December 4, 2020

Choose Joy

Today’s post is by Chaplain Mike.

Tim Hansel was a strong, risk-taking, all-out-effort kind of guy. He climbed mountains and led wilderness expeditions. One day, on the way back to camp after climbing on the Palisade Glacier with friends, his foot slipped and he fell a long distance down into a crevasse, landing directly on his back on the ice. Amazingly, not only did he survive, but he soon arose and climbed out with his buddy, who was sure he had just witnessed his friend’s death. Together, they completed the hike back to camp.

Hansel reported that he became quite sore and that he had this funny sense of feeling shorter than before. With medication, he was able to sleep that night and, although he had a bad headache the next morning, he completed the eight-mile hike back to his car and drove home. He decided not to tell his wife about the fall. She soon found out anyway. The next night his body came out of shock and he awoke sweating profusely, delirious, in agonizing pain.

Doctors eventually told him that he would have to learn to live with that pain. The fractures and crushed discs in his back had caused traumatic, deteriorating arthritis. There was also massive soft tissue damage—the ligaments, tendons and muscles in his back were injured beyond possibility of repair.

Hansel chose to accept the pain as aggressively as possible. He kept working at his wilderness and mountaineering camp. He kept on jogging, climbing and playing tennis. But the intense pain also persisted, and he went through seasons where he became tentative, backing off from life, riding an emotional roller coaster and fighting the urge to give up.

Finally, Tim Hansel saw a doctor who put it all in perspective for him. “Son, listen to me carefully,” he said. “The damage has been done. The worst is over. You will have to live with pain, but that’s a small price to pay for life. My recommendation is that you live your life as fully and richly as possible. Bite the bullet and live to be a hundred. As far as I can tell, you can do whatever the pain will allow you to do.”

One of the greatest lessons that this courageous man learned during this process was that he had the ability to choose joy, even in the midst of his unfortunate and painful circumstances.

This, says Tim Hansel, is in contrast to “happiness,” which, you will note, comes from the same root as the word happening. Whether or not we feel happy depends on what happens to us. It is circumstantial. Of course there is nothing wrong with happiness! We all rightly enjoy when things are going well in our lives and circumstances.

But what about when they are not? People like Tim Hansel, who live in chronic pain, and others in a thousand different difficult life situations struggle with feeling happy.

Hansel encourages us, alternatively, to remember that we are privileged to be able to choose joy. We might say this about the difference between the two:

Whereas happiness may be a fleeting feeling, a mood that changes with the winds of circumstance, joy is an attitude, a posture, a position we take. Joy involves believing with a tenacious confidence that God is in control of life, though the immediate evidence might suggest otherwise.

Henri Nouwen offers this affirming, complementary opinion: a joyful heart is one in which something new is always being born, even when sadness and death are all around.

Choosing joy doesn’t mean putting on an artificial smile or acting with superficial hilarity when we don’t feel like it. Rather, we have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day. This means:

  • We determine to face life with optimism, courage and perseverance because we truly believe that God is here,
  • We are convinced that there are unseen benefits in every experience,
  • We believe that good will ultimately triumph,
  • And we cling tenaciously to the truth that nothing that happens, no matter how painful or mysterious, can ever separate us from God’s love.

I love the title of the book Tim Hansel wrote about his experiences and what he learned. He called it, You Gotta Keep Dancin’.

Choose joy. Life may try to drown the music, but the heart that clings to joy will always find a way to hear it and dance.


  1. God bless you for allowing God speak to me through you.

  2. God used that pain in Tim Hansel to give him wisdom in writing his books. It was his book “Holy Sweat” where he discussed his accident and living with pain for the inspiration. It was that book over 20 years ago that helped change the direction in my life. It is my understanding that Tim’s health is very poor at this time and in even more constant pain.

    • Yep. Holy Sweat was the first book I read too. Very encouraging.

      I updated the post with a link attached to Tim’s name in the first sentence. Tim went to be with the Lord in December. The link will take you to a fine memorial website with information about his life, writing, and causes.

  3. Yes! Thank you for this post and the reminder to choose joy, even though we cannot choose our circumstances. It’s been a traumatic week here. My little grandson has been diagnosed with leukemia. He and his parents will in the oncology ward for at least a week, and I am caring for his sister who has pneumonia. But God is here, and we have chosen joy.

  4. Kat, I am sorry to hear about your grandson. It is amazing what can be done medically for children with leukemia nowadays. I wish him and all your family great health! And keep choosing the joy.

  5. Choosing joy comes easily to me. It seems that no matter the circumstances, I can always look on the bright side of life. Michael Spencer, as he has alluded to in a number of posts, has had struggles with depression through a good part of his life.

