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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A Vision That Will Change Everything

sunlight

Have you ever had a time when you realized your perspective was totally misguided? Perhaps you saw a relationship incorrectly, or you misjudged the leadership of your church. Or maybe you sunk into despair as you read news headlines about your nation or the world.

I recently was challenged when I read the life-changing vision Isaiah had after King Uzziah died:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
The whole earth is full of His glory!”
  (Isaiah 6:1-3).

Uzziah had been a good king, but he had a rather bad ending (2 Chronicles 26). And just as today, the political changes in ancient times often made people apprehensive.

But Isaiah saw beyond the troubling headlines of his day to a much more important reality: The Lord  was sitting on the throne of heaven. He was high and lifted up, with a vantage point much better than ours.

Nothing on earth was going to change the majestic scene in heaven.

Lately I’ve been stunned by the angelic song: “The whole earth is full of His glory!”  I’ve read this over and over, even checking it out in various translations.

How could the seraphim declare that the whole world was ALREADY full of God’s glory?

If we could get a glimpse into heaven today, I’m sure we would hear this same song being sung. In the earthly realm, we see Democrats and Republicans waging war. Terrorists seem to be multiplying. The economy goes up and down. Racial tensions won’t seem to go away.

As an optimist, I’ve often cited Bible verses promising that God’s glory would one day fill the earth (Habakkuk 2:14, Numbers 14:21). But while my perspective has generally been limited to “the sweet by and by,” the heavenly creatures saw God’s pervasive glory as a present-tense reality.

Pause and consider how your life would change if you regularly sang the seraphim’s song. Wouldn’t there be a profound transformation if you realized that the glory of the Lord was filling your home, your office, your church, your community, and your nation?

And think about the new level of peace and hopefulness you’d experience if you believed—really  believed—that God was ultimately in control of the universe. No election can alter that fact. So let’s all take a deep breath and determine that we will entrust ourselves to Him, no matter what’s going on around us.

When Isaiah saw the Lord on His throne and recognized that His glory was already filling the earth, the political and economic news of his day suddenly faded in importance. And rather than setting himself up as a judge over the leadership changes around him, the prophet found himself repenting of his sins, humbling himself, and listening for a new mandate from God’s throne room.

“My eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts,”  Isaiah said (v. 5). A vision like that will change everything, no matter what is happening in the world around us.

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Daniel, the Blind Men, and the Election

blind-men-elephant

“Every truth has two sides; it is as well to look at both,

before we commit ourselves to either.” – Aesop

I recently studied the life of the Old Testament prophet Daniel and discovered that he had lived under the reign of 10 different kings. That got me thinking about my own life…

It’s embarrassing to admit, but I’m so old that I was born during the final years of Harry Truman’s administration! Wow. That seems like ancient history.

Donald Trump will be the thirteenth American president in my lifetime. Some of our presidents have been good, some have been bad, but none have been perfect.

Somehow America has survived our very flawed leaders, and Daniel’s story has helped give me perspective and hope for our future.

The people of Daniel’s generation had no opportunity to vote on their leaders. Instead of being able to change the course of history through political campaigns, he had to trust that “[God] removes kings and raises up kings”—even rulers like Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Cyrus, and Darius (Daniel 2:21).

Rather than put his hope in any of these human leaders, Daniel took comfort in an entirely different kingdom. Even though he was greatly alarmed by events on earth at times, he came to see that “the Ancient of Days” would ultimately sit on the throne of heaven, ruling over an everlasting kingdom (Daniel 7:9-27).

Seeing the Big Picture

Our perspective on America’s recent election could profit from lessons in this famous poem by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887):

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a WALL!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, “Ho, what have we here,
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a SPEAR!”
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a SNAKE!”
The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he:
“Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a TREE!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a FAN!”
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a ROPE!”
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

It’s no wonder this story has spread across the world in various versions. People find it fascinating that each of these men could be both right and wrong at the same time. They were correct about what they perceived, yet each of them had perceptions that were incomplete.

We see this principle at work all the time, both in politics and in the church. People tend to feel very certain about what they have experienced, and rightfully so. Those from minority groups are more likely to have experienced racial prejudice, and that is very real to them. Meanwhile, those in the white majority often have a hard time believing that racial discrimination is still much of a problem a full century and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation.

We all have a limited view of the “elephants” in the room, don’t we? Smug about what we think we “know,” we don’t recognize that we can be right and wrong at the same time. As a result, we tend to adopt half truths, not realizing that the other half may be in error.

Unless we keep this principle in mind, we’ll be much too prone to attribute nearly messianic qualities to our preferred political leaders, willfully blind to their flaws. If you’re an American, I hope you voted in the recent election. But I also hope you did so prayerfully and with your eyes wide open.

God is the only One who sees the whole picture. Yes, we can experience more and more of the Lord as we read His Word and draw near to Him in prayer. But nevertheless, the Bible says, “we know in part and we prophecy in part” (1 Corinthians 13:9). In eternity, we will have a much fuller view of the elephant, but “now we see in a mirror, dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Although the fog of human events may often obscure this fact, someone is still seated on heaven’s throne (Revelation 4:1-2). We’ll find great solace when we accept His invitation to “come up here” and take a look.

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The Secret to Thanksgiving All Year Long

Thanksgiving is clearly the greatest holiday ever created in America—and not just because of the great food and the football games.

This year I had a new revelation while writing Thanksgiving notes to some friends. In past years, I would say something like, “I’m thankful for YOU this Thanksgiving.” That certainly was true enough, but it missed an important point: I wasn’t only thankful for these friends on one day of the year, but rather was grateful for them all year long.

Suddenly my mind was flooded with Paul’s words to his friends in Philippi: Every time you cross my mind, I break out in exclamations of thanks to God” (Philippians 1:3 MSG).

Isn’t that cool? At the mere thought of his friends, Paul had a “Thanksgiving moment.” Even when distance or jail cells prevented him from seeing them face to face, his Thanksgiving rose to God whenever he even thought of these people he loved so much.

I hope you have friends and loved ones who brighten your life like that. Whenever someone mentions their name or the Lord brings them to mind during your prayer times, you light up inside. You find yourself welling up with gratitude that such a person would be a part of your life.

This year I found myself realizing in a whole new way that if you have good friends and are a person of prayer, you can experience Thanksgiving anytime. There may not be any turkey or football, and your loved ones may not be physically present with you at the time. But you can “break out in exclamations of thanks” nevertheless.

Let’s be honest, though: We all know people who don’t bring such a cheery reaction when they come to mind. Rather than sparking joyous praise, they bring us concern or sadness or even a tinge of anger when they come to mind. This could be someone who has wronged us, who we’ve not yet forgiven. Or perhaps it’s a spouse or child who’s not living like we think they should.

Fortunately, Paul has an answer for this kind of situation too—when instead of thankfulness, we feel burdened down when we think about how another person is doing. Just a few verses after the words above, Paul adds one of the most beautiful promises in the entire Bible: I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns” (Philippians 1:6 NLT).

Look at how these two verses work together: In verse 3 Paul describes his great joy and thankfulness every time he remembers his fellow-believers in Philippi.

But in verse 6, he reveals the secret of why he could rejoice even when some people weren’t doing very well: He knew God was still at work! Instead of remaining distraught about the circumstances of such people, Paul knew He could commit them into the Lord’s loving hands, confident in His ability to change their heart and turn things around for them.

Do you see how your whole perspective changes when you look at the people in your life through this two-fold lens in Philippians 1? Every day—and every moment of every day—can become a time of spontaneous Thanksgiving. So you don’t have to wait another 364 days—let the hallelujahs ring out now!

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