Only two words. Two words I pray for the grace to live until I die. Choose joy.
They are so easy to say. But when life hits the fan, how actually can we “choose joy”?
My answer has to do with fine wine. Not drinking it—being it. But to be fine wine, to choose joy, we need eight more words.
Joy comes from choosing what you didn’t choose.
Choose what you didn’t choose is simply a way to say what James said 2,000 years ago: “Count it all joy my brothers and sisters when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2).
This kind of counting starts with learning how to receive— not resent—life’s interruptions. A lesson it may take me a lifetime to learn.
Interruptions Are Real Life
The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life – the life God is sending day by day: what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s own imagination!
That quote exploded my big-plan, narrow-margin life when I read it years ago. God has been using it to change me.
Because when a punch-in-the-gut email came yesterday, the retraction of a long-awaited, much-prayed-for opportunity for my son and an interruption of my very good plan, I got woozy, then weepy, and (futilely) tried to negotiate the offer back—but I did not despair.
I could not despair.
Because I’ve been training myself to count it all joy. I’ve been fighting to look for the silver lining. I’ve been trying to trust that no plan of the God who holds the world in his hands “can be thwarted “(Job 42:2), and that “no good thing does he withhold” from his children (Psalm 84:11), and I’ve been learning to lean into Elisabeth Elliot‘s joyful secret: “Christ in me, not me in a different set of circumstances.”
So when gut-punch emails came, when crossing gates slow my pace, and when my day-off plans get shortchanged, I may still chafe.
But I am learning to count these things joy. Because I am trusting that every disappointment, interruption, and delay is the “real” life God is sending me.
Count It All Joy
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.
James wrote when you meet trials, not if. That means we need to commit to count them joy before they hit.
Trials are inevitable and they often come on us as sudden interruptions of our plans.
Which explains why James used a Greek word translated “meet” above, that is also translated as “fall into.” It’s the same word used in the parable of the Good Samaritan when a man fell among robbers, and in Acts 27 when Paul’s ship struck a reef. The word emphasizes the surprise nature of trials. We don’t plan troubles.
But we can choose joy.
Do you know what happens when we don’t meet trials?
There’s a vivid illustration of that in the book of Jeremiah. “Moab has been at ease since his youth,” the weeping prophet wrote. Moab bordered Israel. Its people had lived an easy, undisturbed life.
“Neither has he been emptied from vessel to vessel, nor has he gone into exile. Therefore he retains his flavor and his aroma has not changed.”
That verse, Jeremiah 48:11, is a metaphor. Moab is being compared to bad wine.
I’m no vintner, but there is Google.
In Bible times, when grapes began their transformation to wine, the juice was a combination of sweet and bitter, of solid and liquid. It was placed into a vessel, likely a wineskin, and left alone. Eventually, the bitter parts—the spent (dead) yeast cells, bits of grape skins, and pulp—would fall to the bottom and become what we know as the dregs.
Then wine on top would be poured into another vessel and with more time it would yield more dregs. Those would then be poured into another skin, and another skin until finally the wine was poured into a new wineskin and there were no bitter dregs left.
The process was complete. The result was pure wine.
Moab’s problem was that he was never poured from trial to trial to trial. Without displacement and pouring, without the interruptions that disrupt our very good plans, we will, like Moab, retain the dregs.
This is why I don’t pray for easy and smooth very much anymore. It’s also the mindset that keeps me from melting when my plans fall apart.
It is how we are enabled—divinely enabled—to say, “If God needs to upset my plans and pour me from vessel to vessel so that the faithless dregs of my life fall to the bottom and the pure wine of righteousness remains, then not my will, but yours be done.”
Only when we see this “wine side” can we choose what I didn’t choose. It is the only way I know that we can possibly choose joy.
How to Choose What You Didn’t Choose
Christian joy is grounded in our union with Christ (Psalm 16:11), and that union—not our plans coming to pass—is the eternal fountain for our joy. This understanding led young Scottish pastor Robert Murray M’Cheyne to say, “It has always been my ambition to have no plans as regards myself.”
M’Cheyne’s words grate against our autonomous, task-oriented, 21st-century grain. But to say them in any age would be supernatural.
Yet if we see interruptions to our plans and disruptions to our pace as God pouring us from vessel to vessel so that we can be pure, mature, and lack nothing—NOthing, mind you— maybe we can echo M’Cheyne.
Change is the only constant. Until the day I die, there will be changes I did not see coming, “pourings-out,” —choices made for me. I can resent them or choose to believe that God is up to something good; that he is making fine wine of me.
We can choose joy.
How to Choose Joy
I don’t want waste this day that the Lord has made (Psalm 118:24). That means I must choose what I didn’t choose. I must choose to believe in the face of confusion and pain, that when my son’s dream offer was revoked, when that choice was made for us rather than by us, that God’s good hand was behind it.
Centuries ago, the Puritan writer Jeremiah Burroughs penned some of the most instructive choose-joy, fine wine-words I have ever heard.
The Lord sees further than I do; I only see things at present but the Lord sees a great while from now. How do I know but that had it not been for this affliction, I should have been undone?
To choose joy, we must trust that the Vinedresser who knows the beginning and the end, who sees it all and steers it all, and who loves us more than we can know, has chosen precisely these trials to remove our dregs and transform us into fine wine.
In other words, we choose to believe that every single trial we face was traced upon our dial by the Sun of Love.
Believing this is choosing what we didn’t choose.
And that is how we choose joy.
1. Have you been learning to choose what you didn’t at first choose and so to actually choose joy? If so, I would love to hear about.
2. If you’d like to explore this topic in greater depth, you might enjoy my book Meek Not Weak.
2. Credit to Skye Jethani for the phrase: Joy comes from choosing what you didn’t choose. (Listen to Skye, here.)
3. It’s been 48 hours since I read the gut-punch email. In that time, God has given great peace. I also have a dozen possible reasons, very good reasons, why God ordained that painful chain of events. But I’ll close with another Elisabeth quote, “God never withholds from His child that which His love and wisdom call good. God’s refusals are always merciful—severe mercies at times but mercies all the same. God never denies us our hearts desire except to give us something better” (The Path of Loneliness).