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In this world, many things – and many people – steal our joy. From stress at work, to polarizing politics, to family drama, joy often seems untenable. Most of us can’t honestly say, as Paul did, “… in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds” (2 Corinthians 7:4). Nevertheless, Paul had an unearthly contentment and a hope despite suffering that many of us long for. To help us tap into that joy Paul found, I want to draw our attention to four spiritual problems – four thieves of joy common to our culture – that leave us feeling hopeless, unhappy, and frustrated.

1. Legalism

Legalism is our tendency to gravitate toward rules. I’m not talking about the Law of God which is good and beneficial, but extra rules we make up and then act like God requires them. Sometimes they take the form of church teaching. Most often, legalism looks like unrealistic expectations and peer pressure.

For example, I once attended a church where it was thought that a good Christian wife and mother must keep her house tidy, cook from scratch daily, and homeschool all her children. These are no doubt wonderful things to do, but I had a newborn baby and a toddler in diapers, and I couldn’t keep up. Because of this, I was looked down on by some in our church.

But our worthiness is not measured by our housekeeping skills. It’s measured by the worthiness of our Savior. Jesus lived a perfect life and attributed all his goodness to you. Now, when your Father looks at you, he sees the holiness of his sinless Son.

Legalism steals your joy by making you feel like you can never measure up. Let go of the rules. Learn to love who God made you to be and the season he’s put you in for now. Rest in the joy of knowing that God loves you, not because you are perfect, but because he is perfect.

Legalism says, you are worth what you do. Jesus says, you are worth my very life.

2. Tunnel Vision

When we’re surrounded by troubles, as Paul was, our most natural inclination is to focus on those troubles. Those bills piling up, the deadline at work, the scary diagnosis, the loneliness; all these things close in around us like the walls of a cave. They make us feel trapped, unable to see beyond their cold darkness. While it’s important to be responsible and deal with things like bills and deadlines, we can’t let our responsibilities take our eyes off Jesus.

One trick I’ve learned is to allow my struggles to remind me of Christ’s. When a loved one is abusive or unkind, I can remember that Jesus was betrayed by Judas, his close friend. When liars and gossips spread rumors about me, I remember that Jesus was called a liar, a drunk, and even demon possessed. When I grieve the injustice of abuse in my past, I remember that Jesus was beaten, berated, and murdered.

In this way, my struggles can point me to Jesus. Instead of closing in around me and overwhelming me with their bleakness, they remind me that God knows exactly how I feel. He is with me, even in the valley of the shadow of death. Instead of getting tunnel vision, I can remember that there’s a shining Light ahead of me, and his name is Emmanuel.

3. Misplaced Affections

Another common problem that steals our joy is misplaced affection. This is when our focus is on temporal pleasures which distract us from eternal promises. A new car, cool friends, or a big promotion at work are all great things, but if we anchor our identity and invest our hearts too much in this world, we set ourselves up for disappointment.

The car will break. The friends will falter. The job won’t last forever. While it’s good to enjoy the blessings God gives us, our hearts must be anchored in Jesus. He and he alone is our constant hope, our unwavering Friend, and our faithful Shepherd. While it’s good to love people and things in this world, we must always love God more.

This is why Jesus says, in Matthew 6:19-21, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven … For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

4. Insecure Faith

Insecure Faith is probably the cruelest thief of all, because if we aren’t convinced that God really loves us, how can we truly rest in him? How can we feel joy? I remember as a teenager agonizing over the state of my faith. I thought that real Christians were happy Christians. I didn’t understand that real Christians have real struggles too. In my case, those struggles included an abusive father, a broken home, and PTSD well into my 30’s. But God doesn’t measure my value based on how happy I am, and it’s not how he measures my faith either.

Rather, God provides my faith. The author of Hebrews tells us that in troubling times we can look “to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.” (Hebrews 12:2a).

It was the joy of knowing that someday he’d be in heaven with you that enabled Jesus to persevere. It was the joy of knowing that your sins would be forgiven that determined him to die for you. It was the joy of love and the peace of heaven that reminded him that this wasn’t the end. There is hope beyond suffering, joy beyond sorrow, and even life beyond death.

Any time you doubt God’s love, remember that you are worth the blood of his Son, Jesus Christ, and know that you are treasured beyond all earthly compare.

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