Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Choose Joy

Written by: on October 12, 2023

For years, my mother made “Choose joy” a daily mantra. A farewell as I left for school or embarked on a journey of large or small scale.  It was a familiar refrain… something she uttered countless times over the years and she was, and is, consistent. This daily reminder growing up kept a flame going in me that was hard to burn out and easy to relight. Even today I often hear her telling my children, “Choose joy” and watch her fan their flames too. So why joy? Why not love, or happiness, or success? Why not tell us to crush it or dominate or go get’em! Why is joy significant and worthy of daily attention and affirmation for forty-plus years according to my mother? I believe the answer is multi-dimensional and has different layers for different people, but overall, I give credit to the Spirit; consciously, subconsciously, and unconsciously in both of us.

The ‘choice’ in “Choose joy” has become an automatic response, or “fast thinking” according to Daniel Kahneman, that my mother projected and we both accepted.[1] Nonetheless, if it had not been ingrained in my soul for so many years, would joy be automatic? Would I have ‘joy endurance’ or the ability to ‘hop back on the joy wagon’ when I fall off with ease? I think not. It’s a decision similar to accepting Christ and fits comfortably with the character and lifestyle of Jesus. I believe the Spirit has been alive and active in my mother for a long time and she’s pretty clear on her understanding of it. Through her own experiences, she has come to realize that joy feels a lot like Jesus and it would be wise for us to follow suit. She believes that choosing it each day will help us find the right path paved by Jesus, grow our own faith, and help us walk closely with God. To her, choosing joy or even saying it, was like watering seeds in our family that have been growing and reproducing branches of Jesus’ vine, opening up the power for anything to be accomplished in His name.

Some may argue that people misinterpret the word joy or define it in unique ways. Christianity.com author Trey Soto argues that “joy has been misconstrued” and by choosing, “we take the control in our own hands and it becomes a type of counterfeit force”[2] I understand his point but I think he also misses the overall understanding of joy as we practice it today, and he focuses too much on the origin and translation of joy instead of the feeling. In C.S. Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he describes joy as a “spiritual longing.” He believed that joy was “more than a feeling or emotion based on external circumstances.” He saw it as a deep spiritual craving “that went beyond pleasure or contentment.”[3] I can relate to Lewis’ spiritual longing in relation to joy but I think for Lewis and Soto, joy carries discontent. Lewis coins this feeling as “Sehnsucht,” which is a German term used to describe “unsatisfied desire or a yearning for something transcendent.”[4] As expected, Lewis makes beautiful sense of his interpretation of joy, however, I would argue that I am not misinterpreting the word even though my definition or experience with joy is distinct. It seems to me that in time, culture, and certain groups, a word or the feeling of a word can have alternate meanings. For example, let’s use the word “gay.” Frankie Lemon certainly isn’t talking about homosexual birds in his song, Why Do Fools Fall in Love, when he asks “Why do birds sing so gay?”[5] He’s talking about the sound of joy that emanates from birds and the positive spirit of the birds projecting their ‘songs and beauty.’ My interpretation of joy is much closer to Lemon’s use of gay than Lewis’ or Soto’s use of joy.

This may be my own biased refusal to accept another meaning of joy but that begs the question, how can we misinterpret a feeling? Am I simply misinformed and exploiting joy for happiness? Dr. Andrea Scott, George Fox University provost, made it very clear to us at our Cape Town Advance plenary session that “Joy and happiness are not indistinguishable.”[6] She stated, “You can be unhappy, but you can’t be unjoy.”[7] Her take on joy runs parallel with my mother’s. The dedication, submission, and follow-through of choosing joy for years becomes an understanding that no longer requires words after decades of practice. It may not be flawless but it is definitely more than living happy and deeper than ‘having a great day.’ Choosing joy places responsibilities on both parties. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:27, “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” If my mother was miserable and a terrible example of choosing joy in her daily life, her words or encouragement for my life would not hold any weight or credibility. Her request for me to choose joy automatically places the responsibility on her to lead a lifestyle that promotes joy. It’s a win/win that holds my mother accountable and a technique that can be used in relationships, organizations, networks, and the workplace.

