At the beginning of 2022 God placed a word on my heart to focus on throughout the year–JOY. It was interesting to me, because I believe most people would describe me as a joyful person. I’m definitely a glass half full kind of girl. But sometimes, I struggle to fully accept the joy Jesus offers me, as if there is a limit to the joy I am entitled to, and I don’t dare exceed that limit. Do you ever feel that way?
Jesus said He came so we can have an abundant life (John 10:10). And we’re instructed by the Apostle Paul to, “Rejoice! Again I say rejoice! (Philippians 4:4).” Turns out we’re not only allowed, but encouraged to dip our toes in the joy pool.
To remind myself, I wrote out Nehemiah 8:10 at the top of my calendar page each week of 2022, “The JOY of the Lord is my strength.” It centered me, reminding me that Jesus had joy for me, more than I could imagine, joy I should be jumping into, not just taking what I thought would suffice.
And so, because Jesus is Jesus, He kept reminding me throughout the year. A reader sent me the most adorable card with JOY on the front. My kiddos stopped in a boutique that had sticky notes with Bible verses on them. The shop owner encouraged them to take one. They selected one to bring home to me with Psalm 16:11 on it. I’d just written a book on the Psalms (you can find it here), and specifically a chapter about this Psalm. It’s all about God’s protection. But even in my studying and actual writing of that chapter on Psalm 16 I’d never paid attention to the word JOY smack in the middle of it. In Your presence is fullness of JOY. Not a little joy, not enough joy, but full-on, ridiculous amounts of JOY. This is what Jesus wants for us, not just for me, for all of us.
Over the summer God gave me more meaning to this word. I was given a wonderful opportunity, but full disclosure, I was afraid to step into it. And as I was planning a new week and writing this verse once again at the top of my planner–it hit me in a fresh way. The joy of the LORD is my strength. God’s joy is what gives me the strength to do the things He puts in front of me. We don’t have to be strong enough. Because God’s joy steps in and becomes our strength. Wow! That whole thought process really blew me away.
As the year came to an end, God used this verse one more way for me. Someone told me my joy was, wait for it, MY strength. I almost fell out of my chair. The joy of the Lord is MY strength. And I, Laura Smith, am fueled by the joy Jesus gives me. I love that. I can think of no other strength I’d rather have.
One word. Three ways it impacted me this year.
What I’m trying to say is the Bible is dang powerful. I enjoy reading every single page. Reading the entirety of the story of Jesus’s redemption and love for us that flows from Genesis all the way to Revelation is powerful. But even one tiny verse can power punch through an entire year. The Bible is alive and active. I’m not sure what word or verse God is going to give me for 2023, but I can’t wait to see how He’s going to use it!
You? Do you have a word, phrase, or verse for 2023? Any good stories of how God used a word or verse in your life last year? Share in the comments so we can marvel together at God’s word and His work in our lives.
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An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. Luke 2:9-11
If you’ve ever attended a Christmas Eve service or watched A Charlie Brown Christmas you’ve heard this verse before. The night that Jesus came down from heaven where He had been living since the beginning of time with God the Father and the Holy Spirit this is how it was announced. By an angel. An angel surrounded by the glory of the Lord. Imagine the sky lighting up in the middle of a night without fireworks or a full moon–a wild, crazy, magnificent light that makes your jaw drop open and your knees shake. A lot.
And this announcement didn’t come to the government or royalty or priests or religious scholars. It didn’t come during an election, at a concert, or during a holiday or at the temple. The good news that the Israelites had been praying for and hoping for for centuries –that the Messiah had finally come to save them–was given to a group of shepherds, considered uneducated and unclean, working the night shift in a field with smelly animals.
Here are the bullet points of the news story:
This is the first thing humans besides Jesus’ very own parents, Mary and Joseph, heard about Jesus. This is why Jesus came. This is what Jesus wants. To calm our fears and worries when there are so many things we’re worried about, when anxiety is running rampant. To give us good news in a world where it’s hard and heartbreaking to watch or read the news. To bring us joy, no matter what we’re going through or what our circumstances are or how sad we feel or how deep our depression is. Because this joy is for ALL people, which certainly includes you and me.
Christmas is in three days.
