The Happiness Switch

How 2017 Unexpectedly Became My Happiest Year in Decades

Like King David in the Bible, many of my journal entries in recent years could have been titled, “Why am I so depressed…so dissatisfied with life?” This was especially true most years in November and December, when I faced holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s.

So it came as a surprise when I noticed this month that I’m happier than I’ve been in years – even decades. How could this be, when most things in my life are exactly the same as they’ve been for the past several years?

Strangely, although I still have the same job, friends, and marital status as I did a year ago, somehow my perspective is radically different. This seemed puzzling at first. Yes, God used my sabbatical in May and June to change my outlook, and the birth of my first grandchild certainly helped as well. But I’m convinced that my new perspective has little to do with any external changes in my life this year – the transformation has been almost entirely a matter of the heart.

While some aspects of my new outlook are difficult to put into words, I’ve identified 6 specific adjustments God supernaturally brought to my attitude this year. Perhaps these will be helpful to you as well:

  1. No more striving. During my sabbatical I recognized my bad habit of striving for God’s affection or people’s applause. How stupid! God already loves me – enough to send His Son to die in my place – and there’s absolutely nothing I can do earn more of His love or favor. That’s a life-changing realization! Likewise, there’s no need to strive for more kudos from other people. Those who matter  in my life already love me, and if someone doesn’t  love me, I guess they don’t really matter.

This year I also recognized the unhealthy ways I’ve been striving to make more of an impact. Although it’s noble to desire a greater impact for God’s kingdom, my self-image had become far too entangled with my perception of the impact I was having. God had to take me to the other side of the world – New Zealand – to show me the startling fact that I already am making an incredible impact.

While I was in the process of questioning my usefulness and impact, the Lord reminded me that I’m part of an international ministry that’s recording more than one million salvations through our evangelistic outreaches this year. Also, there have been 30 million views of our daily discipleship videos, and I was directly involved in writing the scripts for those. In addition, I wrote books, booklets, pamphlets, and magazine articles that have impacted thousands of people.

I’m not citing this evidence to boast, but rather to illustrate how crazy it is to for me to strive for greater self-esteem based on increasing my accomplishments. It’s time to REST and REJOICE in what God has done!

  1. No more envy. Until this summer, I never realized the deadly grip jealousy and envy had on me. The final item of the Ten Commandments warns about this: “You shall not covet…anything that is your neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:17). God has done a remarkable work in delivering me from envy the past six months, and this has resulted in incredible JOY!

No longer do I envy ANYONE. Others may have a bigger salary, a nicer house, and a faster car, but I don’t envy them. And although I have friends who’ve gotten engaged this year, I’m not envious of them, nor of my friends who already have happy marriages.

In Philippians 4:19, the apostle Paul describes the Lord’s ability to meet our needs, and it’s great to know that miraculous provision is possible during our times of lack. But, earlier in the chapter, Paul spoke about another  amazing secret he had learned – the ability to be content regardless of his present circumstances (vs. 11-12). When we recognize how blessed we already are, there’s no need to envy those around us – and that should be a cause for great rejoicing.

  1. No more regrets. If you have regrets today, I can sympathize. None of us is happy about everything we’ve done in past, nor everything that happened to If we’re honest, there are certainly some things we wish had turned out differently.

However, this year Romans 8:28 has become more than a nice religious memory verse for me. God truly can turn ALL things around for good when we love Him and seek to fulfill His purposes. Without the agony of Jesus’ cross, there would have been no forgiveness. And somehow God always uses our “crosses” to release more of His resurrection power and blessings.

Perhaps you’ve faced some horrendous events you can’t even begin to understand right now. My heart goes out to you. But I believe the day will come when you’ll be able to say along with Joseph, “God meant it for GOOD” (Genesis 50:20). You’ll cast off the regrets holding you captive, enabling you to get unstuck from the traumas that once caused you unspeakable pain.

  1. No more complaining. Like never before, I’m making an effort to replace grumbling with gratitude. Paul had a lot he could have complained about while sitting in a Roman prison cell. But instead he chose to focus on the people he was thankful for (Philippians 1:3-7) and the things in his life that were praiseworthy (4:4-8). That kind of adjusted focus goes a long way toward experiencing a happier and more joyful life.

I’m sure I’ll continue to struggle with this at times. I’ll be tempted to complain about aches and pains, singleness, the traffic in Charlotte, and countless other annoyances. But thankfully God has given me the power to change my focus and choose gratitude – and that makes all the difference.

  1. No more worries. At my advanced age, there are plenty of things a person could worry about. We worry about future health problems and wonder who would take care of us in that event. We worry about whether our financial reserves will run out before we die. We worry about being alone in our latter years. And I’m sure you can think of some other things to worry about as well…

Once again, my circumstances haven’t changed much, but my perspective is quite different than it was last year at this time. Why waste time and emotional energy worrying, when God has consistently proven Himself faithful throughout the years?

When I reflect on my past, I notice that the things I worried about seldom actually happened. Instead, God provided what I needed, even if it was at the last minute. Shouldn’t I trust Him to provide for me in the future too? Hey, during my sabbatical, I lived for six weeks with just the stuff I could fit into a medium-sized suitcase – and I didn’t lack anything.