Jim Wilder and Marcus Warner discuss joy as a central player in an atypical leadership style called R.A.R.E. In their books, Rare Leadership, and Rare Leadership in the Workplace, they introduce this unique approach to leadership, emphasizing trust, engagement, and the often-overlooked element of joy. Their R.A.R.E. leadership philosophy teaches us to Remain Relational, Act Like Yourself, Return to Joy, and Endure Hardship. Wilder and Warner cite countless examples of finding joy in organizations and seeking it as a tool for leading people to maturity and results. Joy is the secret sauce that fuels a positive habit. Wilder and Warner, along with Dr. Scott and my mother, are confident that choosing joy is an understanding and lifestyle. It’s not a quick fix or convenient solution. It’s also not just a salutation nor does it require decades of practice. It is a verb that requires intentional effort and can be contagious. It’s a Spirit-driven declaration to be the “light of the world.”

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”[8]


[1] Kahneman, Daniel, Thinking Fast and Slow.

[2] https://www.christianity.com/wiki/christian-life/why-christians-shouldnt-choose-joy-what-choose-instead.html

[3] Lewis, C.S., Surprised by Joy.

[4] Chat GPT, Prompt: CS Lewis view on Joy. Oct. 12, 2023.

[5] Lemon, Frankie; Why Do Fools Fall in Love? 1965. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M6ccBf0cPsI

[6] Scott, Andrea. Cape Town Advance, Plenary Session. September, 2022.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Matthew 5:14-16, ESV.

About the Author

Michael O'Neill

Director of Operations / Executive Pastor at Kinergy, Inc. Federal 501c3 Non-Profit Organization. An experienced entrepreneur, leader, father, wellness professional, and owner of a multi-location medical practice with my wife, Nicole O'Neill, MD.

13 responses to “Choose Joy”

  1. Michael,

    Great post, I agree perspective is everything. The book of James is the model of our church and life. I love in James 1:2 he starts out the chapter with joy.

    James 1:2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.

    Thank you for living this and modeling it. Bless you my friend.

    • Michael O'Neill says:

      Thanks, Greg. Joy is important to me. I was inspired to write this even though I think the book focused more on maturity. Joy has always been a big part of my life and my parents are very close to me and live out this philosophy each day. James is another fantastic example of using joy or seeking it in our lives and in the church. It feels natural to me and helps me stay on a positive path and by being a leader, it radiates off of me onto others. Just like my parents’ joy rubbed off on me. Thanks!

  2. mm David Beavis says:

    Hey Michael,

    I’m glad you brought up Dr. Scott’s lecture in Cape Town about joy. I remember her sharing that she was in a leadership context that was not conducive for jooy. So she was learning joy in the midst of difficulty.

    Is there anything from Wilder and Warner’s content on joy-based leadership that informs your NPO?

    • Michael O'Neill says:

      Thanks, David. Yes, I gleaned a lot from their books. I especially enjoyed their book for the workplace. The stories of how small little habits snowballed into culture changes, efficiency, and overall workplace environment were inspiring. As for my NPO, there is always a place for joy and I am going to do my best to incorporate intentional efforts to choose joy in the everyday things i.e. exercise, Bible study, nutrition, stress, etc. I enjoyed the readings overall and look forward to putting a few of these acronyms into practice.

  3. mm Daron George says:


    “choosing joy is an understanding and lifestyle.” How is choosing joy showing up in your choices as a leader, husband, father, and business owner? Is there anything specific in your life that helps you to choose joy even in the midst of challenges?

    • Michael O'Neill says:

      Thanks for the question. I’m embarrased to say that I fall off the joy wagon too often. I get back on quick but stress is the thing I need to work on the most. I often exaggerate it in my head and it paralyzes me. I know better in my heart and it usually takes me stopping everything and reconnecting with the Spirit to get me over the hump and start experiencing and spreading joy again. I try to bring joy in the workplace, at home, and into our ministry. I haven’t necessarily had a strategy in the past but some of the techniques mentioned in the readings brought some of the things I was already doing into light. Diving deeper has helped me see it with a strategic lens and I definitely will be more intentional about expressing a culture of joy in the circles I lead and run in. Thanks!

