Living Joy in Winter
Surviving the harsh Indiana winter months has always been a struggle for me. Living in the northern region of the United States can be daunting any time of year, mainly due to the high percentage of rainfall, the low percentage of sunny days, and the miserably sticky summers – and bitterly cold winters.
You may have heard of “the winter blues.” Diagnostically, it’s called Seasonal Affective Disorder, SAD for short (fittingly). Many who live in geographical locations that receive little sunshine throughout the year struggle with a low-grade dysthymia, or the winter blues. Biologically, this is due to a lack of our natural source of Vitamin D, the sun. Psychologically, enduring long hours of darkness and being stuck indoors because of icy and possibly treacherous road conditions makes it hard to move our bodies and ground ourselves in the natural world.
I think it’s difficult to live out the Christian call to joy any time of year, but particularly during winter, because there’s a greater chance of being isolated from people and the natural world (at least for those of us not living in tropical areas of the world). We often mistake joy for happiness, and vice versa.
In reality, happiness is a fleeting emotion, as all emotions are. Science tells us that feelings tend to intensify and peak, then dissipate altogether, like a traditional bell curve would illustrate. Knowing this, we can’t rely upon the pockets of happiness that come and go, because they are fickle indicators of what is permanent in the spiritual life.
Joy, on the other hand, we know is a spiritual fruit. A fruit most basically is the result, or consequence, of how we choose to live our lives. That means that joy does not come automatically or easily for many of us, but is rather a result of a pattern of choices we make every day to be faithful to God and to love others in the ways we are called to do.
I’m not trying to oversimplify this concept, because joy does not mean we will wear a smile and feel elated as Christians. The reality is that living the Christian call is hard. It requires an immense amount of the virtue of fortitude, which is the ability to do what is arduous and difficult.
There is a certain paradox to falling into the spiritual fruit of joy, because it does not happen when we make superficial decisions based on what makes us feel good. The cultural message “you do you” does not apply when we strive for joy.
We can use the metaphor of winter to help us imagine how joy is lived out when it is most difficult to find and maintain. In winter, we are faced with death. The deciduous trees are bare and the world is stripped of color and the evensong of the birds. No butterflies flutter about, and no bees buzz in our quiet, still gardens. Everything in the natural world is dormant, and this can be depressing if we look merely at the surface of things.
It’s what lies under the earth, nestled in the womb of soil and insulated by the frozen surface, that brings us to the lesson of what joy in winter means and how we live it out. When we feel isolated, barren, and empty, we cannot assume that we are not blessed by God or that He has abandoned us, as is our human tendency. The temptation is to believe God is displeased with us, and therefore, we cannot feel joyful.
But it is what God is doing in the deeper recesses of our hearts and souls that makes the most powerful impact. This is where the spirituality of waiting is so vital, because waiting for God – and in so doing, persevering through hardship and the long seasons of nothingness – means that eventually we will emerge in a sort of springtime of our lives.
Each of us cycles through seasons of desolation (fall/winter) and consolation (spring/summer). When we find ourselves desperate for joy, it may be that we are in a pattern of suffering that seems relentless, and our inclination is to give up. Joy results not when we cling to the moments of laughter and celebration, but when we are able to continue moving forward in our fidelity to God when we least feel like it.
Just as we cannot see the seeds of life germinating beneath the frozen ground upon which we walk in winter, we also do not always notice what God is doing in our lives. The breaking down of our egos or the constant deconstruction of vices are necessary pathways for God to do something new in us.
Often, others will see joy in our lives when we actually feel quite downtrodden. It may surprise us when we hear comments like, “You are so close to Jesus” or “I feel so encouraged by the witness of your life.” The reason is that we don’t feel something we relate to the experience of joy. But if we remember that joy is the result of how we choose to live as Christians, then it makes sense how God would choose to use our suffering as an avenue of joyful hope for others who need our testimony.
Because of God’s love and mercy, He will grant us periods of consolation, rest, and comfort when we are struggling to move through long stretches of winter desolation. In these instances, we may define these experiences as joy. Our joy is nestled, like the seeds underground, in the virtue of hope. When we are despondent, we can hold fast to the truth and the promise that all things end, just as all things begin.
It is the cycle of life and of everything that has breath – we all have beginnings and endings, periods of growth and decay, activity and rest, life and death. Even desolation, however interminable it may be, will have an ending. And that ending will lead to the something more, the something greater God has in store for us.
That is the ultimate source of our joy – in the hope of what is to come, not necessarily what already is. It is also in discovering the gifts and beauty and wonder of what death can teach us. And in every moment we find ourselves joyful or joy-filled, we may simultaneously feel mournful or wistful. This is the eternal Christian paradox, and if it is well lived, it means that, regardless of what spiritual season we find ourselves living right now, we will bear fruit that will last.