Cheerfulness: The Healing Power of a Merry Heart

Proverbs 17:22

November 13, 1994 | Ray Pritchard

I am a little more exhausted than usual because I’m coming off a week and a half that has been a personally draining time for me and my family. About 10 days ago, Marlene went in to see the doctor, who found something she didn’t like. On Friday, Marlene had three hours of surgery and is up at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge. She is doing fine. The surgery was successful, but there was some worry going into it that they might find some cancer. They didn’t and she received a clean bill of health. I am personally weary and a little worn out. I was thinking that it is ironic that many weeks ago when I set up this sermon series on Proverbs, I set this particular Sunday as the day to preach on cheerfulness. I have been trying to think all week long what I would have to say on this subject that would be remotely cheerful. What I feel is that I need a good nap.

I have been meditating in the last few days. I’ve spent a lot of time at the hospital, which gives you plenty of time to think, because hospital days don’t last 24 hours, they last 72 hours. You look at the clock thinking it has been five minutes and it has only been thirty seconds. Twenty minutes later it has only been three more minutes. This gives you plenty of time to think. I was pondering that age-old question: are you an optimist or a pessimist? When you see the glass of water, is it half full or half empty? When you personally go through one of those weeks that we all go through eventually (and some of us go through regularly), are you basically positive at the end, or are you basically negative?

Are you an optimist or a pessimist?

Someone has said it this way: between the optimist and the pessimist, the difference is droll; the optimist sees the doughnut, the pessimist sees the hole. It has been well said that the optimist is the person who invented the airplane and the pessimist the person who invented the parachute. You need them both. You need the positive aspect of life as well as that aspect of life that looks on the problem and says, “Well, life isn’t just a bowl of cherries. There are pits in there, too.” You need to be both optimistic and pessimistic. You have to come to a place of biblical realism.

I have been thinking this week as our family has gone through what I would say was a crisis. When you have major surgery of a loved one, it is a crisis. Even if it is a good result, you don’t know how it will turn out going in. As I thought about all of that, I have been thinking about my subject of cheerfulness.

I want to share with you today a little about biblical realism, not optimism or pessimism. In order to do that and get our thoughts clearly focused, let’s go to the book of Proverbs. Let’s read a number of verses.

“An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up.” Proverbs 12:25

This is mostly observation. Kind words cheer up those who are discouraged.

“Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy.” Proverbs 14:10

The first part of that is certainly true. There are those of us who have secret sorrows. There are those of us who though we may look good and may be well dressed and have a smile on our face, behind that smile there is a story of sorrow and heartache that we don’t share with anyone else.

“Even in laughter the heart may ache, and joy may end in grief.” Proverbs 14:13

How true it is that even when we are laughing and putting on a brave face for the crowd, even when we’re going through the motions and trying to be very positive, on the inside there may be turmoil, heartache, discouragement and even despair. Just because you see somebody laughing and smiling, it doesn’t mean that everything is completely O.K. Underneath that laughter there may be something you know nothing about.

“A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.” Proverbs 14:30

This is a life verse. Envy rots the bones. In the Hebrew it literally means envy makes the bones disintegrate. This is an important verse. This verse is telling us that there is some kind of connection between the spiritual and the physical. There is some kind of connection between the heart and the body, between what goes on inside and what happens outside. The attitude of the heart has a direct impact on the physical well-being or lack thereof. If your heart is at peace, it gives life to the body. Envy causes the bones of the body to disintegrate.

“A happy heart makes the face cheerful, but heartache crushes the spirit.” Proverbs 15:13

“All the days of the oppressed are wretched, but the cheerful heart has a continual feast.” Proverbs 15:15

The cheerful heart eats a feast at the table of the Lord.

Now turn to the theme verse for this sermon. It is found in Proverbs 17:22, which says, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” This is one of those places where I believe the King James version is a better translation. The King James says, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.” That is a better translation of the Hebrew. You should put a star by this verse. It is suggesting something to us. It tells us that there is a relationship between the condition of the heart and the condition of the body. There is a relationship between physical and spiritual health. “A crushed spirit dries up the bones,” literally means it sucks out the marrow of life from the bones.

There is a relationship between the condition of the heart and the condition of the body.