    Yet, while joy is a fruit of the spirit, I can in no way consider myself a more spiritual person that someone like Michael Spencer. Other deeply spiritual people I know have struggled in this area.

    For many years I have said to people, “choose joy.” But I have come to the conclusion that for many it is not that simple or easy. Their brains don’t seem to be wired that way.

    To give a parallel example, when someone is struggling with their faith, saying “have more faith”, usually isn’t a very helpful solution. I think the same can be said for joy.

    When you are crying out in anguish like David is in several Psalms, it is very had to get from that point to a point of joy.

    So how do we help these people?

    • In my understanding, Hansel is almost saying that joy = perseverance. Not just “looking on the bright side,” but not giving up because one has taken the stance that I wrote about in the post:

      * We determine to face life with optimism, courage and perseverance because we truly believe that God is here,
      * We are convinced that there are unseen benefits in every experience,
      * We believe that good will ultimately triumph,
      * And we cling tenaciously to the truth that nothing that happens, no matter how painful or mysterious, can ever separate us from God’s love.

      It is because of this kind of joy that the “lament” psalms work through the pain and end with thanksgiving and praise. But Michael, you are absolutely right—it’s a process. And I would be the last one to put forth that we should simply tell others “choose joy” and not help them work through that process. Nothing comes automatically.

      • Chaplain Mike, that’s a definition of joy I can get behind. Those four points are both concrete and realistic enough to grasp and hold.

        I also appreciate you calling it a process, and an earlier poster recognizing that not everyone is naturally wired to see “the bright side” as easily or consistently as some. I struggle with cynicism and pessimism; these are often defense mechanisms, to keep from being disappointed or to assuage the hurt from previous letdowns.

        Both as a culture overall (America) and a subculture (Christian), the idea or admonishment to “choose” joy is often bandied about with little regard for what it means and that it is indeed a process, rather than a destination.

      • THANK YOU; very well said……pasting that up on my work wall immediately.

        Greg R

        • your FOUR points are staring back at me in size 20 font, bolded; thanks again Tim Hansel and Chaplain Mike: you guys make GREAT climbing buddies, and that’s one $*%&%&$*$ of a mountain.

          Greg R

      • Chaplain Mike:

        What you say is absolutely true. I hate to even use the word “but” because it sounds like I’m disagreeing, and I’m not. However, some folks are very far from the place where they can look at your four points and say YES to every one. For those folks, they first need to learn to simply trust Jesus. They need to let go of their will and their own “BUTS” and trust what’s happening to them. The difference between them and the person who can find that joy can be the difference between a couch potato and a marathon runner. It’s the same process that addicts must go through to become sober.

        • You did say it is a process. It absolutely is, and the way to get them started is almost through behavior modification and teaching them to trust.

  6. If people are suffering from depression, very often they can be helped medically. I know that some people feel that if they are a Christian and take meds for depression, they are not “Christian” enough somehow. But I don’t think that is correct. If there is an unbalance of chemicals in their brain causing the depression, they should feel no worse about needing to take meds than someone with diabetes or a heart condition. For other folks, the depression they feel is due to situational matters that they may or may not be able to change. A woman who feels stuck in an abusive marriage may feel she has no way out except for suicide. Folks who knew nothing about what was going on in the family may think, “Gee, she must have had undiagnosed depression.” It could be true or it could be that she felt she took the only course she could see. Humans are so very complicated! I look sometimes at cats and dogs and wonder if humans are really so fortunate!

  7. Joanie, IMHO you are correct. We will be rerunning some of Michael’s posts on depression soon, including one that looks at antidepressant drugs.

  8. I find that living in joy is based on my understanding of God’s character and my submission to His sovereignty. That isn’t something someone can prescribe for me or something that is possible without an on-going relationship with Him. I can have joy in Him, not in the circumstances I am in.

  9. Our son had severe depression, and OCD when he was 11 years old. (He is 23 now) Family members all told us reasons for the depression and what we should do. We tried to explain clinical depression, but they kept giving us reasons. We took him to a psychiatrist who gave him drugs. We got fed up with him. We found a Christian psychiatrist who took him off all drugs and worked with him. We always keep an eye on him, but he has shown no new signs of and depression.

  10. “Son, listen to me carefully,” he said. “The damage has been done. The worst is over. You will have to live with pain, but that’s a small price to pay for life. My recommendation is that you live your life as fully and richly as possible. Bite the bullet and live to be a hundred. As far as I can tell, you can do whatever the pain will allow you to do.”

    Thank You God for giving me this during this desperate time in my life. You alone are my True Friend in my time of need.

