Proverbs 17:22 says, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones.” When I read verses like this one, I’m reminded of the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” There are two very opposite images in this verse: a joyful heart and a broken spirit. A broken spirit could refer to heaviness from anxious or depressing thoughts. It affects our whole being (“dries up the bones”). In other words, a broken spirit is draining, both spiritually and physically. It’s hard enough when we experience pain or deep loss, but when it consumes us, we are tempted to feel forgotten by God or to forget God. We feel hopeless and lack the strength to persevere.
I’d rather have a joyful heart, but how does this happen when I’m anxious or despondent? Pay attention to the heart. The Bible often uses the term “heart” to refer to our inner man or our true self. The condition of our heart can be seen through our outward expressions, such as tears or smiles, or our health. For instance, see Proverbs 12:25, “Anxiety in a person’s heart weighs it down, but a good word cheers it up,” and 15:13, “A joyful heart makes a face cheerful, but a sad heart produces a broken spirit.”
Let me clarify that a “joyful” heart does not mean smiling all the time, laughing constantly, jumping up and down. A joyful heart, however, is possible even when life is stressful and hard. Here are some ways we can promote a joyful heart:
1. Humbling Ourselves Versus Seeking Control
A joyful heart rests in God’s control of life. Ever since the fall, we have tried to be in control of our lives. How exhausting. It never ends. Trusting God isn’t a lack of action, but it does involve humility by knowing what you can control. It might be asking for help, planning ahead, or learning a new skill. Distinguish between what you can control and what you cannot. Pray to God for help and trust him with the outcome. Health crisis? Family conflict? Job loss? Rest in believing that God knows and cares. God’s will be done.
2. Believe God’s Truth Versus Our Thoughts
A joyful heart remembers God’s character and promises (Psalm 19:8). Since the fall, we have believed ourselves to know better than God. Do you have people in your life who speak thoughtfully whenever you talk to them? A good word that is biblical and loving can refresh your soul. One idea might be to study God’s attributes if you’re struggling to believe that God is loving, forgiving, and powerful. Replace thoughts that dry up the bones with life-giving truth, such as God is good and faithful (Psalm 145).
3. Pray Always Versus Giving Up
A joyful heart perseveres because of the hope we have in Christ (“Rejoice in the Lord always,” Philippians 4:4). A person who keeps praying is the person who perseveres. We pray as a way of casting our anxieties on God. It doesn’t mean our circumstances will change. In fact, we might not know the outcome for months or even years. The medical news might be worse than we expected. The difficult co-worker or boss might provoke us more. Each day, we press on to live for God’s glory, in dependence on God, trusting him alone.
The book of Proverbs isn’t a formula of guarantees, like if we “do this” then “that will happen.” Wouldn’t that be comforting for those of us who like structure, order, and predictability? If only life was that simple! We are given wisdom in Proverbs on how to live a wise life, but only God is in control over our lives and creation. Because of this truth, it is possible to have joyful hearts.