Proverbs 18:1 says, “A man’s spirit sustains him in sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?” We all know people who struggle with sickness and weakness, yet when you go to see them, they cheer you up—people who are down and out physically, but when you go to see them, they actually make you feel better because they are strong in spirit even though their body is wasting away. On the other hand, we all know people who are sick and yet their spirit is crushed. When you go to see them, you feel worse when you leave than when you came, because they have sucked all the life out of you as well.

These verses are telling us that there is a basic relationship between your mental attitude and your physical well-being. Said another way, what you are in your heart has a direct bearing on your physical health. What is on the inside eventually manifests itself physically on the outside. Having said that, I want to ask and answer two questions:

1. Why is it that a merry heart is so important?

A. Because of the truth of Romans 8:28.

“And we know that in all things God work for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

It is a difficult world out there, a world filled with sin, sickness, heartache and despair. Thank God, sin is not the final word in this world. There is a word beyond sin, beyond the fall, beyond degradation, and that word is Jesus. Because Jesus Christ has come into the world, there is now healing, salvation, forgiveness and deliverance. What does Romans 8:28 mean by “all things”? How inclusive is it? It is utterly inclusive. It includes all that can happen in the life of a child of God. It includes the good and the bad, health and sickness, wealth and poverty, the sunlight and the shadow, high noon and midnight, life and death. It is all that can happen in the will of God to a child of God. That means that Romans 8:28 is still true, just as true in the hospital as in the sanctuary. It means that when you are in the waiting room and that clock will not move and you know your loved one is in the hands of a surgeon, that no matter the outcome, whether life or death or cancer or no cancer, whether you see her again or not, you know that moment is in God’s hands. It is part of the “all things” that work together for good.

There is nothing that can happen to the child of God that is outside of the “all things” of Romans 8:28.

This week I have been meditating a little on President Reagan and the letter he wrote on Saturday to the American people. At the age of 83, he wrote that letter in which he said he has just been diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s. I commented on that in my last sermon, but at that time I had not read the letter. I read it this week; it was printed in the Chicago Tribune. I encourage any of you who haven’t, to read it. It is a wonderful statement of faith. The people who know President Reagan say that he is truly a born again Christian man. He wrote this letter from what I would consider the standpoint of the Christian faith. He said in that letter,

“I write because I do not want to keep a secret from the American people. My wife had breast cancer and we told you; they tried to assassinate me, and we told you; and now I have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and I want to tell you. I want you to know this so that you will know about us and so that I can encourage other people whose families may be going through this disease. There is some stigma in some places attached to Alzheimer’s. As for me, I feel very good right now, and as long as I am able, I will continue to do all the things I have been doing. I now begin the journey that will carry me into the sunset of life.”

That is a beautiful phrase. It is picturesque and in the deepest sense it is also a biblical phrase. At the end of his letter he said, “Until the Lord calls me home, I intend to do what I have always done—to help people in whatever way I can.” Here is a man, whether he knows it or not, who understands that all things work together for good. Here is a man who can look at a disease that will suck the life away from him, and say, “I still believe in God. I still believe the Lord has a plan for me.”

A merry heart is important because God is saying to us, “My children, some times you will face things that you can’t understand. Sometimes you are going to face heartache and pain and difficulty that goes far beyond anything you thought you could endure. Sometimes you will be in the waiting room of life for weeks and months and years, but I want you to know that even there I am with you and am working out my plan in your life.”

How can you have a merry heart even in the darkest moments of life?

What we are to do at those moments is to stand back and over those unexplainable things of life we are to erect a sign that says, “Shhh. Quiet. God at work.” Romans 8:28 tells us that God is at work whether we see it or not, whether we feel it or not, whether we understand it or not, whether we believe it or not. So our attitude makes all the difference at that moment. The question is not, “Do we have the answers?” because I can assure you that at that moment you will not have the answer. The question is, “Do you believe there is a God who is at work in this situation?” The Christian answer is YES. That is how you can have a merry heart even in the darkest moment of life. You can have a cheerful spirit if you believe there is a God in heaven who loves you, who is at work in ways that you can’t see, believe or understand.

B. Because of Proverbs 17:22. Read it again.

“A merry heart doeth good like medicine.”

The Hebrew language has a number of tenses in it. One of the tenses is called the causative tense. You put a verb in the causative tense when you want to say that one thing causes another to happen. That’s what you have in the Hebrew in Proverbs 17:22. A literal translation would be, “A cheerful heart causes good healing.” What the Bible is telling us here is that your attitude, the way you approach the problems and trials of life, actually brings about good healing. That is amazing.