Maybe you’ve checked everything off your list and all that’s left to do is celebrate with people you love. Maybe the people you love aren’t around this year and that’s harder than you knew it would be. Maybe they’re around, but you still need to shop for a few of them and bake for a few others and send one more package and eight more cards and wrap everything. Maybe your bank account or your energy is depleted. Maybe you cannot wait for a new year, a new start, a new situation.
But you guys? There is a loving peace that will calm all our fears, fill us with such incredible goodness, and flood us with joy. His name is Jesus. And He left everything–His throne in heaven with all its glory and privilege–out of love for you and me. He suffered on the cross so that our suffering would end. He rose from the grave, so that we, too, could rise from the things that have nearly killed us.
That’s good news. We don’t have to be afraid of anything. Joy is waiting for us.
The shepherds took the angel up on the invitation to go and find Jesus. The Bible tells us they “hurried off” to find the baby. And once the shepherds had seen him, a baby born in an animals’ feeding trough in a cave, they were so amazed they went around and told everyone what they’d seen and heard. The shepherds didn’t doubt because Mary and Joseph and the setting of it all weren’t what they’d expected. They didn’t doubt when their circumstances didn’t change. Because their lives were changed. Their hearts were changed. The angel was right. This was good news–the best news. The shepherds weren’t afraid any more. They were filled with joy. And they wanted everyone to know that they could experience this too.
Now, it’s up to us. We can stay where we are. Or we can look for Jesus. When we do, we always find joy, peace, love and light. What are we waiting for?
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What does it mean to love God? Because Jesus tells us the greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind (Matthew 22:37), so therefore it seems fairly important.
I think it’s the same as to love anyone else we love.
Think about someone you love–like your sister or best friend or spouse or parent or child–someone you would do just about anything for. Think of all the things loving them means to you. This is how we are supposed to love God.
I think of my kids–I love spending time with them. If one of them says, “Hey, want to sit with me on the porch while I eat lunch?” Or “I’m running to the store, do you want to come with me?” If at all humanly possible I answer, “Yes!” Because being with them brings me great joy. Whether that’s just running errands or sharing a meal or a lovely adventure at a show, museum, restaurant, whatever. It’s the same with Jesus. I want to spend time with Him. I really look forward to spending time with Jesus in both the big events and the everyday occurrences.
And my mom? I really want to know what she has to say. I want to lean in close when she speaks. I want to hear about her childhood, and the cookout she went to last night at her neighbor’s and her doctor’s appointment and her tennis match. I learn so much from her about how to love others and enjoy life and be positive. I also just get a kick out of hearing her stories. The same is true with Jesus. I want to hear what He has to say about everything. I look forward to opening my Bible and seeing what He did, with who, and what He said to them. I’m eager to learn from all the things He thought were important enough to put in His living word, the Bible.
I also want to share things with the people I love. I want to share everything with my husband. I want to tell Him about what I’m reading and this idea I have for a chapter I’m writing and who I saw at the grocery. I want to tell Him about my dreams and concerns and hopes and the thing I saw on social media that made me giggle. I want to do the same with Jesus–tell Him what’s on my mind, what I’m experiencing, where I’m really excited and where I’m really struggling. I trust Him with my heart and my emotions, with all the things.
Humans, although amazing, are sometimes hard to love, because we’re unreliable and moody and we mess up. I know I do. But Jesus is easy to love, because He’s dependable and constant and never makes mistakes. He always wants what’s best for us. God is filled with unfailing love and faithfulness (Exodus 34:6, John 1:14). He loves us perfectly and faithfully. Which makes me want to hang out with Him and listen to Him and tell Him what’s on my heart.
Loving God is like loving anyone else. Only better. Because the way He loves us back is bigger than we can hope or imagine love could ever be.
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A friend recently asked, “How do I connect with God when I feel distant from Him?”
My answer popped out, “You talk to Him.”
This isn’t a complete answer, and it might seem too simplistic, or maybe feel awkward to talk to someone you don’t sense is there, but this is where we start—talking to Jesus. It’s never about Jesus leaving us, because He simply doesn’t do that. Jesus told the disciples as He ascended into heaven, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”—Matthew 28:20
Always. To the very end.
