When Margaret Feinberg first decided to write a book about joy, she had no idea just how difficult that process would turn out to be.
Just a few weeks before turning in a draft of the book to her publisher, Feinberg discovered she had cancer.
As you might imagine, that entirely changed her book. She scrapped her first draft and started over. In the resulting book, Fight Back With Joy, Feinberg explores how joy can actually be used as a weapon to fight life’s battles.
We talked with her about the book, her cancer journey and how we can all learn to pursue joy.
You wrote an entire book about joy, and then you learned you had cancer. What was your response?
I just felt so many things, I felt terror and fear and shock and panic. I also felt kind of this holy resolve rise up inside that said, you know what, if I am thrust onto the battlefield, then the weapon that I’m going to choose to fight back with is joy.
A lot of us, including myself, we tend to go to more ready-made weapons. We might reach for anger, or bitterness or resentment. We might slip into a funk or depression that no one can pull us out of no matter how hard they try.
Almost all of us are in a fight. Sometimes you pick the fight and sometimes the fight picks you. But even if you didn’t get to pick your fight, you can still choose how you respond. Joy is one of those ways that [keeps you] from circling down the drain, from taking a downward spiral to creating an upward spiral that changes your perspective and that causes you to look up.
What do you feel like you learned about God during the process of walking through cancer and treatment?
One of the biggest lessons I learned is that God is not afraid of the dark. I think often, especially in many evangelical circles, we focus on the fact that God is a God of light. Let me be very clear, we are the children of light. But before God separated the light and the darkness in the opening of Genesis, God knows the dark. He is not afraid of the dark.
When we wake up on those days in life and it just feels like all the dimmer switches in our lives have been shoved down and we are sitting in the dark alone, God is not afraid. He is not afraid at all. He knows how to walk us through the dark. He knows how to bring us to that place where we break through the darkness and we start walking in His light again.
How can people practice joy in the midst of hardship?
There’s a wonderful passage in 2 Chronicles 20 when King Jehoshaphat wakes up and he is surrounded by multiple armies. It says a prophet shows up on the scene and says, “You’re not going to have to fight this battle, because God is going to fight on your behalf.”
But if you read the passage, what you’ll discover is that the people who went onto the battlefield did not walk out empty handed, they walk out singing and praising. They literally took joy with them—and I think we can too.
Over and over again throughout Scripture, we see that call to rejoice. Even the Apostle Paul talks about rejoicing in the Lord always. How do we do that? In the good times, sometimes that’s hard enough, but in the darkness, it feels impossible.
I remember one day, my husband and I we were driving almost an hour to the hospital for yet another doctor’s appointment. He hit play on the iPod and “10,000 Reasons” came on. We just started singing. We finally got to the hospital, and what I discovered was that those doctor’s waiting rooms and those offices, even those can be transformed into places of praise.
I remember lying down on the MRI machine, laying there in that scary stillness and wondering “Has anybody praised God from this latitude and this longitude today?”
What I began to see was the secret of how you rejoice when you make no sense is that you do it one square inch at a time. There are times when you sing or you worship or you pray and you read, you don’t get an immediate path, let me be clear about that. But there is this decision that you will become what you proclaim. And if you proclaim the goodness and faithfulness of God, you will experience more of Him. I think one of the ways we fight back with joy is that we rejoice when it makes no sense.
How would you encourage people to help friends who are walking through things like cancer?
I think one of the biggest things is to be compassionate. In the story of the good samaritan, it talks about religious leaders walked by, but the one that entered in and the one that crossed the road was a samaritan. Just like he crossed the road, we have to cross the road. We are always going to have a hundred reasons racing through our mind about how we shouldn’t text, why we shouldn’t pick up the phone. We’re going to tell ourselves that we’re not qualified, we don’t know the person well enough, we don’t know what to say, we’re scared of saying the wrong thing.
But the most important gift we can give someone is the gift of our presence. And when we show up, to remember Job’s friends. For the first seven days after Job’s calamity, his friends came around and they didn’t say a word, they did “shiva,” a wonderful Jewish practice. It wasn’t until they opened their mouths that they got in trouble. We need to be slow to speak and quick to listen. We need to recognize that the person going through cancer or some type of adversity is not looking for a quote or a bible verse or cliche. What they’re looking for is for you to be with them, and to be for them, and to love them and to laugh with them.
The other thing is to just really be practical. The Good Samaritan was so practical—he crosses the road, he gives [the man] a ride on the donkey, he takes him to an inn, he pays for the medical bills. That is love. That is faith in action, and we need to do the same.
A lot of times, we assume what someone needs. The most important thing that we can do is ask. Don’t ask “How are you?” because they are so exhausted by that question. Instead, say, “Tell me what you need today.” Often, their needs are changing around the clock and they’re not going to have an answer, so have a couple ideas in your back pocket: “Do you need a gas card? Because I know that you’re driving to the hospital a ton. Or maybe you need some weeds pulled? Or maybe child care? Or would you just like to go to a comedy or movie sometime and just laugh?”
Come with suggestions, because then you’re bringing a blessing and not becoming a burden by saying, “I’d do anything for you”—which, first of all, you don’t really mean. And secondly, you require that person to figure out what they need, pick up the phone, call you. That’s not really helping.
How do you think being a Christian and knowing the Gospel plays into this whole idea of finding joy?
Christ is so clear that we are meant to be a people who are marked by joy. We are meant to be people who radiate joy everywhere we go. And for most of us, if we’re honest, it is amazing how quickly our joy erodes away. Sometimes, the causes are external and sometimes they are internal.
Joy has a better reputation than happiness, because happiness is based on circumstances and joy is not—but really, who has better circumstances than those of us who are drenched in the grace and the mercies of God? As children of God, we are people who are meant to walk in that joy, in the fullness of that happiness. The Bible says “They will know us by our love,” but they will also know us by our joy or our lack of it. Joy is something worth fighting for and joy is a powerful weapon to fight with.
Dargan is a former RELEVANT editor turned freelancer. Find her online at darganthompson.com or follow her extremely random train of thought on Twitter @darganthompson.