All my life, growing up in an Evangelical church and family, I heard about joy. We all hear the term a lot, but Christians really emphasize it. You hear it especially at Christmastime. Joy to the world, the Lord is come. But while I had heard about joy all my life, I never really experienced it until after my diagnosis. Until I got smacked by God's 2 By 4.
Joy is not the same as happiness. Happiness is based on circumstances. Joy comes from within, regardless of circumstances.
Here's one silly example of circumstantial happiness. My friends in the Reunion band may remember this. On our last road gig together in our previous incarnation, we were in the Cincinnati, Ohio area. During a free day there, our keyboard player, the incomparable C.J. Lewis, wanted to visit the music stores in Cincinnati. We all went with him. Musicians love to hang out in music stores. Most musicians, anyway.
I've never really enjoyed spending time in music stores, drooling over gear that I can't buy. Guitarists can have lots of fun checking out and playing all the guitars for hours with no intention of buying anything. But as a singer who doesn't play an instrument well, that's not a lot of fun for me. What's fun for me is buying something.
As the day wore on, and the rest of the guys were having the time of their lives jamming and looking at gear, I was miserable. I started to feel like I had a cold coming on. I wanted to go back to my hotel room and take a nap.
But then, I noticed a rack of headphones. The store had a sale on Sennheiser headphones, which, in case you didn't know, are the studio standard. I needed new headphones for my studio. I called my wife, who had been telling me for months to get new ones. She has to wear them when we record. She liked the idea, of course.
Suddenly, I had something to buy. My bad mood disappeared. I no longer felt sick. I was happy. That's circumstantial happiness. But until recently, I had never experienced real joy.
When I was diagnosed, I was not joyful yet, but I did accept what I was told. My instinct is not to fight, but to accept. When I was told that I was inoperable and possibly metastatic, I understood that my fate was not entirely in my own hands. As if it ever was. Once I accepted that, I had peace. Joy is the companion of peace.
What is joy? It's very difficult to describe, if not impossible. But I'll give it a try. For me, it feels like love. It feels like confidence that, ultimately, things will work out for good. It's a lack of fear, worry, and guilt. But it's more than that, and I don't seem to be able to find the words for it. Shocking, I know. But it's amazing.
Whatever it is, it's infectious. Someone who hadn't seen me for a few months told me yesterday how much easier I smile now than I used to. She commented on my coloring, which many do. My standard response is that it comes from realizing how loved I am. I had been walking through life with no clue how many people love me. How dumb am I? It's hard not to feel joy when everyone loves on you wherever you go, and you receive expressions of support from all around the world almost every day. I never understood how blessed I am until now. At least I'm finally awake.
In church last Sunday, I was asked to close the service with prayer. It was my honor to do so. I had never been asked to do that before. Remembering the guy that I used to be, I can understand why. My wife and I are fairly new to this congregation, so my pastor, Tim Jones, introduced me to them. He said that he had never seen anyone in my situation with this much joy. I can't take credit for that. It's not something I achieved through discipline or rule keeping. Joy found me through little or no effort on my part.
Let me try to explain where I think my joy came from, and what has taken it away at times over the last several months.
As I said, I believe the first element was being shown so much love and support. Many men in my shoes don't have the base of support that I'm blessed with. I understand that very well. I see it every day in the online support group that I frequent. But it seems that most of the men who feel they have little or no support are also very private about their cancer. As I urged my brothers in my post, Not Alone, I believe that if they would "go public" about their cancer, they would find that they are more loved than they know. But many don't feel that they can do that, and suffer with very little support. I wonder how much joy they have.
Another factor, for me, was loss of control. Have you ever been in a car accident, and right before the collision, you felt a sense of peace? You get a glimpse of mortality. A few times, I've been there, and thought my time might be up. If so, there was nothing I could do about it. I felt no fear. Just acceptance. That's similar to what I felt when the doctors thought they had evidence that I was metastatic. If true, I had lost control. I realized that control is an illusion anyway. None of us has control.
Christians call this "coming to the end of yourself." Coming to a point where you know that circumstances are beyond your control, and you have to trust God. That's where I was always told that joy and peace are found. They're in that place where we realize that we can't help ourselves, and we recognize our dependence on God. Turns out it's true, at least in my case. And in many other people's cases, as well.
I had never reached that point until a few months ago. I had always thought I could take care of myself. And for the most part, I was right. I had a great marriage, a nice house, and I got to do what I love for a living. Never had any major trials. I've had it way too easy. That's not a recipe for joy. Self-satisfaction and joy don't go together.
But while I can point to all of these factors, there was a pivotal moment in my discovery of joy. I write about that moment in my post, "Becoming." I won't repeat that story here, since I'm already going on too long, as usual. But the short version is that, during a church service, as my friend Michael Wygant led us in a song, God showed himself to me in a very real way. When Elisa Morgan spoke on forgiveness later, something came loose inside me. I was able to let go of some things that had been holding me back for a long time. Past hurts and resentments. Destructive habits. When I let those things go, joy came flooding in.
But all has not been well since then. There have been times when I couldn't feel the joy. Many of those moments came when I thought I had control back. If you've read my post, "Full Disclosure," you know where I'm going with this. It doesn't make me look good.
This will sound very strange, but when the doctors told me that they no longer believed that the suspicious spot they had found on one of my bones was metastasis, all my loved ones rejoiced, but my joy vanished. I had control back, and I didn't want it. And this news was messing up my whole retirement plan. I was afraid that it would destroy my disability claim. For the first time in this process, I felt fear. Fear kills joy.
In spite of my recent spiritual enlightenment, I have been in conflict with a few people during this time. When I'm in conflict, I don't have much joy. Conflict kills joy.
The most graphic, and most recent example, as outlined in All Things New, is when I considered appealing my disability ruling after I was denied. I felt God very clearly indicate to me that I should not appeal, but trust him instead. When I thought about following the advice of so many and appealing my ruling, my joy was replaced by a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Once I made the decision to follow my heart, the joy was back.
I hear many parents of newborn babies say that they're experiencing joy for the first time. People who work with the poor or the disabled get great joy from that. I think it has to do with getting beyond ourselves and our own concerns. It's about realizing that we're not the star of the show. If we can get to that point, it becomes easier to let go of things that hold us back. It becomes easier not to fear when it's not all about us. When my focus is on others rather than myself, I have less conflict, and more joy.
If you know me, you know what a step it was for me to admit that I'm not the star of the show. Being the star of the show has always been my goal. But not anymore.
I repeated something I've said many times to some friends yesterday. I said that, even if I could, I wouldn't change my diagnosis. Not if it meant I had to go back to being the guy I was before. Not if it meant I'd lose the joy.
As I proceed to trust God with my future, I have joy behind me, in front of me, beneath me, above me, surrounding me, and inside me. It sustains me. I don't know where your joy comes from, but he is the source of my joy. Trusting him brings me joy. Your joy may come from your children, or your charitable work. If so, God bless you. I think your joy comes from God even if you don't, because loving unconditionally is what he wants us to do, and what makes us most like him. And if you'll let go of the things that are holding you back and trust him, you'll find joy that will sustain you, no matter what.
Until all of this happened, it never made sense to me when people who were going through great trouble would say how blessed they were, and how good God is to them. But now I get it. They've found joy. I wish it hadn't taken cancer to get me to this place, but now that I'm here, I'll never go back.
I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds. (2 Corinthians 7:4)