So, it has nothing to do with where Jesus is. He’s with us. Always. To the end. It’s about how we’re hearing Him. Sometimes when we can’t hear His voice, it’s because we’re not even talking to Him, not inviting Him into our conversations. Sometimes, it’s because we’re not expecting Jesus to answer. And sometimes it’s because there’s so much garbage and pain between us and Him, His voice is muffled under all the things we’re muddling through.
What do I mean?
Let’s say you’re spending Thanksgiving with your family, and two of your family members aren’t exactly getting along. You’re worried about how to be nice to both, without upsetting either. You can already sense the tension, and you:
If you took any of these approaches, you might hear Jesus, but you might not. You barely asked and didn’t listen. If you had this same type of conversation with your best friend, you probably wouldn’t have heard much from them either. Jesus wants to hear from you. He loves you. He made you. He also loves and created those family members who are a hot mess. It doesn’t matter if you have even more issues than they do, or if you haven’t prayed recently or ever. Jesus is right there, with you, always, to the end. He wants to help, but we need to let Him. If we don’t turn over our issues and concerns to Jesus, we’re going to struggle to hear Him.
What if instead, you talked to Jesus like He was your best friend, because He wants to be, and just poured it all out, and let Him know all your feelings and worries, and how you long for the right words, and how you wish your family would be nice to each other. Even if you don’t sense Him, Jesus is there. Nodding and understanding. You might find yourself taking a deep breath, because Jesus offers peace. You might feel an idea of something you could initiate bubble up in your head—don’t friendly family football games seem to unite everybody? Hmmm. Or you might get a tangible response—a strong feeling of comfort, an uncanny ability to bite your tongue when they’re arguing, just the right words to ease the tension at just the right time. This is what hearing Jesus sometimes sounds like.
What worries, hopes, and fears are you clinging to? What concerns are spinning through your mind so fast, you can’t see or hear Jesus in the melee? An upcoming interview? A relationship? A health issue? One by one take your concerns to Jesus. Talk to Him about them. Go back to Him tomorrow. And the next day. Grab your Bible and read it before, during, or after you talk to Jesus. It is the Living Word of God. He will use those words to speak to you. Sit in silence and ask Him for peace, answers, energy, insights, healing, ideas, or patience.
Life can be complicated, so how do you get through all the muck and back to Jesus? Hand Him your problems, one by one. He wants to hear them.
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. —Romans 8:38-39
Jesus is there while you’re stuffing your turkey and stuffing your mouth with creamy, spicy pumpkin pie. Pass the Cool Whip please. He’s there when you’re trying to be patient with the cantankerous family member or attempting to herd the kids into the van or standing in line on Black Friday. He’s there in the big stuff and the little stuff and all the in-betweens.
There might be a lot of junk clogging your ears. There might be so many worries on your list that it’ll take you a while to empty them out of your pockets at Jesus’ feet. But as you do, you’ll start to hear Him again, feel Him again. You’ll realize you weren’t ever separated from Him. He was always there.
What do you do when you can’t feel Jesus? Go to Him. Over and over. He promises to be with you to the end of the earth, so act like you believe that truth, like you know He’s there even when you can’t “see” Him.
Let go of all the stuff that’s in the way. Jesus is always there, always has been, and always will be. That is something to be incredibly thankful for.
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The songs “Little Known Facts” from You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown totally cracks me up. Lucy goes around sharing her “wealth of knowledge” with her little brother, Linus. Some of Lucy’s fun facts include that snow comes up from the ground, that bugs make grass grow, and that you can tell how old a tree is by counting its leaves.
This song is hilarious when watching the show or listening to the soundtrack. And although still funny, it’s a tad bit scary to imagine a real big sister imparting this kind of knowledge on her younger siblings, and downright frightening when we consider being misled by unreliable sources.
And there are so very many sources out there! I love to learn, so I want to gobble up all the info. I download heaps of books on Hoopla, listening to them as I drive home from dropping off one of my kids at practice or while I go for a run. I’m hooked on some phenomenal podcasts—I can listen to a sermon from Upper Room in Dallas or a conversation with author Annie F. Downs, anytime I’m headed out of town or just running errands. I can get almost any book I want delivered to my house in two days thanks to Amazon Prime, not to mention the stacks of reads I check out from the library. Oh, plus the daily devotionals and blogs that land in my inbox. Love! Love! Love! All of the resources.
