What if my life isn’t fun?
“What can I do to make it fun?” she demanded.
This girl despises changing her clothes. She also hates being interrupted what she’s in the middle of fun. Going to bed brings both, plus the tense dance of sharing a tube of toothpaste with her brother in one little bathroom. This is not the first time the bedtime announcement has sent her into spasm of sadness.
Figuring out how to find joy became more pressing than ever. How do I explain to my 9-year-old girl how to find joy in tasks she abhors?
We’ve tried distractions: I’ll read you stories or put on music while you change. We’ve tried rewards: an extra big hug and a toss into bed if you do it without complaint. Still, it doesn’t solve the deep problem. She wants it to be fun, and it just isn’t.
Many of us wake up every morning facing the same dilemma. So much of life just isn’t fun. Sucky jobs. Putting away clothes. One-sided attempts to build friendships. Paying bills. Making time to exercise.
The Bible: a different picture of joy
After Phoebe went to bed, I opened my Bible’s concordance and chugged through every single verse listed with the word joy. I wrote down the main points of each, and started sorting them into categories. This is what I found.
First, joy is deeply entangled with knowing God. Joy comes from having the light of God’s face shine upon us (Ps 4:6-7). When Christ showed up as God in human form, he was received with joy by the baby John bouncing in his mama’s tummy (Lk 1:44), by angels and by shepherds (Lk 2:10). In the broadest sense, joy comes from the near presence and awareness of God.
But as I looked at my list of joy verses, I saw that there are many specific ways that we encounter that awareness of God that brings joy. I found a certain progression of these ways, though the Bible and through history. I lined up my list of ways to experience joy and they looked like this:
1. Joy over God’s creation
2. Joy found in recounting and celebrating God’s works
3. Joy at being rescued and saved by God
4. Joy in obedience to God
5. Joy in sharing God’s love with others
6. Joy in seeing others come to know God
7. Joy over what’s to come
Perhaps many of us move through this progression as we mature as Christians, though certainly they don’t always come in this order either.
That night I sat with our daughter snuggled beside me on the couch and we talked about how to make bedtime less painful. I reminded her of the feeling of pride and happiness she gets in accomplishing things well on her own, like when she made a pie herself for our Thanksgiving dinner or how she feels when she teaches herself a new song on piano. I challenged her to take ownership of her bedtime routine and surprise me some day with getting it all done without prodding or complaint. I described how happy and proud we would both feel at the sense of accomplishment. We talked about the positive feelings that come of doing what needs to be done, feelings that aren’t the same as fun, but are also good.
Joy isn’t the same as fun
I didn’t come out and say it, but ultimately I want her to know that fun isn’t what she should be living for.
I suppose the discussion we had falls under category 4—Joy in obedience to God.
Psalm 119:111 says, “Your statutes are… the joy of my heart.” That whole Psalm often hits me as ridiculous. Verse after verse, 176 in total, on the joy of following God’s rules. The author crafted a poem of stanzas for every letter in his alphabet, each extolling the fulfillment from doing what he’s supposed to do—of reading God’s word and obeying it.
Sounds so dull. Read rules. Obey rules. Obey commands. Meditate on rules. Study laws. Do what you have to do. Don’t stray.
And yet it’s not drudgery to this author at all. He loves it. He’s ecstatic about obedience. He finds God’s statutes wonderful, life-giving, delightful.
Am I getting joy out of obedience? First of all, is what I spend my time on obedience? Is it the necessary work set before me by God each day? If it’s not, well there’s a good reason why I’m not feeling joyful.
If you’re in that place of despising your work, ask if it’s what God actually wants you to do, or if you’re settling for less because it’s convenient or you’re afraid to step out and hunt for something better. Start up your rocket engines of courage and get praying and searching for something better God has in store—he never asks people to waste away their life.
But if what we’re doing is obedience, no matter how un-fun it is, it ought to bring joy. I ought to be able to sidestep the ultimate goal our culture teaches us from childhood on up of having fun at all costs. I ought to be able to find in my daily obedience the good feelings (delight, wonder, life, joy) that come from hitting my aim for a higher goal.