“God is an unconventional teacher. He uses paradox to imbue us with common sense, propels healing through pain, and hauls clarity into our lives through the most confusing circumstances.” Margaret Feinberg used joy as a weapon against her cancer diagnosis to discover God’s fierce love for her, reignite her laughter, release her regrets, overcome her fears, and find the strength she desperately needed.
Bible Gateway interviewed Margaret Feinberg (@mafeinberg) about her book, Fight Back With Joy: Celebrate More. Regret Less. Stare Down Your Greatest Fears (Worthy Publishing, 2015) and corresponding 6-session DVD Bible Study (LifeWay Christian Resources, 2015).
Talk about your personal context of challenge in which you wrote this book about joy.
Margaret Feinberg: Several years ago, I felt compelled by the Holy Spirit to go on a personal journey to lay hold of more joy in my life. I dug into Scripture researching the hundreds of passages on joy, happiness, rejoicing, merriment, and more.
Thrilled about all I was learning, I was putting the finishing touches on a book when I received the news of cancer. Plunged into a world of greater pain and suffering than I’d ever known, I had to scrap the project. Up until then, I had been searching for joy in the relatively good times of life, now I had to find joy amidst darkness and agony.
No one signs up for that assignment. No one.
Against all odds, I’ve found my capacity for joy expanding, and I’ve discovered something quite startling: Joy is far more than I ever thought or been taught. It’s a more dynamic, forceful weapon than most of us realize. When we fight back with joy, we lean into the very presence of God—the one who fill us with joy, even on our most deflated todays.
What’s your understanding of the biblical mandate to be joyful no matter what happens?
Margaret Feinberg: I think using the phrase “biblical mandate to be joyful no matter what happens” has a tendency to create plasticky Christians who feel forced to fake it a lot. This kind of terminology encourages us to hide our pain, our grief, our losses—the very things God often uses to showcase His goodness and glory.
A “biblical mandate to be joyful no matter what” is like telling a child you must have fun. Any sense of play is instantly vacuumed out of the room. The Bible never makes feeling joy a legal matter. Ecclesiastes 3:4 informs us that all of humanity will experience moments of tears as well as laughter. God knows these moments well in advance, but they often come as a surprise to us.
Perhaps you’re referring to, “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4). And yes, when as we live in tune with Christ, we’re endowed by grace with the ability to reverberate the joy of God. The Greek root for “rejoice” is chairo meaning “full of cheer” or “calmly happy.”
When all the lights go off in life, when everything is stripped away, we can still find a sense of deep shalom in who God is, his character, his ability to hold things together when our world has fallen apart. That’s always available to us. “Rejoice in the Lord always” isn’t a mandate—as in the Eleventh Commandment—as much as an invitation to reorient ourselves toward God—on the best and worst of days.
You say, “If you’re not experiencing joy, your definition of joy is too narrow.” What do you mean by that?
Margaret Feinberg: I think a lot of people have such a narrow understanding of joy that it becomes unattainable. If you look at the more than 400 references to joy, happiness, delight, merriment, and rejoicing in the Bible, you’ll begin to see a broad spectrum of joy emerging.
If we want to walk in the fullness of joy that God has for us then we need to understand that within the Scripture joy is found in a spectrum of emotions, actions, and responses that include mirth, glee, gladness, cheer, happiness, merriment, delighting, shouting, exulting, rejoicing, laughing, playing, brightening, blessing and being blessed, taking pleasure in and being well pleased.
It’s been noted that Hebrew has more words for joyful expressions than any other language. We’re meant to be a people who experience joy in many ways.
Was Job joyful?
Margaret Feinberg: Job was a man in mourning. His world shattered. His children dead. His possessions robbed. His body betrayed. Natural disasters targeted his property. Job’s most precious possession—his relationship with God—seemed mysteriously ripped away. For seven days, Job sat shiva [week-long mourning period in Judaism] in the wake of such breathtaking losses. He mourned. His friends entered into the silence with him. When they spoke, they shifted from providing comfort to becoming a source of confusion and contempt.
For thousands of years, Job’s story has been a source of strength and hope to those who have experienced grief, mourning, and loss. Was Job joyful? No more than you and I would be if we walked the same path. That said, I have a hunch that when we recognize Job in heaven, he’ll have a big, loopy grin on his face for all that God has done to bring solace to generation after generation through his story.
What have you learned about joy from the biblical phrase “but if not”?
Margaret Feinberg: In Daniel 3:16-18, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to bow to King Nebuchadnezzar’s demands. “If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.” (NRSV, italics added)
These three faithful servants unlock the joy that comes with asking, “What if God?” and declaring “But if not.” This is the tension we must live in as followers of Jesus. It’s the tension Christ faces before His own arrest when he asked God to take the cup from Him. In that moment, Jesus asked, “What if God?” but declared “But if not.” Those words represented the hope of God breaking in, now, today, and rescuing us, but recognizing that if he does not respond in the way we hope or desire we will still follow him in everything. This is the portrait of the surrendered life—and the joy that comes through it.
Offer at least one suggestion that a person could use today to fight back with joy.
Margaret Feinberg: Whatever challenge, trial, difficulty you’re facing wants to absorb all of your attention, all of your energy, all of your emotional bandwidth, all of your free time and free thoughts. It’s so easy to sink into a place where the adversity is all you see; all you think about. That’s why it’s important to throw anchors into the future.
Place something on the calendar that you can begin looking forward to. A catch-up coffee date with an old friend. Start dreaming about a holiday you can spend with family. Hope is a powerful courier of joy. And one practical way you can fight back with joy is to begin to throw anchors into the future.
Bio: A popular speaker at churches and leading conferences such as Catalyst and Thrive, Margaret Feinberg was recently named one of the “30 Voices” who will help lead the church in the next decade, according to Christian Retailing magazine. Her books have received national media coverage from CNN, the Associated Press, and USA TODAY. She lives in Morrison, Colorado, with her husband, Leif, and her superpup, Hershey.