But have you ever been listening to someone or reading something and thought…hmmm…that just doesn’t sound right? I get what they’re saying, but I don’t think bugs really tug on blades of grass to make them grow. You tilt your head to the side or scrunch your lips, because something feels off. The problem is every one of the writers and speakers and bloggers and podcasters and preachers we read or listen to are human. And so although they are experts in their field, have years of experience, and/or love Jesus, they are flawed. Just like me. So their message might be perfectly well intentioned, but they could still be wrong, or maybe right for them, but so not right for me or for you. How do we tell? How do we measure the validity of the content we consume?
Of course that depends on what you’re trying to find out. If you’re searching for delicious gluten free recipes, go to someone who is actually gluten free and has to both cook this food and eat it. If they’ve never tried preparing that dish, or don’t actually have to substitute those muffins for standard bakery muffins, they probably shouldn’t be your source. If you’re searching for the best product for your hair ask your stylist—they know your hair better than the marketers at Pantene or L’Oreal ever will.
But how about when you want to make sure you’re understanding God, God’s will, Jesus, the teachings of Scripture? How can you be certain you’re getting the right content?
There are many brilliant Bible scholars, preachers, and researchers. But there is only one ultimate truth source. The Bible. Our Bibles are God-breathed, so they will always reveal truth.
You have been taught the holy Scriptures from childhood, and they have given you the wisdom to receive the salvation that comes by trusting in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. —2 Timothy 3:15-17
If a preacher says a certain kind of person isn’t welcome at church, or that any specific people group is unworthy or hopeless, and that makes you scratch your head, turn to your Bible. Check out where Jesus loves on the sinners, sick, and psychotic. It turns out Jesus calls all of us His treasures, His precious children, every one of us, no matter what we’ve done, or where we don’t measure up according to worldly standards. That should clear that up. If a pastor or teacher condemns one kind of activity or promotes another—go to your Bible, check it out. Ask them where in the Bible they got their info—if they can’t answer, that’s a problem. You get the idea.
I love the sweet, earthy smell of leaves—the rustle of them as I rake them into mounds. But I’m not going to fall into the trap of counting leaves to see how old a tree is. I know it sounds ridiculous, but there’s a hecka lot of ridiculousness out there these days. Social media and websites are a blessing, but there are no filters or requirements on what anyone can and will say online. God gave us an incredible gift when He gave us the Bible. He handed us His living word, a way for us to always be able to hear Him, no matter how noisy our lives seem to be. He gave us a way to always find Him, always decipher truth, if only we’ll open up the pages and dive in.
During this month of gratitude, I am so extremely thankful for the Bible—for the words, promises, history, prayers, guidance, and hope it contains. I am thankful for truth—true north, the ultimate compass. What verse, story, or person from the Bible are you most thankful? Comment on the blog or Facebook or Instagram as part of our #thankfulnessproject. This way we can share with each other brilliant glimpses of God’s truth.
When I’m at the beach I wear these heinous shoes all day, every day. They are the dorkiest item of apparel I own, but I wouldn’t even consider walking through the sand without them.
As soon as my feet hit the boardwalk leading from the condo to the beach, my family parts like the Red Sea, and I take off sprinting past them, sometimes with the pool bag flapping at my side, until I am ankle deep in ocean. I look ridiculous. I know I do. I look like I’m being chased by a Land Shark. People probably joke at dinner about the crazy lady they saw running by herself onto the beach, speculating about what motivated me to act like a maniac. But I do not care.
See, I’m allergic to fire ants, and not just like “achoo” or “dang I got a rash” but like” jab me with my Epipen and rush me to the hospital ASAP.” So to avoid these little buggers who live in hot, sandy places, I cover my feet and keep them in the wet sand where the ants are less likely to bite. And it is worth the ugly shoes and the strange antics to stay safe. Every single step of the way.
I’m sure there are many other things I do that seem strange or counter cultural to someone observing, but I do them for self-preservation. You probably do too. At dessert while out to eat with some girlfriends recently, one friend offered another friend a bite of her brownie. She answered, “No thanks. It looks so good, but I’d have to pay for it for a week.” She is gluten free and knows the wheat in baked goods attacks her body. The bite of rich, chocolaty brownie, although oh so yummy, just isn’t worth it for her. I have another girlfriend who needs her sleep. NEEDS IT. Like no one else I’ve ever met. She wakes up, takes her kids to school in the mornings and goes back to bed for another hour or so every school day. As a result every minute she’s awake she is more energetic, more productive, and happier. It is what she needs to be healthy and in a good place. And so no matter what everyone else does or thinks she should do, she deliberately gets her sleep.
