Joy is believing...that the Lord is my strength and my salvation. Glib words? Or proven reality? Let us probe the meaning of this quality of joy.
At one point in the history of the nation Israel, a time of exile and despair, the book of the law was rediscovered and read in the hearing of all the people. It was a moving scene as "all the people gathered as one man" and Ezra the priest, assisted by the scribes and Levites, read from the book of the law of God clearly, and "they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading" (Nehemiah. 8:8 RSV).
The account, recorded in the book of Nehemiah, is vivid with emotion. The national weaknesses, their persistent rebellion and disobedience, the repeated failure of faith in their God, are contrasted with his forgiveness, mercy, and steadfast love. The record is clear: prosperity, national strength, the "good things of life," all gifts of God's mercy and grace, did not secure this nation's worship to him. Instead the gifts became a distraction from the Giver, and with presumption and ingratitude they put him out of their lives.
With arrogant self-confidence, they defied God's revealed plan, worshiped a figment of their own minds, a creation of their own hands, and "committed great blasphemies." Now they found themselves victimized by their own rebellious deeds, and they wept and fasted, dressed in sackcloth, with earth upon their heads--a joyless lot of people indeed!
Confronted with the record of their failure and God's faithfulness, they mourn and weep. They have dealt faithlessly with the God who loved them, and the consequence has been personal and national disaster. They are deeply grieved over their rebellious behavior and the resulting predicament of bondage to men and estrangement from God. Their sin has been their undoing, and they have reaped what they have sown. They have worshiped God's good gifts and idolized their own desires. Their greed and self-centeredness have yielded a harvest of broken relationships and scattered possessions. There will be no easy escape from the consequences of their own choices.
Still God persisted in grace and mercy, pursuing them with steadfast love and kindness. Forgiveness and mercy are even now available to them from the God who never ceased to love them. And now God's messengers call them back from mourning to celebration: "This day is holy to our Lord, and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength" (Nehemiah. 8:10 RSV). How reminiscent of our Lord's words: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted" (Matthew. 5:4 RSV).
The world's message is, happy are the proud, the self-sufficient, the merrymakers. Joy is pictured as hilarity, self-gratification without regard for repercussion. Repentance and humility are seen as enemies to joy. "If it feels good, do it," we are told, but those words are an apt epitaph for the death of goodness, love, and integrity in human relationships--and therefore the death of true joy.
The nation Israel is a piece cut from humanity, a sample of us all. Their history is our history. Like them we are thoroughly gullible to any scheme for joy that promises quick results. We love to live in fantasy, utterly reckless of the consequences. We have, in fact, a fantasy about fantasy--we believe it will bring us happiness and joy to evade reality. Accordingly, we insist on seeing ourselves as Cinderellas and handsome princes, as innocent victims and deserving beneficiaries.
Furthermore, we have persistent fantasies about who God is, if we will accept even the fact of God. God, we like to believe, exists to satisfy our whims; therefore, when he falls short of this evaluation we must dispose of him or distrust him. This concept of God is just another facet of a self-image that puts all the power in our hands and makes everything and everyone subservient to us and our interests.
This is the "way which seems right to a man," as the Proverb says, but it is a costly mind-set. Or, as the Proverb bluntly states it: "its end is the way to death" (14:12 RSV). Illusions of power and prestige and control are the cruelest of self-deceptions, sure to bring about the death of the joy for which we were created.
It is against this kind of self-defeating delusion that our loving Father-God strikes when he reveals to us our true nature. Straying sheep; empty earthen vessels--what poignant expressions of the joyless lives that follow when we go our own way, spurning the Great Shepherd who loves and cares for the sheep. In the mirror of God's Word, we can, if we will, see ourselves as we really are. If we will believe it, agree with God that it is true, and bury our fantasies and delusions about our self-exaltations, then we can become eligible for the greatest adventure in life: becoming whole persons, through whom God's redemptive love can flow to a needy world.
God wants to open the door to reality, so that we can begin to deal with our delusions about life and about who we really are. We fear this kind of exposure because we know instinctively and from experience that we cannot cope with reality. It is painful to see ourselves as incompetent and rebellious. Facing our real selves and our circumstances is fearful and humiliating. We refuse to believe God's revealed truth about life because we know we cannot handle his declaration of what is right and good for us. We want to trim a little here and a little there, altering the facts to suit our own uncensored desires. Eventually, this kind of rationalizing divorces us from absolutes, and we find ourselves adrift without harbor and anchor, insecure, fearful, and joyless.
Myrna is a woman whose life is marked by joy. She came to Christ in desperation, under threat of a broken marriage. She discovered God's love-power in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the unbearable burden of bitterness, guilt, and fear began to melt away under the healing comfort of his forgiveness and love.
Myrna had a backlog of broken dreams. She had bought and paid for the common human delusion of "and they lived happily ever after," the fairy-tale myth subscribed to by most of the human race. Myrna believed in the gift of marriage. It was going to be a dream come true. She awakened abruptly to a nightmare of reality. Her dreamboat was selfish and inconsiderate. He lived for ego-gratification, and she and the children were pawns to his demands. The cozy-cuteness that had made her feel so warm and wanted were reserved for other exploits with other women. The little-boy charm became the big-boy brutishness.
Three children later, bewildered and angry, she opted for a job. She was reluctant to leave the children to sitters and neighbors, but desperate in her search for security. The marriage prognosis was grim. Bruce was now boasting about his sexual conquests. Her job was one she enjoyed, and to that enjoyment she added a neighborhood sewing group. Gradually she was building a life of her own. Now she could wear a happy image, like the one worn by her friends.
