Be Joyful in Hope
Discover the secret to living with hope and joy despite cancer and other hardships.
By Daniel Nicewonger
A cancer diagnosis or other season of suffering rarely evokes feelings that cause us to be joyful in hope.
Yet, I believe it is possible.
The phrase “joyful in hope” comes from the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 12:12: “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction and faithful in prayer.”
Wouldn’t you like to have more hope and joy in your life, especially when you face difficulties?
I believe we can, but before I dive deeper into what I mean, let me share more about my journey and how it has shaped my thinking.
I’m a pastor by trade, and about six years ago, I was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. That started me on a difficult journey that continues to this day.
When I first heard my diagnosis, my oncologist shared words that were not joyful and offered little hope:
“Dan, with the type and stage of cancer you have, the best we can hope for is two years,” he said. “The remainder of your life will be seasons of treatment, followed by short breaks and then a return to treatment.”
Before you think his words are harsh or uncaring, please know I adore my oncologist. While the content of his words can sometimes be challenging, the depth of his caring and commitment to fighting my cancer is unquestionable.
No matter how caring his intent, the weight of my diagnosis still left me feeling hopeless and joyless.
Finding joy and hope
Often, we find it easier to be joyful in hope when life goes our way. So how does one follow Paul’s challenge to be joyful in hope when the news is unwelcomed or difficult?
I have found that being joyful in hope has much to do with my focus.
When I focus on others more than myself, I experience great hope and joy.
It’s an opportunity to live the Apostle Paul’s words from Philippians 2:3: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.”
Let me share an experience from early in my cancer journey that reminded me of this.
Can’t you see me?
A few weeks after my diagnosis, I was still processing my new normal. Grief, anger, fear, sadness, mourning, and a profound sense of loss were my constant companions.
I decided to go to one of the big box stores and search for a set of noise-canceling headphones to help me navigate noisy chemo treatment rooms.
I looked (on the outside) like everything was okay. I am 6’5” and carry a little more BMI than my doctor recommends. Internally my emotions were all over the place, and it felt like a gentle breeze could knock me over.
The store was crowded. As I walked down the aisle, people jostled and bumped into me. I finally stopped and grabbed a display counter for support to keep from falling over.
Standing there watching people rush by my anger flared. Can’t these people see me!? Don’t they know what I am going through? I was near tears.
It was then that the Spirit of God spoke to me gently, but firmly.
I realized that I looked like a pillar of strength from the outside. However, nobody in the store could see the cancer ravaging my body nor the emotional mess that was my reality.
A second thought hit me as I watched the crowd move through the store. I wonder what struggles these people are going through. What realities of their lives remain hidden from me?
As people walked by, I started to see them differently. I stopped focusing on my struggles and began thinking of the unseen hardships before me. Who else was fighting an illness? How many had recently lost a loved one? Which families were struggling to make ends meet? Where was divorce or relationship drama impacting someone’s day?
I was overwhelmed by the reality that those swarming around me were most likely experiencing pain on a level I was unfamiliar with. Once again, I was near tears. But, this time, I was thinking about the pain of others.
And something changed in my spirit when I began looking beyond my own struggle.
Leaving the store, I felt more hopeful than I had in weeks.
Shifting our focus
As a rule, human beings tend to be self-focused creatures. We imagine our lives as something like a movie, and of course, we play the lead role.
Especially when we experience something like cancer, it is natural and normal for us to become a little self-focused. We need to understand that truth and extend ourselves grace, giving ourselves space to process and move forward.
However, allowing self-focus to color everything we see can be dangerous. It robs us of joy and hope.
Soon I start to see the world around me as something to overcome and defeat. I cease caring for people and become intent on taking my “piece of the pie.”
Escape the trap
It is our job to fight this—especially if we want to be joyful in hope.
I have learned that asking people questions helps me focus on others and it gives me joy. I try to do this with friends and family, and also strangers, too.
At the doctors’ offices, I am always asking my nurses and the staff how they are doing, trying to find out about their lives. I try to remember to ask about their families and the significant events in their world. You would be amazed how this simple act can encourage people.
Another perspective change
Besides taking our eyes off ourselves, we also need to change how we see our own suffering.
If we see the suffering as the end, then it’s hard to have joy during it. However, if we have the hope of spending eternity with God in heaven, then we see our suffering on earth as temporary and even something that God can use for our growth and good.
As Paul wrote in Romans 8:18, “I consider that our present sufferings are not comparable to the glory that will be revealed in us.”
Having a relationship with God gives us a future hope beyond just living on earth. To discover how to have one, see Knowing God Personally.
As I mentioned, an outward focus is the key to being joyful in hope. Here are three practical steps you can take:
- Focus less on yourself and more on others. As you think through people you know, is there someone you know you could use some encouragement this week? Ask them how they are doing. Offer to pray for them.
- Focus on how the Spirit of God is working. How have you seen God working in your life and the lives of those around you? Make note of it and share it with others, too.
- Know we are never alone. No matter what happens, this is true. God promises to never leave us or forsake us, which is an encouraging and life-changing reality.
In conclusion, focusing on others is the key to being joyful in hope.
As you ask God to help make this true in your life, you will be glad you did.
You will experience a deep sense of joy and hope, even amidst difficult times.
Daniel Nicewonger is a Hope Has Arrived contributor and author of The Journey Continues.
To read the next article in the series, see Patient in Affliction.
To learn more about prayer, see Asking God for Help.
To find hope on your cancer journey, read The Pathway to Hope.
I have a question or comment
How to know God’s hope, strength and peace
Note: We are not doctors and we cannot answer your medical questions. However, we welcome your questions about finding hope and knowing God.