It’s not always convenient to do the thing that’s best for you. But it’s essential to do it anyway.
The most significant thing I do each day to keep me grounded, safe, full of joy, and in the right frame of mind is to read the Bible. Most mornings I am on the fly—attempting to sneak a jog in before it’s sweltering hot, trying to get one of my kids on time to an early morning soccer game, hoping to get a bit of writing in before the rest of my family wakes up. And then there are the days when I am just sooo sleepy. But regardless of how handy or opportune, deliberately starting my day in the Word keeps me anchored to who I am.
So before I pull my covers off, I reach under my bed, pull out my Bible and my journal and see what God has in store for me for the day at hand. My morning time with my Bible:
There’s nothing like the written Word of God for showing you the way to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 MSG
Just like my awful pink beach shoes keep me safe from seemingly harmless insects that are life-threatening to me, beginning my day immersed in the Word of God protects me against seemingly innocent insults, rejections, comments, stresses and tensions, and reminds me I am wholly and completely loved and accepted, just as I am. And this reward is so fulfilling that I am always glad I woke up early, took the time, or waited to get started on something else. Always.
How about you? What seemingly countercultural or inconvenient things do you do to keep yourself grounded, safe, happy and shining your true reflection?
After being handed my standard issue clipboard with predictable paperwork at my annual blood draw for health insurance purposes today, I sat down in a typical doctor’s office chair to be greeted with a surprise comment.
“Good morning and God bless you too!” said the older gentleman seated next to me.
He had to be speaking to me, because there was no one else in the waiting room. But I hadn’t spoken yet, making the “too” part of his greeting slightly confusing. But I like to be blessed. And he was friendly, so I said, “Good morning and God bless you.”
And we continued filling out our forms.
Four seconds later my husband walked in. We are required to have this done every year to maintain lower health insurance rates and we always wait until the last week for some reason, so today was our day.
“How was Bible study,” I asked him.
Brett could only give me two or three sentences about who was at Bible study and what kind of donuts they had before my name was called. Now having blood drawn is not my strong suit. Let’s just say I always have to warn the phlebotomist I may pass out. I also know to pack a banana in my purse to eat the second they’re finished to try to give my blood sugar a little replacement.
I’m pleased to report my phlebotomist was gentle, I didn’t look, and I didn’t faint. I did feel woozy, so I sat for a moment or two in the room on the cot, and then for another moment, until she said my pupils looked normal again. I slowly stood, scuffled out to the hall where the same gentleman walked by on the way to his room.
“Where in the Word are you?” He asked.
I’ve been asked by so many people over the years, people I know, people from church, close friends, what my Bible study is studying or what my pastor is teaching, but I can’t remember anyone asking me where I am in the Word, let alone a stranger. Ever.
I was blown away and blessed.
“Galatians,” I managed
“I just finished 2 Samuel last night!” He proclaimed then held up his hand and gave me a powerful high five.
He went into his room.
I sat on the chair nearest the door eating my banana until my husband came out, so we could go to Starbucks together.
But that man…
“Where are you in the Word?”
Wouldn’t it be cool if we greeted each other like that? Just assuming that everyone we met is reading the Bible. Curious to see what they’re studying, what they might be learning, if they’re knee deep in some of our favorite verses or braving books we might normally steer clear of, inspiring us to go back in for seconds or to give something new a try.
Granted, he might have gathered I was a Christian if he heard me ask my husband how Bible study was, but he didn’t know that when he told me, “God bless you too.”
So, what if we asked everyone. What if some people looked at us like we were insane? What if some people asked us what we meant by “The Word” and we were able to share the Gospel?
I went in to have my blood drawn. I went in to check a box for my insurance. I went in nervous and apprehensive.
I came out inspired. And challenged.
So, I ask you friends, where are you in the Word today? I’d love to hear. Inspire me. Challenge me. Where are you?
Laura L. Smith