There’s nothing like a winter evening in the Rocky Mountains when the weather’s clear. The sky is palest aquamarine, tinged with purple and streaked with light. The bouldered bluffs and evergreen crests are lit to the color of fire, while the snow in the meadows undulates with blue shadows. Dry golden grasses peek through the white crust and catch the sun. The frozen air shows one’s breath as billows of smoke; the smell of the great outdoors is fresh and crisp. All creation seems suffused with light.
It’s at times like this I’m glad to have lived half my life in the West. Scenes like these have become so familiar to me that I associate them naturally with the freedom I have known here over the years. Freedom is on my mind all the time nowadays; so much so that I have named the year 2016 “My Year of Liberty”. Who knows how that truth will play out? But I know it will. Not just for me, but for anybody who wants to take hold of it for themselves.
I begin afresh as a blogger this year with a very simple idea, and here it is.
We are free.
You may construe this however you will. As an American, the idea fills my imagination with pictures of countryside I am free to roam, cities I am free to explore, churches where I am free to worship–not to mention paintings of the Founding Fathers in tricorn hats, and the good old star-spangled banner unfurling in the wind. The list goes on. But as remarkable an example of freedom I believe my homeland to be, frankly the concept goes much deeper than all that. The truth is, freedom is a gift Jesus gave mankind when he died for us. Of course, it’s up to you whether you reach out and take it–but the gift is there.
The New Testament is full of references to this–notably, Romans 8:2. ” . . . the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.” That means you’re free from bondage to sin, fear, death, and oppression. The laws of fear and condemnation which once governed mankind no longer govern the children of God.
Sometimes, of course, the affairs of life cause us to kick our lovely gift box full of freedom under the bed and forget altogether that we have it. As an old Eagles song says, “So oftentimes it happens that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key.”
That “key” is simply a choice. That’s all; just a choice. If I am able, as the New Testament says, to think, speak, and act as a free woman, then it follows that when I do not do so, I am chaining myself by default. But if the Bible says I can choose to do something, then I can do it. Not by my own strength, brains, or superiority, but by that “free gift of righteousness” Jesus gave to me (Romans 5), which causes me to “reign in life”. What the Bible says you can do, you can do, because if you know Jesus, He works through you. You don’t have muster your own superpowers. That’s freedom.
So what does it mean, practically, to choose freedom? This is a lesson I learned last year, while working at a country club restaurant. There was a large workload and we were severely understaffed. We all felt a lot of pressure to perform well, and when one of us messed up it seemed like the entire day was a failure. I found myself depending more and more on our skillful new manager to keep my spirits up and offer solutions when coping with the series of major and minor disasters that define a typical day in the restaurant business. When he was in a good mood and on top of his game, so was I. But later on, he fell very ill more than once. His cheerfulness faded away, replaced by a demeanor of depression, anxiety, and exhaustion. Like the rest of us, he moved like greased lightning, but his joy in the job was obviously nearly gone.
It got worse as the weeks passed. I remember standing with him in front of the kitchen cash register while he ranted about something that wasn’t going right in the dining room (it may well have been my fault). As he talked, I thought wistfully about how good it had been when he started his job. Nowadays I was too busy worrying about him to take much joy in the job myself. If he can’t keep it together, I thought, None of us can.
But as he walked away, I found myself staring at the scarred white wall, transfixed by a new thought: For a place like this to work, somebody has to be the smiling one who holds everyone else up. The one who finds something to laugh about no matter what’s going on. The joy-bringer. The one who doesn’t grow weary in being a constant helping hand no matter how he or she feels. If my boss can’t be it, then I have to be. I may be the only one here who knows how to use God’s strength instead of my own. The idea was daunting because I’d failed miserably at being this way before. But I had failed before because it never occurred to me to make a quality decision to be the restaurant’s backbone of joy. I hadn’t realized how necessary it was for such a person to exist, until the absence of someone’s joy to lean on hit me like a fist in the gut.
The next morning, while praying, I heard God sum up the revelation like this: Happiness is a choice.
I knew He didn’t mean just on a grand scale. He meant that every day, moment by moment, as I was bombarded by opportunities to set my face, lose my smile, and talk the same stress talk as everybody else, He wanted me to choose to be happy.
When, at home, I let my big mouth hurt or slander somebody, and then just felt terrible about it later, God wanted me to rejoice that He has forgiven me and knows what to do to make it right. When, at work, I shattered wineglasses, spilled sticky cherry juice all over the floor, rang up fourteen separate tabs from the same table and got the customers’ drinks mixed up, dropped bottles of beer (which would invariably explode and flood their surroundings with yeasty foam), fell while running down the stairs, ran out of this or that drink/condiment/garnish/supply–no matter what, I must choose happiness. So that morning, laying on my stomach on my bedroom carpet with my nose six inches from my Bible, I made the choice. I will be happy no matter what.
Of course, not being a perfect spiritual Barbie doll, I still blew it on these and many similar occasions. I’d let silly people and the silly problems they would cause ruin my interaction with the people who mattered most. My sister, who worked with me, would ask for advice and I’d snap, “Do I look like I have time for that? Just figure it out.” And then I’d rush on to the next problem without a backward glance. Instead of my cracking my usual jokes, I’d occasionally find myself saying bitter things to my good friend the chef about customers, like the table who kept me running all night and then left me with a 10 percent tip because of a computer glitch. It didn’t matter but it felt good to gripe about it. Some days I’d be frantically punching orders into the computer, and find myself cussing unkind customers under my breath. I’d fail to show others the mercy God has always shown me.
When I got home at night after a day of lapse into negativity, I would empty my apron and pockets onto my dresser, throw my purse on the floor, and crawl into bed, thinking, “What’s happening to me? Who am I becoming?” I think everybody has moments like that. At those moments, more than any others, it is crucial that we STOP, and thank God that His mercies are new every morning. Also, receive His forgiveness, and honor it by forgiving ourselves. Finally, we must choose happiness. (I work a different job these days but I still have daily opportunities to practice this. I know you do too.)
Happiness is what the Bible calls joy. And joy isn’t what I used to think–a cute little cheerful feeling that a few people have and the rest don’t. No, joy is a real force, and it’s stored in the spirit of every believer, waiting to be released. What sets it loose to change your life is choice. Deuteronomy 30:19 commands us to CHOOSE life, that we may live. It’s a choice that says, No matter how bad things get, I will grit my teeth and smile and hold on to joy. I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. (Psalm 27:13)
Which brings me back to where I began; at freedom. I have found it to be inextricably linked to this “choosing happiness” concept. Choosing happiness when the odds are against you is an act of freedom. Only free people can do it. And only those who know Jesus are free (John 8:36). If you do, then you’re free. (If you don’t, then I suggest you receive Him right now because you won’t know what the good life is until you do.) Free people (who know they are free) are happy. So to choose happiness is to choose freedom. If you’ve decided to be happy wherever you go and whatever you do, it destroys your fear of going anywhere or doing anything. It also takes your freedom out of the hands of man. If you can have joy despite any circumstances, then no human being and no force under the sun or above it can take your freedom from you.