My concerns about future financial provision gained a better perspective this year when I visited a multimillionaire friend. Once he had lavish homes in several different states, but now he lives in an assisted living center. Although he still has plenty of money, he spends his days in a small, one-room apartment – not much different than the kind of place someone on government assistance would have. Nevertheless, my friend is happy as can be, grateful that he has a bed, a comfortable chair, a TV, his own bathroom, and three meals a day. What else would he really need? At this point, his great wealth has largely become irrelevant.

  1. No more codependence. I’ll admit, I have a long-time habit of trying to rescue people. That may not sound like a problem to you, but sometimes it has caused me unnecessary trouble. You see, those of us who are pastors and caregivers at heart frequently go overboard, forgetting to set boundaries and take care of ourselves.

Recently God reminded me of the beautiful words of Isaiah 9:6-7, “The government will be upon HIS shoulder.”  Too often, I’ve tried to shoulder the problems of the universe on my own shoulders, which is a sure prescription for burnout, if not disaster.

So if you see me trying to rescue a damsel in distress, there’s a good chance you should rebuke me. Instead of trying to solve everyone’s problems, caregivers like me must learn the hard lesson of letting God be God, and pointing people to Him instead of to ourselves (Psalm 46:10). As John the Baptist discovered, we must boldly admit, “I am not the Christ!” (John 1:20).

Imagine the overwhelming joy you’d experience if God set you free from striving…envy…regrets…complaining…worries…and codependence. It would be the best year you’ve had in decades!

I have a few additional reasons for being exceptionally happy this year. My job description at work has undergone some helpful tweaks. My home is also better organized now, because I got rid of some clutter when I moved. It always feels good to get rid of unnecessary “stuff,” doesn’t it?

Looking back on this year, I’m still amazed that most of the significant, joy-producing changes occurred in my heart, not in any of my circumstances. Ironically, these internal transformations probably could have happened in 2016, 2015, or even decades ago. Yet even though I wish I would have learned the lessons much sooner, there’s no time for regrets. Regardless of how long it took me to discover these simple truths, I’m VERY grateful that 2017 turned out to be such a transformational year.

Dear friend, you don’t have to wait until you’re my age to implement these life-changing perspectives. Life is too short to delay any longer. You might as well start being happy as soon as possible.

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Ron’s New Appreciation for the Holidays

Ever since his divorce several years back, my friend Ron has complained to me this time of year about the upcoming holidays. He has his reasons, to be sure, but he’s begun to sound like a broken record.

“It’s just not the same,” he moans. “With my wife gone and my kids living far away, it’s always an agonizing time for me.”

Then he typically cites the gluttony, commercialization, overspending, and other holiday sins as justification for his negative attitudes. You’ve probably met people who think like that.

“Let’s face it, Ron,” I sometimes tease him. “With your ‘humbug’ attitude, your parents should have named you Ebenezer!”

A few weeks ago, he threw in a new line that really got me thinking. “I wish I could just press the fast forward button and wake up on January 2,” he told me. Although part of me sympathized with Ron on this, I spent some time praying we would gain a new perspective.

Then suddenly it hit me: Thanksgiving and Christmas aren’t just ordinary holidays. They represent two of the most important attributes of a happy, successful, and impactful life.

Let me explain…

If you asked me the most important attitudes a person could ever cultivate, my answer would clearly be GRATITUDE and GENEROSITY. Yet although I’ve lived more than six decades now, somehow I overlooked the fact that these are exactly the core principles behind Thanksgiving (gratitude) and Christmas (generosity).

Notice that gratitude and generosity are both “magnetic” traits. People in the secular world or New Age Movement call this “The Law of Attraction,” but it’s a Biblical principle too. Gratitude and generosity attract blessings and favor to our lives, both from God and from people.

In contrast, blessings and favor are repulsed  by INGRATITUDE and STINGINESS. No wonder Scrooge didn’t have many friends until his epiphany came.

Through gratitude (a heart of thankfulness) we enter into the gates of the Lord’s presence (Psalm 100:4). And have you noticed how people love to give things to a person who’s truly grateful?

Likewise, generosity is one of the primary keys to a life of blessing and impact. Proverbs 11:24-25 (NLT) beautifully points this out:

Give freely and become more wealthy; be stingy and lose everything. The generous will prosper; those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed.

Do you want to prosper? Then set your heart on becoming more generous.

Do you want to enter into a time of refreshing in your life? Then make it your aim to refresh others.

More importantly, do you want to become more like your Heavenly Father? Then one of the very best ways is to become more generous. You see, a central character trait of your Father in Heaven is that He’s a GIVER. “God so loved the world” that He didn’t just think more positive thoughts toward us – He GAVE His Son! (John 3:16).

If you truly see how loving and generous your Father is, you’ll be that way too. But if you view Him as stingy and miserly, you’ll end up behaving like Scrooge and having a miserable life to show for it.

So, what about Ron?

Armed with this new understanding of how Thanksgiving and Christmas mirror God’s two major character traits for a happy and holy life, I’ve been endeavoring to help Ron gain a new perspective too.

“Ron, you may not like every aspect of the holidays,” I’ve told him. “But what if you used Thanksgiving as a monumental opportunity to work on your GRATITUDE? And what if Christmas became your yearly reminder to live a life of GENEROSITY?”

In all likelihood, next year at this time I’ll have to remind Ron again. But who knows? If he truly begins to practice a life of gratitude and generosity, he may even attract a new wife by then. That would be amazing, but miracles really do happen…especially when we’re consistently grateful and generous.

#PrayForRon

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