Your attitude, the way you approach the problems and trials of life, brings about good healing.

I have told you before the story of Dr. Norman Cousins, who for a number of years was on the medical staff at the UCLA School of Medicine. About 25 years ago, Dr. Cousins was diagnosed with having a strange, rare kind of disease that destroys the connective tissue of the body. The doctors gave him the battery of expensive tests and said, “Sorry, there is really nothing we can do. It is degenerative and you are going to die.” Dr. Cousins said, “Well, I didn’t want to just give up.” So he set himself on a regimen of exercise, high doses of Vitamin C, and then he added an unusual thing. He rented a projector and rented Marx Brothers and Three Stooges movies and all the cartoons he could find. For hours each day, he would take his Vitamin C and watch the Marx Brothers and Three Stooges and would laugh his head off. What he discovered was that ten minutes of hearty laughter gave him a whole hour free from pain. So he would watch those movies over and over and over again. He discovered, as he did this, that he began to get better. The day came when he went back to the doctors and they said, “We don’t know what happened, because this was an incurable disease; but as far as we know, you are completely cured.” He lived about another 20 years after that and wrote a book called Anatomy of an Illness, in which he made the point that your mental attitude, the cheerfulness or lack thereof, has a great deal to do with whether you get sick, how bad you get sick, whether you get well, and how quickly you get well. All I want to say is that what he discovered is nothing more than what Solomon told us 3000 years ago, which is that a merry heart causes good healing.

Several years ago, when I wanted to research this out, I called a couple of the doctors in our church. I asked them to corroborate this from their own medical research. We have all wondered what the mental frame of mind has to do with the healing process from a physician’s point of view. The answer they gave me was the same. At first they would be very cautious and say research was unsure about it. Then I would ask them about their own experience, and that was where it got interesting. All the doctors I talked to said the same thing. They told story after story of people who had come to them, deathly sick, yet who got better amazingly fast because they went in with a positive spirit and were surrounded by positive people. The doctors also told me stories about people who should have gotten better, but who got much worse, were sick a long time, and in some cases died, evidently because they had such a negative, hostile, hopeless spirit about them. Then I asked one other question, “Do you notice any difference in your practice between Christians and non-Christians?” The immediate answer was, “Yes, we see every day, a big difference when we treat somebody who knows Jesus Christ and somebody who doesn’t. We see a tremendous difference in the healing process, in the attitude of those who know the Lord, versus those who do not.” Why should that surprise us? Why should it surprise us to read about Norman Cousins? All of that is nothing more than what was written in the Bible 3000 years ago. Solomon said it and modern medical science is just now catching up with it.

So then, I want to finish this sermon by giving you some suggestions as to how we can cultivate a merry heart. Would you like a merry heart?

1. Cultivate your relationship with God.

Make sure that you spend time with the Lord. Don’t just seek peace with God, but remember we have peace with God through the Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 5:1.

2. Cultivate a forgiving spirit.

Ephesians 4:32 says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted and gentle, forgiving one another as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.” There are people who are suffering physically because they are angry, bitter and refuse to forgive.

There was a story in the Chicago Tribune yesterday. The headline reads, “Pastor Forms a Bond With Son’s Killer.” This is a pastor in Connecticut whose son was murdered. He became friends with the man who killed his son. The Reverend Walter Everett has forgiven the man who killed his son seven years ago. He also helped get him out of prison early, and on Saturday he will officiate at the man’s wedding. There is a quote from the pastor. “I had known people whose loved ones had been murdered and years afterward they still seemed consumed by the anger and hatred. I didn’t want that to happen to me.” Then they talk about the man who killed his son, a man by the name of Carlucci. The article says Carlucci feels redeemed by Walter Everett’s compassion, but like others, he can’t fully understand how the pastor could forgive him. “I have a thirteen year old daughter, and if anybody hurt her, I’d probably feel like I would have to hurt him.” Then it quotes a moment in the jail when the pastor forgave the man who killed his son. “He told me he had forgiven me for the love of God. Tears were coming down my face. It made me feel like I wanted to live, whereas before I didn’t care.”

