Did you know that maintaining inner joy is teeth-gritting, knuckle-whitening soul work? I did not, until recent years. I suffocated the truth about joy with some squirrely thinking. As a Jesus follower, joy should bubble up in us like one of those filters you see in backyard ponds, always keeping emotional algae from scumming up our words and behavior, keeping our outlook on life hopeful, expectant.
Unfortunately, I didn’t understand my role in keeping power going to the bubbler. As great Christian writer and philosopher, Henry Nouwen said, “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.” I’ve figured out that choosing joy is about the same as swimming against a current.
We used to create whirlpools in our large, above ground pool. Everyone swam in one direction until we formed a vortex strong enough to carry us around in circles on our floaties. I loved the total body workout of swimming against our man-made eddy, kicking and stroking as hard as I could while dodging all the other swimmers enjoying the easy ride. I think that might be a more accurate understanding of what’s involved in living joy-filled.
In John 15:11 Jesus says, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” What “things” is He speaking about? Verses 1-10 of the same chapter are Jesus’ teaching about the vine and the branches. The profound and beautiful word picture here of us being in Christ like branches on a vine, is important to understanding joy. The truth about joy is that it is utterly dependent upon the depth and richness of our intimacy with Christ. Only Christ can motivate and empower us to do the work of choosing joy day by day, minute by minute.
Joy and it’s first cousin, hope, are the bridges that carry us across the divides created by the contradictions between God’s promises and our current realities.
Joy carries us through brokenness- Christmas exposes broken relationships. Last year you decorated a tree with a spouse. This year you can’t muster up a tree due to divorce or death. You weep when you remember the Christmases you enjoyed when your children were young. Now, there is separation between you and your adult offspring for any number of painful reasons. You wish with all your heart you could go back in time and just re-live one of those golden days from the past.
Maybe one of your loved ones or close friends are fighting and losing an addiction battle or eating their Christmas Day dinner in a prison cafeteria. Whatever the brokenness in your relationships, joy is still an option, but you must choose it. Psalm 5:11 says, “But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy, and spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may exult in you.” What an incredible picture the psalmist word paints for us. I see us choosing to push closer to the Father, singing joyful songs, while God spreads a shield of protection over us and ultimately gives us the power to rejoice. Notice, though, that this cycle starts by us deciding to take refuge in God, running to Him with praise even when our hearts are breaking.
Joy confronts sickness and disease- Your place of contradiction might be what you believe the Bible says about healing and your current health. My husband is experiencing the painful effects of a teenaged motorcycle accident. His shoulder and knee did not receive proper care at the time and they are currently creating quite a ruckus. Putting on a shirt or climbing stairs are adventures in various pain levels. We believe God is healing Ken whether it be supernaturally or by the hands of medical professionals, but today he just hurts. Almost everything he does causes pain. Nevertheless, I watch him choose joy in a number of ways. He focuses his prayers on the healings of others. He continues to serve long hours in his ministries and his insurance clients, through the pain. He avoids complaining and self-pity at all costs.
I know that I am most tempted to float along with life’s current when I’m sick or in pain. Joy gets roughly shoved somewhere in the background while self-absorption fights its way to the front of my conscious thought and emotion. This is when we must drink deeply of the wine of God’s presence, promises and provisions, here in the “not yet,” part of waiting for healing.
Paul speaks eloquently about joy amidst pain in 1 Peter 1:6-9. I urge you to read the whole passage but here are some pertinent highlights:
“In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.
Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy. “
I know from an earthly perspective, Ken and I both feel like he’s been suffering for quite a long time. Heaven’s perspective is a longer view. We can find tremendous joy in the knowledge that this life is but a shadow of what will be. These bodies are not the finished product. Deliberately embracing an eternal perspective is work, but so worth it if you are in God’s waiting room, looking for the fulfillment of His promises concerning healing.
Meanwhile, Jesus is our dear shepherd, comforting and leading us through the pain-filled now, beside still waters where our souls are restored and joy can bubble up freely.
Joy pushes back against lack- What are you lacking? Are your finances upside down? Do you need employment, friendships, a home, a church? Wherever you feel things are coming up short is right where Jesus wants to meet you. I am repeatedly encouraged by the joy of the Macedonian Christians whom Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 8. The pagan world around them oppressed them to such a degree that they lived in brutal poverty. The Greek word here literally means “down-to-the-depth poverty.”
In the midst of their extreme trial, Paul points out the joy of the Macedonians as he writes his letter to the Corinthians. Persecution did not take away their joy nor did poverty remove their generosity.
While you wait for God to move you from lack to the land of promise, you can live in joy. The Israelites are a strong cautionary tale of what can happen to those who complain and wallow in self-pity during a time of lack.
During downward turns, Ken and I choose to be generous with whatever resources we do possess, the same as when we are given much. Joy is found in sacrifice, we’ve discovered. It also seems to well up within us when we consider spending our resources of time and energy on those who are in greater need than ourselves. Finally, we choose to be thankful for everything we’ve been given while continuing to believe for needs not yet filled.
The Christmas song of the angels proclaiming great joy for all people is not just for December. It’s for the gritty, dirty every day messes of life, a “tiding of comfort and joy.”