Nearly 28 years ago I experienced my first mission trip: a two-week medical campaign to Honduras organized by the Christian Medical Dental Association in cooperation with the Luke Society. I went as a fourth year medical student in the spring of 1983. Our group went to remote villages, where local medical care was unavailable, organizing mobile clinics and treating hundreds of patients every day. I made house calls to see patients who were too ill or weak to walk to the mobile clinic. Those home visits exposed me to abject poverty – homes with dirt floors, no electricity or running water, and meals were prepared over open fires. Illnesses were at a much more advanced stage than I had seen in medical school. When I returned home I made several slide show presentations to churches and family. People commented on the smiling faces of many of the children, and some of the adults. They noted that so many of the patients in the pictures “seemed so happy”. I agreed that there was an apparent paradox of happiness in the midst of poverty. My thoughts at that time were that the “simplicity of life” may have contributed to their happiness. Over the ensuing 28 years, I have continued to see this apparent paradox of happiness in the midst of poverty, particularly in believers in developing countries. But I have come to a different conclusion as to why this exists. I am no longer comfortable with the idea that people are content and happy in their simplicity of life. In fact, I find myself cringing when people describe this disparity with comments that try to soften the harsh reality of a life lived in poverty. There are some realities that make the statement “they seem so happy” far too simple. Poverty is not comfortable nor does it inherently bring joy. Hunger is uncomfortable. Financial uncertainty causes stress. Sickness and disease bring pain and suffering. Losing loved ones prematurely brings grief in any culture. So why do we often get the impression of joy and happiness when visiting believers in developing countries? I believe there are several reasons. Most are particularly relevant to the Christian believers I meet. First, they don’t want to burden me with their pain – this is a form of hospitality and a concern for their guests. Luke Society directors have specifically shown a tendency to “shelter” me from the worst of their difficulties. This is something many of us do. We don’t rush to share our burdens with others. Second, we may want to believe they are happy in order to deal with our own emotions. It may be easier to believe that these friends we meet on short visits continue to live happy and comfortable, rather than to consider the suffering that occurs later after we leave. I have had to face this reality when reading reports of epidemics that hit some of the communities where the Luke Society is working, learning of the death of some I remember meeting. Luke Society board member Dr. Doug VanHofwegen and I spent a week in a remote village in Papua, Indonesia with Luke Society ministry director Dr. Julius Surjadi. (The picture below was taken during that visit.) Only weeks after our visit, an epidemic of respiratory tract infections killed several of the children and some of the older members of the village. I don’t know if this young girl survived that epidemic. Sometimes it’s easier to keep our memory of the smiling faces. Earlier this year, Phil David presented a devotional during our staff’s morning prayer time. This compelling piece from Stewart Briscoe was entitled “Choosing Joy.” Briscoe quoted Habakkuk 3:18, pointing out that Habakkuk had been given insight into God’s plan to hand the Israelites over to the Babylonians. Habakkuk knew he and the rest of the Israelites were headed for deep suffering. The circumstances Habakkuk faced were no reason for joy and rejoicing. Briscoe stated, “There’s a big difference between rejoicing in the Lord and rejoicing in our circumstances.” As believers, we have a reason to rejoice not because of our circumstances, but in spite of them. This insight has helped me understand the paradox of how people can “seem so happy” in areas of the greatest poverty. I have come to believe that the joy and happiness I see is real. It is a happiness that occurs despite their circumstances. It is a deliberate and obedient choice they make as Christians. It does not diminish the pain and suffering that occurs with poverty. And it doesn’t diminish the importance and responsibility of addressing the physical and emotional suffering that accompanies poverty. It is not an excuse to turn our heads from the poor. But it can be a lesson and a blessing to us. Often our circumstances do give us joy: the birth of a child or grandchild, a marriage or a simple hike on a beautiful day exploring God’s creation. On the other hand, we too can and will experience circumstances in which we cannot rejoice. The example of brothers and sisters in developing countries may help remind us to find our joy in the Lord.