution to overcoming her emotional baggage — serving. As she visited the sick, elderly, and impoverished people in her community, she began practically meeting their needs and sharing the love of Christ with them. Miraculously, the woman was healed and restored from all of her inward struggles as she turned outward. She began to glow with genuine joy as she shared how Christ had set her free from her past and given her a fresh new beginning.
Isaiah 58 describes God’s “chosen fast” — a pattern of outward living that leads to joy, strength, healing, and protection:
Is this not the fast that I have chosen … to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; When you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Isaiah 58:6-8
In a world that insists we should be putting ourselves first, this pattern feels foreign and even uncomfortable. Many of us are hesitant to embrace this kind of outward-focused lifestyle. We feel too bogged down by our own issues and problems to be concerned with the problems and needs of others. We think that if we give and serve too much, we will be in danger of burn out and exhaustion. Even many Christian messages today tell us that we should be careful not to “people-please.”
But a closer look at the life of Christ, Paul, and the apostles shows us that a radically given life is the kind of life we are truly called to. And despite the many challenges and trials that come along with living an outward-focused life, there is a joy and fulfillment in serving that cannot be found any other way.
Hebrews 12:2 tells us that Jesus endured the Cross “for the joy that was set before Him.”
And Paul, despite the unbelievable trials he experienced in sharing the Gospel with the unsaved said, “I would to God that … also all who hear me today, might become both almost and altogether such as I am…” (Acts 26:29). Paul did not want any other life — and in fact, wished that others could experience the amazing joy and peace that he walked in daily.
Romans 15:2-3 tells us, “Each of us is to please his neighbor, for his good, to his edification. For even Christ did not please Himself…” (NASB).
The phrase “please his neighbor” in this verse actually means, “to strive, to please, to accommodate oneself to the opinions, desires, and interests of others.” And Philippians 2:4 says, “Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.”
In our “look out for yourself” world, we need to understand that pleasing other people, serving other people, sacrificially giving to other people — when it’s done in the right spirit and for the right reasons is not dangerous or self-destructive. Rather, it is a joyful privilege and a crucial part of our calling.
Of course, there is a right and wrong way to serve others. People-pleasing and serving others can be unhealthy, if it is done in the wrong way and for the wrong motive.
As it says in Ephesians 6:6-7, we are not to serve others, “with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, with goodwill doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men.”
The term “men-pleasers” in this verse means, “to study, to please man, and court the favor of men.” This was the trap that Martha fell into when she became “distracted with much serving.” (See Luke 10:40.) She was seeking the favor of man rather than the smile of Heaven. No matter what we do, who we serve, how we pour our lives out, our ultimate motive needs to be as unto the Lord; to pour out willingly and gladly for the One who poured Himself out for us.
Pouring our lives out for the benefit of others may, at first glance, seem like a fast track to exhaustion. But when we serve as unto the Lord and not to men, and when we lean upon the amazing strength of Christ, it can actually be one of the most refreshing and energizing activities we can ever engage in.
If you are ready to experience the amazing joy that comes from outward living, I’d like to share a few key ways to begin.
1) Understand the Call
When we hear about missionaries serving in some distant country, or families who are fostering and adopting children, or people who work in the inner city among the homeless — it’s easy to think, “Good for them, but I’m not called to that.” The phrase “I’m not called” all too easily becomes an excuse to build a self-focused existence rather than an outward-focused life. While it’s true that we are all called to different things, it’s also true that we are all called to live an outward-focused life. None of us are called to live a self-centered lifestyle. In addition to Jesus’ command to fulfill the Great Commission (see Matthew 28:19-20), as well as the sobering reminder of “the sheep and the goats on judgement day” (see Matthew 25:31-46), consider these key qualities of a godly woman from God’s Word:
She extends her hand to the poor, Yes, she reaches out her hands to the needy. Proverbs 31:20
…well reported for good works: if she has brought up children, if she has lodged strangers, if she has washed the saints’ feet, if she has relieved the afflicted, if she has diligently followed every good work. 1 Timothy 5:10
And James reminds us, Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world. James 1:27
I love the following statement from William Booth, who founded one of the most powerful outreach ministries in history — the Salvation Army. He said,
“Not called!” did you say? “Not heard the call,” I think you should say. Put your ear down to the Bible, and hear Him bid you go and pull sinners out of the fire of sin. Put your ear down to the burdened, agonized heart of humanity, and listen to its pitiful wail for help. Go stand by the gates of hell, and hear the damned entreat you to go to their father’s house and bid their brothers and sisters, and servants and masters not to come there. And then look Christ in the face — whose mercy you have professed to obey — and tell Him whether you will join heart and soul and body and circumstances in the march to publish His mercy to the world.
The reality is that God has prepared “good works” in advance for each of us to walk in. (See Ephesians 2:10.) Ask Him to show you what that means for you today. It could be as simple as serving a needy neighbor or as grand as starting an orphanage overseas; as simple as sharing the Gospel with a coworker or as grand as becoming a missionary to an unreached tribe. The key is to embrace the outward call that God has placed on your life, rather than thinking, That’s not for me — that’s for someone else.