The only problem with a story like that is it seems so unbelievable, and yet it’s true. There are people who suffer deeply, physically, because they will not forgive. Envy rots the bones. Anger rots the bones. Unforgiveness rots the bones. Bitterness rots the bones. Maybe if you wonder why you’re not doing well, and why you can’t sleep at night, and why you have stomach aches and headaches and backaches, and why you are messed up all the time and just don’t feel good, why don’t you look in the mirror and what you’ll see is an angry person. Until you do something about your anger and bitterness, you’re going to be sick, because the Bible says it will happen that way—it will literally rot your bones.

3. Dwell on unseen realities.

Think about the things that you know to be true but you can’t see. Things like heaven, like eternity, like Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Colossians 3:1-3 says, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds of things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”

4. Keep the long view of life.

That is the secret of Proverbs 15:15, which says, “The cheerful heart has a continual feast.” Does that mean you will ha-ha-ha your way through life? No! What it means is that if you take the long view of life, if you stand back and understand that God is involved in every part of life, not just the good part but the bad, if you look at the whole thing, you truly can have a continual feast.

5. Associate with cheerful people.

I have been hitting this in some of my sermons lately. Some of us are messed up because we are hanging around messed-up people. We’re angry because we’re hanging around angry people. We’re bitter because we’re hanging around bitter people. We’re mad because the people we’re around are mad and critical and angry all the time. Find some cheerful people to make you cheerful.

6. Be a load lifter, not a burden maker.

Galatians 6:2 says, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Don’t be one of those people who makes life harder for other people; be a load lifter.

7. Listen to good music.

God gave music as a means of lifting sad hearts. This week before the surgery, when I was down and discouraged, with some fear and worry in my heart, I had a little cassette player in my office. I put a cassette in by the Bill Gaither Trio. They have a version of Blessed Assurance, sung by Danny Gaither. It is the most beautiful rendition of Blessed Assurance that I have ever heard. That song came on when I was down and discouraged, and just those words, “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine, oh what a foretaste of glory divine” lifted my heart this week. God gave us good music and told us to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to lift the heart.

8. Live a life of active love.

I ran across this sentence this week: a selfish man can never be cheerful. He can be happy, but never cheerful. Only a giver can be cheerful. Only a lover, somebody who invests in the lives of other people, only that kind of person can really be cheerful and positive about life. Get involved in the lives of other people and you will have a cheerful heart.

It was Friday morning and the surgery which was originally to take about an hour stretched into three hours. That is so exhausting. Your mind plays tricks on you. You don’t know, you worry, you fear the worst, the unspeakable things of life. About an hour and a half into the surgery, Greg Kirschner came in to see me. Greg’s wife, Carolyn, was doing the surgery. Greg came by to say hello. We chatted for a while and he cheered me up, told me a few stories. Then he told me a sad story about a man in his practice that he is seeing right now who has some kind of cancer. He is very old. Greg was trying to help him deal with the situation and said to him, “Don’t you have any children you could talk to?” “No.” “A wife?” “No.” “Parents?” “No.” “Brothers and sisters?” “No.” “Don’t you have any friends you could talk to about this?” “No.” “Don’t you go to church somewhere?” “No, I gave that up years ago.” “Well, who’s going to help you with what you have to go through?” The man looked at Greg and said, “Well, I guess nobody. You’re the only person I have to talk to about this.” Greg told me that man is going to die all alone. It is a horrible thing. Life is hard enough if you know Jesus. How does anybody do it without him? How does anybody live even one day without the Lord? What do they do in the waiting room if they don’t know Jesus? Where do you go, if not to the Lord, when it’s your family, when it’s life and death?

Thank God for Jesus. Thank God he is alive. He said, “Lo, I am with you always. I will never leave you.” I can testify that I felt his presence with me on Friday morning. Even there his hand was helping me. If you don’t know Jesus, my heart goes out to you and I invite you, I urge you, turn away from whatever is keeping you away, and run to Jesus. Some day you will really need him. While you are healthy, run to Jesus; you’ll never regret it.

Brothers and sisters, it has been a hard week, but Jesus carried me through. He is a wonderful Savior. Be encouraged, people of God! Be encouraged, lift up your heads and rejoice, for the Son of God who has brought us this far will be with us to the end. And no matter what happens to us this week, the Lord Jesus Christ will be with us. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?