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February 20, 2014

How I Rediscovered Joy

I was so busy serving, I lost sight of God.



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When I became a Christian, the biggest thing that changed about me was my self-centeredness. Before becoming a Christian, I mistakenly thought I was an extrovert because I befriended people who I thought would be useful to me or who made me feel good about myself. After I became a Christian, I realized I was an introvert. My attitude toward people changed when I understood I was here to serve them, not the reverse. Suddenly people became draining rather than invigorating.

In spite of that, I threw myself wholeheartedly into ministry. Those who led me to Christ pounded into me that the only thing that lasted on earth was people, so if I was not investing in people, my time on earth was wasted. Even though being with people started to feel like it was sucking the life out of me, I felt compelled to be as involved as I possibly could with those in our church, which translated into volunteering for any need that was obvious. If someone needed a children’s worship leader, I volunteered, even though working with kids wasn’t my forte. When it was pointed out that we should have a women’s ministry in our church, I took it on, even though I’d had no experience in such things. Occasionally I even did things I liked, such as teaching an adult Bible study, but those opportunities were hit and miss. I just felt lucky when I actually enjoyed something I was doing. It never occurred to me that should have been the norm rather than the exception.

I also felt particularly drawn to hurting people. I suddenly understood the riches I’d been given in Christ and felt it was my duty and mission to invest in those who didn’t comprehend that yet. As a result, I was constantly drawn into situations over my head and needs beyond my ability to meet. So not only was I defying my personality—the basic way God made me—I was also trying to be a savior to those who should have been looking to the true Savior, not my poor imitation of one.

The problem was that it took me years to realize this. I continually lived on the edge of exhaustion and thought I was being a good follower of Christ as a result. I saw the weariness as a badge of honor. I was a warrior who fought to the end, even if it took my last ounce of strength.

Eventually, however, I became so tired that I was essentially useless. I could offer no one anything because I’d become so needy. What was I missing?

I recently came across this quote from The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume II that summed up the big hole in my approach:

"We must, if it so happens, give our lives for others: but even while we’re doing it, I think we’re meant to enjoy Our Lord and, in Him, our friends, our food, our sleep, our jokes, and the birds’ song and the frosty sunrise."

Lewis’s quote is a framework for how I rediscovered who I was and how God had made me to be. Each of the things mentioned has been a delight to unearth once again deep in my soul.

Our Lord

My relationship with God had ceased to exist outside of what I could do for him. As I pulled back, I realized I was so overwhelmed with meeting needs that I’d forgotten what it meant to enjoy my relationship with Christ. Once I began to let that seep into my consciousness, everything changed. I began to listen to God and let him lead me into the ministry he had for me rather than the one I’d mistakenly carved out for myself. I remembered the joy I’d felt in the Bible when I’d first come to Christ. I threw out the way I was “supposed” to do things, such as endless prayer lists and studying the Bible only in order to teach it to others. Instead I began to spend hours just listening with an open Bible on my lap. Sometimes this turned into prayers for others, but it often just became a time of deep food from God’s Word that nourished me beyond anything I’d ever experienced.

Our Friends

Because I’d surrounded myself with needy people, I’d lost touch with those who fed and challenged me. So I formed a Bible study of all the women I admire most in our church—those I love and I want to be more like—healthy women who build me up rather than tear me down. We meet weekly and do a simple observation, interpretation, application study of a text. It has been the most fulfilling Bible study I’ve ever been a part of. These women challenge me, but mostly they encourage me. I can’t wait to see them each week and hear the richness they will open for me as we study, laugh, cry, and pray together.

I also just started connecting with these women for fun. We’ve had countless meals together, watched movies, and gone on walks together. I’m having more fun than I’ve had in years.

Our Food

Food had become a necessary evil for me. It represented temptation and a time stealer, so I depended a lot on pre-prepared meals and caffeine-laden drinks to keep me going. Now I am learning to slow down and savor the abundance God has given me. I am enjoying preparing meals for my family and friends. They are simple fares, but full of wholesome goodness and homemade, and all the more enjoyable in the presence of those I love.