  4. Tonette Kellett says:


    Choosing joy in the midst of trials is often difficult for me, I must admit. Give me a little time to process, and I’ll choose joy… but in the here and now of it – joy is not what comes to my mind. That’s my own struggle. I need to grow in that space. Thank you for your post. I loved it. You’re an encouragement to me!

    • Michael O'Neill says:

      Thanks for the honesty, Tonette. I am there with you. I was just commenting to Daron that I am embarrassed that I allow stress to negatively impact my mood which then spreads into my family. As leaders, we have to be aware that we can control the mood, climate, and overall vibe of things just with our presence. I have learned this the hard way on too many occasions but I, like you, just need a minute to reconnect with the Spirit and I will choose joy every time. My goal is to do a better job of recognizing the dark side that likes to press my buttons and steal my joy.

  5. mm Chad McSwain says:


    I love that your mom told you to “choose joy” and how you observed that she had to do the same in her life. I also appreciate that you made the connection to Dr. Andrea Scott’s presentation in Cape Town. She did speak to the challenge of finding joy when life is difficult. What is a practice that helps you to choose joy?
    Is there something in particular that you have made part of your “fast thinking” that leads you to joy?

    • Michael O'Neill says:

      Thanks, Chad. Joy is part of my fast thinking in general but the devil knows me well and he presses my buttons, typically with stress. That is my joy killer. Thanks be to God, I have been able to recognize this (after about a million misses) and I do try to breathe or remove myself as I feel the stress or frustration building. My joy-radar has improved and I am doing a much better job and recognizing real joy and taking the time to participate and avoid the pit-falls that take me away from it.

      As a leader, I am notoriously silly at work but also ask a lot from people and expect results. I have individuals that have worked for me for 7-10 years and have witnessed a lot of changes in my life but they will attest to the work culture that promotes joy, fun, and relationships. I believe these things lead to efficiency and seem to run parallel with the readings this week. There is always room for improvement but overall I believe joy needs to be a force in the workplace that brings people together and the best out of people.

  6. Kristy Newport says:

    I appreciate how you took a close look at the word joy in your post. I like how you pressed into C.S.Lewis’ definition and took a different view. Mostly, I appreciated your personal memories of your mother. What a blessing to have her speak repeatedly into your life- the message and role modeling: “choose joy” This convicts me to look at the message I am sharing with my family and what I am role modeling.
    Great job pulling in notes from Cape Town. Joy in the middle of difficult (on going difficult) circumstances is challenging. How is God helping you with on going challenges? finding joy in the midst of struggle?

    • Michael O'Neill says:

      Thanks, Kristy. My mom is wise and very special. She really is a blessing and she balled her eyes out (so did my dad) when I shared this post with them. I don’t share them often, this was only my second time but I wanted to honor her and let her know what an impact her words have been in my life.

      Finding joy for me is easy when I’m in the zone. To me the zone is being right with God, regular in prayer, exercising, serving, and leading my family and others to Jesus. When I’m not doing these things, I am at higher risk for derailment and it literally takes me physically removing myself from a situation and asking God to bring me back. Just this week, I felt like I had two days stolen due to mismanagement of time, a few unforeseen circumstances, and a disconnect from God that I didn’t notice until days later. I put my phone down, prayed, hit the gym, and listened to an audiobook I already read before Atomic Habits, and I was instantly back on track. I have recommended similar remedies to others to battle with stress like I do. 1. Pray. 2. Exercise. 3. Use a trick of some kind if necessary that you know motivates you. 4. Apologize.

      As far as I can see, you choose joy on a regular basis. It radiates off you and our entire cohort would agree. I’m assuming you are an amazing role model to your family because you are an amazing role model to all of us. Thank you for your consistent joy.

      • Michael O'Neill says:

        I’m adding a late edit to my reply… #5. Move on! We can get trapped in the situation even after an apology. Whether it’s forgiveness of someone else or ourselves. If we trust in God and his promises, we have to follow suit in our own lives.

        1. Pray. 2. Exercise. 3. Use a trick of some kind if necessary that you know motivates you. 4. Apologize. 5. Move on!

Leave a Reply