Joy can feel elusive, don’t you agree? If you try too hard to find it, it plays hard to get. If you chase it, it runs. But just when we least expect it, it seems to sneak up behind us and say SURPRISE, turning us all into kindergarten kids with hands clapped over our mouths.
Similarly, Sasha, our black ball of curly puppy fur and wagging tail, surprised us almost ten years ago. Following our vets advice, we had waited between dogs. After that we had to figure out what we wanted, and if we could possibly agree on the breed. Miraculously, we did, settling on a labradoodle.
But then we found out that they were not just out of our price range, they were WAY out of our price range.
One friend reminded us to pray, not just for a dog, but for a dog that makes people stop and say, hey lady, I love your dog! Another friend called and gave us a phone number she had just seen tacked to a bulletin board in a country feed store.
So we prayed. We called. And the next thing we knew, we were winding through the country looking for a mailbox. Over the hill strode a tall, bearded man holding a soft, curly ball of fur in his outstretched arms.
We held out our arms and gulped, “She’s the one we want.”
He looked at us sternly. “She’s the one I would have kept.”
We nodded, wide eyed. “We’ll take really good care of her. We promise.”
How Can We Rejoice Always?
Feeling joyful over a new puppy is a no brainer. Right? But Paul lists joy, like love, as the fruit of the Spirit. Because of that, he exhorts each of us to “Rejoice in the Lord always.” After which he repeats himself, “again I will say, rejoice (Philippians 4:4).” How can an emotion that seems to spring up from happy circumstances be commanded? Furthermore, how can it be commanded all the time, in all seasons and circumstances?
That’s the question our pastor proposed as he began his sermon on joy. Happiness is based on circumstances, coming and going with every wind of change, but joy isn’t. Joy is stronger than that. It is the fruit produced by the Holy Spirit, growing in each of us from the tiny seed of our faith in the saving work of Jesus.
Since joy is a supernatural reality, it is stronger than we realize. It is not at the mercy of our moods. Nor is it merely a feeling that rises and falls with our successes and failures.
In fact joy can coexist with sorrow. And suffering. With weariness. And perplexity. How can that be? Because true joy comes not from “what” but from “who.” King David’s exclamation of joy says it clearly:
“You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Psalm 16:11b
Joy is steady, because it comes to the believer from the joyful God. But joy is also realistic, because it knows sorrow and is acquainted with suffering.
Too often we set ourselves to pray for joy and then become discouraged when God sends suffering our way. We can feel like “God is tricksy” as a friend of mine used to say. How can we understand circumstances that feel like a game of “bait and switch”?
Paul helps us here. In his longest letter, Romans, he gives us two causes of joy that seem to be polar opposites:
“We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God”
“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings”
You can imagine the church listening to this letter being read, first bursting into applause, then stopping to say “huh?” Fortunately, Paul doesn’t stop there or we would have had to guess at his reasoning. Instead he explains that suffering and joy are not opposites, as we had thought. Instead, God uses suffering to increase our hope, which in turn increases our joy.
You see, suffering purifies our hope so that we aren’t simply pursuing health, wealth and happiness. These temporal gifts fall short of the glory God has for us, lacing our glorious hope with tinsel. They weaken us, too, tempting us to stop and rest so long that we quit running our race altogether, wandering off to pick pansies.
Because sufferings are designed ultimately to increase our joy, we can rejoice them.
What suffering are you facing today? We have just had to say goodbye to our beloved Sasha. Even this, which hurts so much today, is a suffering we can trust God not to waste, but to turn to our good. How? Because joy not only suffers, it also endures. And finally triumphs.
Have you ever started a project—training for a 5K race, crafting a quilt, learning to play the guitar—and gotten bogged down before you accomplish your goal? Who hasn’t?
Start up energy is easy. The initial burst of enthusiasm carries us through the first stage of our project. But before long it starts to feel like work. The finish line is so far in the distance that we can’t see it. Our passion cools and the race (or quilt or guitar chords) feels more like heavy plodding, than like flying.
What is it that we’re missing? The joy. Joy is the energy we need, not just to begin our race, but to press on to the end. The author of Hebrews credits Jesus’ endurance through his earthly race to “the joy set before him.” There are two wonderful things about this phrase.
The first wonderful thing is that this joy was greater than all he had to endure to finish. We can’t imagine the suffering our Savior endured on the cross, not just physically, but spiritually. By becoming our sin bearer, Jesus had to face both holy wrath and utter abandonment. He had to be the lamb who was slain and the scapegoat who was banished.
Yet the joy that was set before him was greater than the suffering, and helped him endure the cross.
The second wonderful thing is the content of his joy. What joy did he envision as he carried the cross, was nailed to it, lifted up, and hung there?
Us. You and me. He anticipated the joy of his redeemed people from every tribe and tongue and nation and people of the earth. And he endured for us.
Do you see how strong joy has to be? Strong enough to come full circle. Strong enough to triumph. We could say it this way:
“We are his joy, and He is ours.”
Luke gives us a personal glimpse of his joy after Jesus sent out the advance team of 72 disciples to prepare for his own preaching tour. These disciples soon returned, full of excitement about the healings and exorcisms they had been able to perform. It was heady stuff.
But Jesus knew that such miracles were just a warm-up act for the real show—that through his redeeming work, the names of each one who believes would be written in heaven.
Listen to him exult:
“In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children: yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.” Luke 10:21
Friends, we are the joy set before him. For us he endured the cross. And as we carry the message of his cross to those around us, we will carry joy–his joy, the fruit of the Spirit joy– with us, too.
Why? Because joy wins.