Consider if you will the proverb: “All the days of the afflicted are evil, but the cheerful of heart has a continual feast (Proverbs 15:15; ESV).”
The word “evil,” in this context does not mean wicked, but rather unpleasant and hurtful. That is, if you are a person who is “afflicted,” all your days are unhappy and full of woe. Some might think that this seems like something that should go without saying: if bad things are happening to you, you are having a bad day. Yet this misses the actual thrust of what the Bible is trying to teach us.
The “afflictions” which trouble us, in this case, are not outward afflictions, but rather inward turmoil and the second half of the saying helps us to see this more clearly. The one who is cheerful always has plenty and then some: “a continual feast.” The order of the thought here is important, because a lot of people would reverse it so that the one with a “continual feast” is going to be cheerful. But the proverbs is actually trying to teach us something different. Our outward circumstances, or at least our reception of those circumstances, is entirely dependent upon our inward attitude.
More than a few people go through life convinced that their outward condition is what determines their inward attitude. That is, if good things are happening to them, they will be cheerful, but if bad things happen to them, they will be unhappy and downcast. Thus, it is assumed, the key to happiness is to continually ensure good things are happening, and to avoid those things that might be problematic.
One of the lessons of the Bible, however, is that our inward attitude has little or nothing to do with what is going on around us. Rather, if we have an inward attitude of affliction, then we will perceive most things to be burdensome and a heartache. If we have an inward cheerfulness, then we will tend to perceive most things to be worth celebrating.
Take for example, the occasion of having company over to visit. The afflicted soul will notice the amount of work needed to prepare, the cost of the food, the loudness of the guests, the increased heat in the house from the additional bodies, the loss of sleep from entertaining too long, and any number of other hardships that might come with having someone come to your house. The cheerful soul will notice the opportunity to put the house in better order, the joy of eating with others, the cheer of shared times, and the happiness of the occasion. The event, the work, and the cost all remain the same, but the focus determines how well the occasion is enjoyed.
Or even, consider a period of illness and suffering. The afflicted soul will notice the pain, the fatigue, and the threat of death. The cheerful soul might rather notice the attention of those caring for them, the beauty of the flowers sent, or, if a Christian, there might even be joy and optimism at the thought of one’s own mortality, understanding that, in the words of the apostle, “it is far better to depart and be with Christ (Philippians 1:23).”
Taking this thought a step further, one other thing God sometimes reminds us of is the idea that our inward attitude is largely a matter of choice and habit. In the Bible we read such commands as, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Colossians 3:17),” or,” rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice (Philippians 4:4),” or, “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful (Colossians 3:15).” Yet if our attitude is not a choice, then such commands make no sense, and are somewhat capricious and cruel on the part of God.
As with all habits, the more we practice, the easier it gets to do a thing. Unfortunately, this means for many that they are quite practiced in being afflicted. But Christ gives us reason for optimism, telling us, for instance, “in the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world (John 16:33; ESV).” If we have faith in the triumph of Christ, and our eventual triumph at His side, there is every good reason to always be cheerful. And the more we practice being cheerful and thankful, the easier it will be.
So, next time the world seems to be filled with nothing but suffering and every evil thing, take a moment to think about your attitude towards what is going on around you. Chances are good that if you can learn to focus on the positive, being inwardly cheerful, filled with the hope that God wants you to have in Christ, the world will be brighter and better. And if you don’t yet have the hope that Christ offers, then learn how to receive it, so you will have a true reason to be thankful and joyful.
The Chapel Hill church of Christ will begin semi-regular meetings again on May 17th, and we invite you to visit and worship with us then, at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio. Likewise, if you have any questions or comments, we invite you to share them with us at chapelhillchurchofchrist.org.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.