Joy is associated with living; it is not an abstract theory, but a valid option to despair. It is not the absence of sorrow, stress, and difficulties. Rather, it is enlarged and enhanced by such circumstances. It is not dependent upon comfort or compatibility. Since Christian joy is a product of Christ's love, it is marked by love's characteristics, It endures the same kind of obstacles, survives the same kind of threats.
The Great Joy embraces both contentment and blessedness, the kind of happiness that is meant by our Lord when he taught the Beatitudes. At its core is a sense of fulfillment and worth which comes from assured love, acceptance, and forgiveness. It survives unjust persecution and ingratitude, because it is centered on relationship with the King of Life, the Lord Jesus himself, who understands our motives--right or wrong--and loves us into maturity.
Contentment is a rare commodity in our restless society. The apostle Paul, writing from prison, writes of his contentment in Philippians 4:11-13 (RSV): "Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me."
Paul's body was imprisoned, but his spirit was free! He lived in a different dimension, a kingdom not of this world. He lived by a different perspective. He viewed life from God's point of view, saw himself as a new creation in Christ, and his life as a means by which others might be reconciled to God as they heard and saw Christ's life in him.
The giving of thanks was not a forced ritual with Paul. It was the spontaneous response to God the Father who through the Lord Jesus Christ had opened a whole new life of liberty and love to Paul. He delighted to think of himself as a love-slave to Christ, which was an expression of his voluntary choice to serve the One who had set his spirit free.
Paul grieved over the faithless. He had "great sorrow and unceasing anguish" in his heart over his unrepentant fellow-Jews. But nothing could quench his rejoicing in the love and wisdom of God whom Paul saw as "unsearchable in his judgments and inscrutable in his ways" (Romans. 11:33 RSV).
Many, though not all, contemporary Christians have discovered the secret of Paul's unquenchable joy. Some cling doggedly to the mind-set and life style of the world. To them it seems easier to be either shallow and nonproductive, or miserable and destructive, which are actually two stages of the same commitment to self-centeredness. Both attitudes are a complete contradiction to the abundant life Christ came to impart to those in whom he lives.
The apostle Peter teaches us that we have been "born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (I Peter 1:3 RSV). He goes on to say, "You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers" (I Peter 1:18 RSV). There is no way we can interpret those words to mean we may hold to Christian profession and continue to live unchanged. But the good news is not simply that we must change, but that we may change! We do not have to remain locked into the old patterns of futility. It is not merely a legalistic demand--it is a dynamic opportunity! The ransom paid to rescue us from our futile ways was the blood sacrifice of God's Son--a perfect life for a futile life.
"Through him you have confidence in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God
"Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere love of the brethren, love one another earnestly from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God" (1 Peter 1:21-23 RSV).
Uncertainty, doubt, and distrust breed discontent and insecurity. Faith and trust in that which is unreliable or incompetent breeds despair. Love which is dependent upon mere biological impulse or emotional reaction is destructive to both faith and hope, and a shabby imitation of genuine love. These are the "futile ways" to which the world is committed. This is the shifting sand of human expediency, its highest expectation.
Joy abounds when there is certainty of faith, positive and realistic expectation, and genuine love. None of these is possible apart from a growing understanding of truth through the written Word and dynamic love-obedience to the Living Word. Sincere love--love that issues from a pure heart--is the evidence and the outcome of trustful expectation in the God who is willing and able to redeem us and make us whole.
Three questions will probe our mind-set and adjust our perspective, and redirect us toward joy.
1. In whom do you trust?
2. For what do you hope?
3. Who motivates your love?
It is easy to put our trust in the visible, simply because it is there and available. It's the old "bird in hand" philosophy. But the things that are seen are transient and fallible as we are. The only durable dimension is the spiritual; the only unfailing goodness is God himself. Why, then, will we trust anything, anyone, but the One who made us and gave himself for our redemption and who is always available to meet our real and deepest needs? We have learned to sing, "The arm of flesh will fail you; you dare not trust in your own." In practice, however, we trust political systems for national security, sentimental whims for our marital health, and television for our children's education, leaving the transforming grace of God as a last desperate resort in case all else fails.
We want an easy faith that leaves no unanswered questions and requires no painful growth. Wanting quick formulas for happiness and joy, we shun the hard encounters with raw human sin and suffering, thinking to preserve our own ease and thus preserve our joy. We seek our satisfaction and fulfillment from human beings who in turn seek their satisfaction and fulfillment from us, and we both fall in the ditch of disappointment and frustration.