Through the sewing group she began to hear about a church nearby, and a long-suppressed longing began to stir within her. In her early teens she had been exposed briefly to the reality of Jesus Christ as Savior, and her heart had been touched by the Great Joy. The pursuit of worldly romance had dimmed that reality, and she had drifted into the delusion that joy was to have and to hold, to possess and be possessed by another person, specifically Bruce.
She began attending services at the church, and, like the people of Israel, she wept first for sorrow and then for joy as she heard the Voice of the Beloved once again through the teaching of his Word. She grieved as she saw that, like all of us, she was a straying sheep; she rejoiced to know that the Shepherd had not ceased to seek her, to draw her back to himself for healing and restoration. She brought him her emptiness, rejoicing that he had promised to fill the earthen vessel of her humanity with himself, the Treasure who would give her worth and fulfillment and joy.
Myrna has learned to listen carefully to the message of the Scriptures. She is now aware that Christians, too, can live shallow, selfish lives, using their "faith" as one more gimmick for self-gratification. Misreading the Word of God from their own culturally acquired and racially inherited perspective, they presume to believe God exists to make them comfortable. This is a concept of life we are all taught from infancy. It teaches us to use any method or means--from pleasant strategies to hostile resistance--to get what we want. If we see God as existing to be our benefactor, then we will see ourselves as the central figure in his universe, and others as our servants.
The difficult circumstances in Myrna's life did not vanish when she came to Christ. She continued to be confronted with tests and trials. In the early stages of this new relationship with Christ she tried to romanticize her new-found joy. The emotional release which accompanied the realization that she was forgiven, accepted, and loved apart from anything she could do to earn it, brought a sense of exhilaration and excitement. Her emotions were charged with joy.
But her husband refused to share her new life, and eventually forbade her to attend church services. By now, she was willing to do whatever was necessary to keep the peace in her home, but she was confused and dismayed at the deepening rift in her marriage and the increasing tensions with the children.
Now, through faithful Christian friends, and her own persistent study of the Word, she was finding a whole new dimension of truth. God wanted to change her, to mature her into the very image of his Son. Yes, she did indeed stand blameless before God because the price of her redemption had been paid by the death of God's Son--but she had been declared whole, set free from guilt, so that she could live out of that forgiveness, extending that quality of love and forgiveness and acceptance to others.
Already the indwelling Christ was dealing with her motivation. She had to face the fact that her efforts to persuade her husband of his need for Christ were largely centered around the old romanticism. She was largely aiming at the satisfaction of her own needs and wants, rather than God's plan for Bruce's wholeness for the greater glory of God. This was a whole new vista. It meant that the old romanticism would be replaced with a whole new vision. Marriage would no longer be the end, but the means by which the whole family unit would be conformed to Christ's image--could become, in other words, whole persons. But each person in her life would now be seen as God's responsibility, living his life through her to accomplish his purpose in them.
Myrna did not see God's responsibility as a cop-out from her own human responsibility. Eventually she decided to leave her job and return to the home, to give her full time to being wife and mother. In this way, she chose to make herself available to her family, counting on her new life in Christ to develop redemptive relationships within her home. She wanted to share with them the love she had found in Christ and in fellowship with others who know him.
Through trial and failure, and through persistent Bible study and Christian counsel, with much prayer, Myrna has learned to see herself as God's instrument of peace and the grace of forgiveness and acceptance. The cost of her obedience to the Lord she loves is often high. There is much hardness to endure. But the genuineness of her love toward her family increases along with her love responses to Christ, and her developing joy is nourished by her growing relationship with him. She frequently expresses her own astonishment at the joy and peace she experiences in some of the most difficult times. She is increasingly committed to trusting in the faithfulness and sovereign purposes of God, aware that she cannot change the inner state of anyone, but willing to learn to be a signpost to the Lord Jesus by her attitudes and actions.
Commitment to God's larger global plan for redemption sets the heart free from preoccupation with personal needs and desires and therefore from the need to use others to meet them. This is the greater joy, the supreme joy, we find in the Lord Jesus Christ. He indwells us to meet our needs for love, forgiveness, and acceptance, freely endowing us, above what we can ask or think, as we trust him to do so in every circumstance. It is in him alone we find our needs met.
Believing this, we may live in joy. It is what the apostle Peter calls "unutterable and exalted" joy, and it is an entirely different mind-set that transcends life's difficulties and makes sadness small and suffering seem "slight momentary affliction."
This is the confidence Myrna has toward God through his Son, that whether or not her marriage is or becomes what she desires it to be is secondary to the confidence that God is at work in her and through her to add the dimensions of his character to her life in a daily growing relationship of trust and love. God is daily teaching her how to express his love to the unlovely and unloving and to leave the results with him. Often in the most trying situations her joy is deepest and richest, and she is beginning to understand the apostle Paul's description of Christ's ones: "as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing" (2 Corinthians. 6:10 RSV).
This kind of joy is not an affectation, but the spontaneous response of the heart whose trust and affections are centered on a faithful, loving Father-God, whose promises are "yea and amen" in his Son. "Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy" (I Peter 1:8 RSV).
We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ has provided all we need to be whole persons. We believe that he is at work in all our circumstances to mature us and use us to accomplish his redemption in a broken world. In this we trust, and the joy of the LORD is our strength!