Polite Lepers and the Power of Choosing Happiness

One of my favorite Bible stories in Sunday School when I was a child was the ten lepers who call out to Jesus to have mercy on them; He tells them to go to the Temple to show the priests they were healed and off they run, eager to make the proper sacrifices so that they could rejoin their families and get their lives back. But one of them turns around and runs back to Jesus to say thank you. I can still remember that line of men strung out across the flannelgraph board, their colorful robes flapping around their legs, and that one figure kneeling at the feet of Jesus, his hands and face turned upwards in worship. The story definitely has a strong visual appeal, and it probably resonates with children everywhere who are being taught polite manners: even Jesus thinks it is important that people say thank you!

Now that I am older, other aspects of the story intrigue me though, like the fact that all were healed, regardless of whether they said thanks or not. God’s mercy was lavish and free…no strings attached. And the fact that the man who came back was a foreigner is striking, because it is probably the real reason for his gratitude. The Jews were used to being God’s special people, and it made sense to them, both that God would heal them and that the Temple priest was the one who would declare them clean. The Samaritan though, was fully aware of his own unworthiness to be touched by God, and knew that he was not welcome to offer his gifts of thankfulness in the Temple. He saw clearly that the healing was at Jesus’ command, and returned to give thanks where it was due; it was his faith that Jesus was commending. All ten were healed of their skin condition, but one came back to kneel at Jesus’ feet, and had his heart healed as well. Obviously, the lesson for us is much larger than having nice manners.

I used to have this crazy poster on my fridge that I printed out, mostly because I needed to think about the words every day, in order to wrap my brain around them: “Everyone gets to decide how happy they want to be…because everyone gets to decide how grateful they are willing to be.” (Ann VosKamp)”

Everyone gets to decide how happy they want to be? Even the lepers and the lonely?…. all the ones that get stuck in situations beyond their control? And what if there is no family to run home to, and the healing doesn’t come? That’s the hard ceiling on free will, finding out that in so many ways you are not actually free, and have no choices in the matter. And who in this life gets to decide on a quantity of happiness, as if they were window shopping in a mall? Isn’t everyone allotted some random measure of happiness in this life, and some people are just more blessed than others? There is an inequity of circumstances that we all have learned to put up with, ever since we were toddlers and discovered the painful truth that we can’t always have what someone else has. And right about that same time we laid the responsibility of our happiness on the shoulders of circumstance, let it roll on the unpredictable winds of fortune. I see how we often live on that thin knife-edge– balanced between hope that things will go our way, and fear that everything will crash down around our ears; can see how we lean toward worry or toward control, trying to manage it all. And some of us just give up on the trying, and do whatever we can to pretend everything is going to work out fine. The world we live in makes no sense of the first part of that sentence.

But the truth of the second part skewers through the uncertainty of that first bit, anchoring it firmly. “Everyone gets to decide how happy they want to be… because everyone gets to decide how grateful they are willing to be.” (Ann VosKamp) And I know this spiritual sister is speaking truth, even though my heart still struggles at times to put it into practice. Because gratitude is precisely what we are free to choose– or not– in response to the circumstances we are given, and the way we respond shows what is in our hearts toward the Giver.

In his letters to the early churches, Paul writes it over and over again, rings out the insistent call: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4) He hands out this command boldly, as the standard for believers, regardless of their circumstances. And given the circumstances of his own life, we can surmise that Paul was no rosy idealist about life; he had no illusions about how hard it could be to hold onto hope or contentment or joy. His answer to the hurting, to the lonely, to the failing and the fallen is the same: Rejoice in the One who loves you and will never leave you.

Just before the story of the lepers, Jesus’ followers ask Him how to increase their faith. I wonder if the story of the thankful man surprised them at all. The connection between faith and thanksgiving is probably not one that we would make on our own, yet it runs over and over through the Scriptures: thankfulness is an act of obedience and faith, the humble offering of a heart that recognizes its Maker and Healer. And it is thankfulness that enables us to persevere in faith through whatever comes. This Savior who answers our cries for mercy is the answer to all the hurts of this world, and because of His presence we can always rejoice, can always give thanks, no matter how hard our faith is tested.

But it’s a choice and we have to be willing to submit to what He has given this day, open our hands for what He supplies and be content there. Paul’s words stand firm: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9) The only certainty in this world is suffering; all else is Grace, and undeserved.

So maybe happiness is really up to me and I do get to decide, because while the circumstances are not in my control, my response to them is, and gratitude is always the best option. Choose to see Grace? Be willing to acknowledge the Giver’s goodness and provision in the midst of circumstances, and find happiness in His presence? I get to decide.


“Whatever happens to me each day is my daily bread, provided I do not refuse to take it from Thy hand and to feed upon it.” (Francois de la Mothe Fenelon)


“Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is….be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Ephesians 5:15-17, 19-20)

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