Our Sleep

If food had become a necessary evil, sleep was an even more malevolent wickedness. It meant more time away from things that had to be done, and even worse, hours of wakefulness when I wanted to sleep. I was so busy that I couldn’t turn my mind off, so the wee hours of the night became a torment to me and I lived in constant exhaustion. I’d tell myself I could get through one more day, I’d make it, but the one more day stretched on relentlessly.

To remedy that, I now make sure I spend time winding down each evening. For me that means unplugging. I read to slow my mind down and redirect it to better things. A friend also told me about how she memorizes Scripture that she recites when she wakes in the nighttime watch. That practice has helped me tremendously to redirect the dark thoughts that invade when I should be resting.

Our Jokes

I have always laughed easily, but it has often been nervous laughter rather than true heartfelt belly chuckles. I’m trying to be aware of the difference, but not so much that it causes any angst. I look for the humor in my own life and in those around me. I also am drawn more now to those who make me laugh.

I also write fiction. I had written serious articles for years, but I find particular joy in making up stories. My books are light and uplifting. The great American novel may be full of angst, but I have no interest in writing that way at this point in my life.

The Birds’ Song and the Frosty Sunrise

I’ve always been aware that seeing God in nature renews me as nothing else does other than his Word, but in my busyness, I wasn’t taking time to notice the many messages of God’s love and majesty that he constantly communicates to me through his creation. I got a bird feeder and watched the beautiful little creatures God sent my way. I bought really warm clothes so I could take walks year round and immerse myself in the truly astounding scenes around me. My husband and I have taken days off recently just to go to a park and hike around, taking in dramatic as well as simple landscapes and creatures that we’ve surprised and gotten a glimpse of. Each experience has fed my soul and has felt like a personal gift from my Creator.

As I’ve concentrated on my own needs instead of everyone else’s, I’ve begun to feel freedom I hadn’t even remembered was ever a part of my existence. I’ve remembered who I am and found joy in that beyond all the service I could offer. And I’m absolutely certain that God is pleased with that.


JoHannah Reardon is still involved in church leadership, but she’s enjoying it a lot more. Find her many novels at www.johannahreardon.com.

Related Tags: burnout, busyness, identity, joy

Comments

Your post is almost verbatim what I have experienced, JoHannah. I used to think my gravestone would read, "She wore herself out for God." But now I am beginning more and more to say, "No" to others' needs and just enjoy life as a believer.

JoHannah, I almost cried when I saw your post. I'm living what you described right now and am facing losing my ministry position (job) because I'm so emotionally spent. As I read, I saw so much of what I was feeling inside but didn't have words to describe it. Thank you for the practical words; they are a balm to my hurting heart and am going to put them into practice today. :-) Thank you. Thank you.

Well said, JoHannah. Like you, I strive to be faithful. For us "deny yourself and take up your cross daily" types, it's hard to realize that Jesus, "for the joy set before him" endured death on a cross. It makes me wonder how much joy he experienced during the trial and crucifixion, and how much that joy was the anticipated end point. I don't know. If we can embrace both joy and crucifixion, we're on to something. But now it often seems like one or the other. I'm still seeking that combination.

Well done, JoHannah. What you described was me as well for 13 years of ministry before I came apart at the seams. I truly did not know how to enjoy life apart from doing for others, which lead me into debilitating depression. I am still learning what it means to pay attention to my own needs and doing the things that bring me joy; the things God created me to do versus what I feel obligated to do. Thank you for a very encouraging article.

Refreshing article - thank you for posting this, JoHannah. Love the Lewis quote. As a woman in ministry who is employed full-time, married (joyfully) to a pastor for nearly 40 years, and simultaneously completing a graduate degree while parenting adult children, I have very little discretionary time. I needed this reminder that it's OK to enjoy those frosty sunrises. I am acutely aware of the brevity of life and of the need to take care of others as well as myself; it truly is what matters.

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