  11. It’s so hokey to say that we can’t choose what happens to us, but we can choose how to respond to it – but it’s true! Free will sometimes gets a bad rap, especially when people see all the evil in the world, but the truth is that free will is a gift! Choice is a gift! May we always bless and praise God Who has given us the ability to choose happiness, love and joy!

  12. The past year has been horrific. My son was killed in an auto accident. 6 weeks later my niece was killed in an ATV accident. My 6-year old grandniece is in the hospital fighting for her life; cancer is threatening to take her. An “inland hurricane” hit our region the day of my son’s funeral, uprooting trees, damaging my roof and destroying my home’s power service and furnace. I could go on, but my life is starting to sound like a soap opera.

    And yet… through all the tragedy and trials, God has been with us, loving us, guiding us, helping us. I’ve learned a lot about myself, about trust and faith, and yes, about joy. And I can still say, God has never failed us. He is giving us the strength to go on, one day at a time, and in the midst of grief, an unspeakable joy. I’m clinging to Him for all I’m worth, and choosing to dwell in joy.

  13. For some of us it is not that easy to count it all joy. I don’t think we are all as strong as Tim. Personally I think if the same happened to me, I would be negative, whiny, and miserable to be around. I also know God would love me and embrace me despite my crappy attitude. I am so freaking grateful for his grace.

    • I have an idea that if any of us would have talked to Tim, or if we talk to anyone who has chronic pain or some other chronic problem, that they too, would say they have many days when they are “negative, whiny, and miserable to be around.” And joy comes, not in being “strong” enough to be better than that, but in the very thing you pointed us to, the unfailing love and grace of God.

  14. Something I have observed both in myself and in others is this fallen human tendency to hold our joy hostage. One way we do this is by discounting the importance of the present moment in expectancy of some future set of circumstances that we believe will give us just cause for joy. If we could just get to that place where we want to be professionally or financially — if we could just find that perfect person to fullfill us — if we could just get past all the present stresses and entanglements and breathe some free air — then we would grant ourselves permission to experience joy. And the more we do this, the more we see each passing day as just an obstacle of time to get past — and the less we see each day as a precious gift from God.
    Another way we do this is by burying our capacity for joy under a mountain of past hurts and disapointments. The world has done us wrong or God has failed to come through on those things we desire most — so, on either a conscious or subconscious level, we’re waiting for an apology of some sort before we’re willing to put the past aside and allow ourselves joy or contentment in the present. And as more time goes by without any forthcoming apology or dramatic improvement in our circumstances, we grow more bitter and even come to secretly hate the God we publicly profess to love.
    Perhaps the worst thing about this tendency is that we don’t just hold our own joy hostage — we do the same to those who are closest to us. And even if we don’t actively seek to squash the joy of others to make ourselves feel better about our own misery, it’s inevitable that our misery will compromise the joy of anyone who truly loves us.
    I have come to realize that this tendency is in direct contradiction to the message of the gospel. Through Christ and His sacrifice, God has made it very clear that He loves us deeply and that He desires to embrace us as family and preserve us in His love and grace forever. Truly believing this brings joy, even in the most unjoyous circumstances. Doubting this (or even forgetting it for a time) makes real, lasting, deep-rooted joy impossible. The real trick (and the most difficult part for me) is to make that moment-by-moment choice to believe and own this truth and live each moment in the better of two possible realites.

  15. Matt Harrison has a new book on joy, which I’ve ordered but not read yet. Another book I enjoyed recently was: A Grace Disguised, by Sittser.

    Through the tragedy in our family last year, I’ve been blessed to find joy in the Lord not far removed from the pain and confusion.

    But once, some years ago, I’ve been so exhausted and sleep-deprived that I could feel nothing at all. An exhortation to joy would not have helped one bit. Then I could stick only with God’ promises in word and sacrament, which are quite sufficient even when you can’t have joy. It’s all true “extra nos”, outside of ourselves. What comfort even if you can’t feel it.

  16. I struggle with severe pain on a daily basis. Like the man in the story, I’ve been given permission to live fully and do whatever the pain will allow. Some days, I have the freedom to do anything I like. Other days, I have the freedom to turn off the alarm clock and stay in bed until dinner.

    Being content and experiencing joy amidst pain and suffering does not mean everything becomes rosy or that there aren’t days I ponder a long walk off a tall building. Some days just plain hurt. No theological statement takes it away or makes it alright.

    And yet, I don’t end it permanently and prematurely because I do know, through experience and revelation, a power greater than myself who is strong enough, faithful enough, loving enough to replace that which I see and experience more closely – both pain and happiness – as my source of hope.