"God is rest, and where He dwells is stillness."
-Freda Hanbury Allen

Wednesday, September 21, 2016


                                  "For the joy of the Lord is your strength." Nehemiah 8:10b

        Joy is one of those words. We like the sound of it, we hope to experience it, but when it comes right down to it joy is one of those words that, ironically, generates guilt and shame more often than not. We wonder why we don't have it, feel it, or worse - choose it. We question our faith, our priorities, our commitment, our love. After we sit with it a while, we realize we aren't even sure what joy is. Is it an emotion, a choice, a state of being? We understand that it is listed in the fruit of the Spirit, so we should "have" it, but that alone is enough to get the guilt going because we know we don't - at least not often enough to count. On some level we are confident that we know what it isn't, because we have been emphatically taught, with tremendous caution and warning that joy is not happiness. Joy is presented as a shimmery spiritual quality, definitely not to be confused with the temporal, and as some say, almost idolatrous state of happiness. But if we aren't even sure what it is, or how to live joyfully, how on earth are we to experience its strength? If joy is so central to our lives and even our calling, as we see in Scripture, why is it so hard to find?
        Here's the interesting truth - joy is by definition "a state of happiness". Not only that, Merriam Webster Dictionary defines joy as "an emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires: delight." And lastly, joy is: "to experience great pleasure or delight; or something that gives pleasure or happiness." The greek word  "Chara", which is translated as "joy" has an added element - gladness/rejoicing, which conveys a sense of appreciation or gratitude as a significant part of happiness. So joy in its essence is "a state of happiness rooted in gratitude." Unfortunately the inadvertent end result of the well-meaning attempts at keeping joy "spiritual" and happiness "worldly", is that the beauty of joy in the totality of its meaning is lost, and the freedom and strength that are available in it are missed. Joy is not something elusive or reserved for the "spiritually mature". It is a calling and a blessing for all who follow Christ.
        Perhaps where things have gone off the rails, at least in part, is in a preoccupation, however well intended, with defining and compartmentalizing what is holy and what is unholy, instead of focusing solely on the Holy One who is the source of all joy; yes, all joy, all happiness, all blessings, all gifts in whatever form they take. We like to divide life into the sacred and the secular, which in the end causes us to miss the Lord, as he does not separate his gifts into "more-spiritual" or "less-spiritual" categories. He gives from the overflow of his eternal and abundant love, and this encompasses every aspect of our existence. When we get to understand the heart of God for us in every part of our lives, the joy of the Lord does indeed become our strength. This means we need only look to Him to understand and experience joy. He is the One in whom we find ultimate happiness, because he is the giver of "every good and perfect gift." The first and foremost gift is himself - his life to save ours, and His Spirit who dwells in us. This is staggering enough, but he goes further and gives more. All of the blessings that he pours out on us, large to small - from gifts of the Spirit to a sunny day or a great cup of coffee are in actuality him giving of himself, extending his heart to us. We miss joy because we have missed the Source of all joy.
        Jesus, during his life on earth, experienced the same wide-range of circumstances and emotional states as we do. His life, sinless as it was, consisted of laughter, sorrow, delight, pain, suffering, comfort, affirmation, rejection, longing, fulfillment, frustration, triumph, beauty, ugliness, celebration, mourning, even temptation. Our lives are no different, except we fail when he did not. But even our failure does not have to thwart our joy; it can actually drive us deeper into it. How? Grace. When we begin to understand the heart of God as expressed through his abundant grace, joy will no longer be a word or concept that stirs up guilt and shame, or one we attempt to redefine or force in order to ensure a safe and superior spirituality. Rather, joy will overflow from our hearts when we experience Christ and all of the blessings found in him and because of him  - those received now and those yet to come. Our joy flows out of experiencing the beauty and generosity of our God who showers us with grace that touches every corner of our lives.
        All is grace. When we embrace this truth, joy is no longer confusing or elusive. It is abiding and sustaining. There is grace as much in our suffering as in the times of comfort and ease, because both reveal the heart of Christ for us. When we allow ourselves to receive both as from the Lord, it brings perspective and offers protection. It allows us to rejoice in all of his gifts, in whatever form they come, without becoming dependent or ensnared by those that are more obviously pleasant, or becoming overwhelmed and hopeless by those that are painful and jarring. In the light of grace joy suddenly makes sense and becomes tangible and possible. It is not dependent on circumstances or our mood. It is not something that we make ourselves feel or try to force when life is caving in. It doesn't disallow sadness or seek to diminish the pain and reality of our trials. Joy is not, nor does it require a sugary, shallow attitude toward life's brokenness. At the same time, joy is not different or separate from, or somehow on a higher or more spiritual plain than the happiness and delight we experience when enjoying and reveling in what are often considered, unfortunately, "earthly" gifts. All good gifts are in their own way eternal because they flow out of the heart of our eternal God. Joy is happiness, delight, and pleasure found in the person of Christ as revealed through his love and grace in every aspect of our lives. The joy of the Lord is our strength because it knows no bounds. Joy cannot be diminished by anyone or anything because it is our precious Lord who is the source of all our joy, and he is boundless.

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