Trusting God means believing his Word. Believing God's Word means placing ourselves under its authority. It means taking our definitions for life from it, and using it to judge and evaluate every other system of thought and mode of behavior. Trusting God means we will entertain no doubt as to his absolute perfection--that we will allow no circumstance to discredit his love for us, nor any person to take priority over him in our love-commitment.
Trusting God for who he really is means transferring our hope and expectations from human perspectives and schemes to God's view. It means that, counting on his inscrutable wisdom and consenting to his cosmic plan, we may be unthreatened in a threatening world and secure in perplexing circumstances. This is the point of view from which Paul derived his state of contentment. This is true emotional health.
From such a state of emotional stability, we may identify with the early Macedonian Christians, of whom it is written:
"...for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of liberality on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own free will, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints--and this, not as we expected, but first they gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God" (2 Corinthians. 8:2-5 RSV).
Note the context of their "abundance of joy": extreme poverty! What a contrast to the standard contemporary Christian--we who are preoccupied with demanding our rights, and so sated with luxury we can no longer discern our true needs. We who scan the marriage manuals to see how to manipulate ourselves into dominance. We who see blessing only in terms of wealth and health and easy relationships.
I believe the reason there is so little evidence of the Great Joy in even the Christian community is our persistence in skimming from the Scriptures whatever seems supportive of our own selfishness, without tracing those statements back to their basic principles. Thus, we demand physical healing on the basis of a superficial textual reading, disregarding the broad principle of redemptive suffering. We demand bigger and better houses, more sophisticated appliances, more prestigious jobs, on the basis of "My God shall supply all your needs," ignoring our Lord's teaching (Luke 6:2-26 NIV):
Blessed are you who are poor
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when men hare you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil
because of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy,
because great is your reward in heaven.
For that is how their fathers
treated the prophets.
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all men speak well of you,
for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.
We cannot go blithely on our way, ignoring such profound and basic principles as these which our Lord taught and demonstrated with his own life, without jeopardizing the joy he intends for ourselves and for all of society. For behind this perspective of voluntary self-sacrifice is the giving of ourselves first of all to the Lord, making ourselves available to him at whatever personal cost to meet the deep physical, emotional, and spiritual needs with which we are surrounded.
The teaching of this passage is intended to direct us toward the Great Joy. It is not, as a superficial reading might indicate, a judgment of earthly joy, but an evaluation of it. Here Jesus teaches us that when we major on the satisfaction of temporal needs we limit our measure of contentment and joy to temporal, perishable sources of supply. And even in those brief moments when the stomach is full, the body clothed, and the biological impulses satisfied, there is an unfilled vacuum which is meant to be filled with a greater joy from an eternal source.
It devalues and degrades our humanity to commit ourselves to these lesser pursuits. The results are evident in society, where materialism and greed have taken their destructive toll. Jesus is warning us that we must evaluate our lives from long-range perspectives. Our little self-centered kingdoms may give us the illusion of satisfaction but it is a house of cards built on shifting sand. Society is the total of its individuals and so are families and marriages and friendships.
If we insist upon living our lives in the limited dimension of the body, then we must be prepared to experience limited and threatened joy, and to limit other's joy as well. If, on the other hand we choose to give ourselves to the King whose kingdom is built on God's love for us and in us then we will find that all of life is enriched and invested with lasting values, enduring contentment, and eternal joy.
Joy does not come through self-centered demand. That is the very means by which joy is spoiled. Joy begins and is continually sustained by facing ourselves with humility and repentance, judging our own attitudes and actions, and bathing in the forgiveness and healing of the Word of truth and the pardon purchased through Christ's death and sealed through his resurrection.
In this way, we may continually renew our freedom from destructive self-preoccupation, and serve our Lord Jesus in love's liberty. Then we may know the joy of being free from bondage to things and human support-systems. These are the things that spoil our joy and make us part of the problem rather than part of the great redemptive plan.
This brings us full circle, back to the voice of the Beloved, calling us to Gigantic Joy, calling us to be a part of his plan to restore Joy to the world
"If you obey my commands,
you will remain in my love...
I have told you this so that my joy may be in you
and that your joy may be complete.
My command is this:
Love each other as I have loved you!" (John 15:11 NIV)
Joy is the by-product of God's love in us and through us.
Lord Jesus, teach us to settle for nothing less, that you may rejoice in us and we in you.
"We will exult and rejoice in you; we will extol your love more than wine;
Rightly do they love you!" (Song of Solomon 1:4 RSV)