Living a poured-out life starts with a new heart-attitude. One that says, “My life is no longer my own; I’ve been bought with a price. I’m ready to put aside selfish, shallow pursuits and make myself available to You, Lord, no matter the cost.”
If you say yes to this sacred call and ask Him to lead you, you can be sure that your life will soon become the great adventure God intends it to be!
2) Understand the Need
We are surrounded by so much cultural “noise” today that it’s easy to miss the cries of desperation and need all around us. We are so busy with our devices and social media that it’s all too easy to become like those Christians in Germany during the Holocaust who didn’t realize what was happening in their own backyard until after countless Jews had been tortured and annihilated.
For a quick glimpse into the need that is all around you, consider these sobering facts:
- About 25,000 people die every day of hunger or hunger-related causes. (That’s one person every three and a half seconds.)
- There are between 143-163 million orphans in the world today, and the number is only growing.
- There are 27 million human slaves in the world today; a large majority are young girls and women in forced prostitution.
- There are nearly 700,000 children in the U.S. foster care system and nearly 80% of inmates serving time in U.S. prisons have come out of the foster care system.
- Approximately 150,000 people die each day without knowing Christ — the biggest tragedy of all.
It’s hard to face these difficult statistics, but ignoring them is not the answer. I encourage you to purposefully take time every week to set aside frivolous activities — such as mindlessly surfing the internet or meandering around social media pages — and instead begin learning about the needs around the world and in your own community. Ask God to give you His heart and burden for these lives and show you if there is one particular step He is asking you to take in order to become His hands and feet to this dying world.
3) Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus
In the late 1800s, a Victorian painter named Lilias Trotter gave up her wealth and potential fame in order to serve among the poorest of the poor in Algeria. It seemed like a foolish decision to many prominent people in her life. The favor of the world was being handed to her on a silver platter. But her eyes were not fixed upon the temporary sparkle of the world — she had set her sights upon a better prize. Many years after making this staggering decision to give up everything to serve in a foreign land, Lilias wrote these words, which became the inspiration for the hymn “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus”:
Never has it been so easy to live in half a dozen harmless worlds at once — art, music, social science, games, motoring, the following of some profession, and so on. And between them we run the risk of drifting about, the “good” hiding the “best”… It is easy to find out whether our lives are focused, and if so, where the focus lies. Where do our thoughts settle when consciousness comes back in the morning? Where do they swing back when the pressure is off during the day? … Dare to have it out with God … And ask Him to show you whether or not all is focused on Christ and His Glory … Turn your soul’s vision to Jesus, and look and look at Him, and a strange dimness will come over all that is apart from Him.
All of us would do well to take these words to heart and do some soul-searching of our own. Ask yourself honestly — what are our lives built around? What are our thoughts centered upon? Is all focused on Christ and His glory?
If not, ask God to turn your eyes upon Jesus. Spend time in His presence and in His Word, and begin building your thoughts around Him — not the things of this world. And soon, as Lilias said, a strange “dimness” will come over all that is apart from Him. Nothing else will matter anymore but the things that are eternal. That is how we know our lives are rightly focused.
4) Receive His Enabling Grace
If embracing an outward life feels impossible, remember that God never asks us to do anything that He is not prepared to equip us for. If we try to serve in our own strength, we will fall on our face. But if we serve in His strength, the world can be changed, one life at a time.
Amy Carmichael once wrote about God being a “very present help in trouble” — so present, in fact, that even a whisper will bring the help that we need in the moment. Do you need courage? All you must do is whisper, “Thy courage, Lord!” and it will come. Do you need patience? Just whisper, “Thy patience, Lord!” and it will come — not tomorrow, but right now. That is what it means to tap into God’s enabling grace. Remember, grace is so much more than the “hug” or favor of God. It is supernatural strength for the impossible life to which we are called. Receiving God’s grace begins with an attitude that says, “Lord, I can’t — but You can!”
Never forget — “He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it” (1 Thess. 5:24).
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Eric’s grandmother, who died before he was born, had a specific habit whenever she felt discouraged or depressed. She would look for someone far worse off than she was and begin serving them. Incredibly, her own problems seemed far less weighty as she did so. And many times, her sorrow was replaced by joy.
Do your problems seem overwhelming, complicated, and stressful? The answer may be simpler than you think. Though it feels counterintuitive, I encourage you to put your own struggles aside for a while and find someone you can selflessly serve. It’s not that God doesn’t care about your personal needs and issues. There is a time and a place to wrestle through your own concerns with Him. But don’t let the enemy fool you into thinking that you need to wait until all your own issues are resolved before you can turn outward and become Christ’s hands and feet to this dying world. Begin now. You will be amazed at how much healing, strength, and true joy flows into your life the moment you embrace the “good works” He has prepared in advance for you to walk in today!