Not long ago, Diane called me on the telephone. Her calm manner and steady voice were not the usual accompaniment to the kind of story she told. Her young son, who was one of a set of football heroes on his high school campus, had been exposed as a participant in a drug scandal. Craig had been a respected, reliable young man, both as a family member and as a student. His father, the school faculty and student body, and the community were shaken by the disclosure of his unexpected involvement in a serious infringement of the school and civic law.
Diane was deeply concerned for her son, his father, and the young people who had been disillusioned by Craig's misbehavior. But as Diane reviewed the events of the past few days, there was a notable lack of despair in her expressions of concern. There was, in fact, a ringing note of hope which produced a paradox of rejoicing in her suffering.
Diane's joy was based on the hope that God's grace and mercy were available to transform this trying circumstance into triumph. Her attitude was one of positive expectation, because her confidence was in her Lord whose purpose is to forge beauty of character out of times of testing, failure, and heartache.
Because she was anticipating God's victory, the forming of Christlike attitudes and actions in the lives involved, she was not caught up in self-pity and anxiety over others' evaluation of her as the mother of an imperfect son. Because she was free of such self-concern she was able to relate to her family members and other parents and friends in wholesome, loving ways. Her inner peace and joy was undisturbed by fretting over petty remarks, and she was free of the need to be defensive. She was, in fact, able to comfort parents of other boys who were similarly involved.
God has used Diane's confident, joyful expectation to redeem her son's failure. Her forgiveness has formed a bridge to lead him back to the Lord whose fellowship he forsook when he chose to follow those who extended a false hope for fun and excitement. Craig's father was restrained by his wife's gracious and clear-headed behavior from alienating his son, and many others were exposed to a model of Christlike behavior under stressful, tense circumstances. Diane's joy has a richer, deeper quality than ever, because, as Romans 5 tells us, hope that is directed toward God's work of redemption will not disappoint us and we will rejoice in the redemptive outcome of suffering.
My heart sings when the beauty of Jesus is reproduced in such lives, and the fragrance of his love and kindness is spread through families, neighborhoods, and communities. One such friend is so full of daily hope in God-at-work that she can invite others to "come sit by my joy." I have sat with her under the umbrella of shared confident expectation and discussed the rainstorms of unresolved problems. Together, we have rejoiced in hope because of the faithfulness and loving-kindness of our Father. Friendship's fellowship of kindred minds can be delightful in other dimensions, but the fellowship of believers who have learned through trials and tests to hope in the character of God the Father is the richest of joys.
Self-disclosure encounters are increasingly popular in our society and in our churches. Wherever they are found, if the activity is focused solely on human frailty and hardship with no recourse to the supernatural intervention of God's healing, redeeming grace through his Son the Lord Jesus Christ, the most that can be accomplished is a temporary expedient of mutual self-pity and shallow platitudes. These in the end only perpetuate the problems and plunge people into deeper despair.
There is also increasing recourse to so-called "mental health" facilities, and to psychoanalysis under a variety of categories. It is often helpful to sort out behavior patterns, and an analyst who has integrity toward his patient can often help in identifying problems to which the patient has been willingly or unwittingly blind. However, pinpointing problems can increase the feeling of hopelessness, as can the diagnosis of physical illness without hope of cure.
All too often, the cure offered to the emotionally ill or distressed is a variety of ways of suppressing guilt or efforts to eliminate it. "You are hostile, bitter and resentful," they are told, "because someone offended you; so don't blame yourself." Thus the patient is taught to evade responsibility for his/her actions, and the cycle of emotional weakness is perpetuated. This also serves to justify hostile attitudes and actions, and wipe out any motivation to deal with them.
"Get it all out," says one group of counselors. "Think positive thoughts," says another. "If you think you're okay, you will be." David, the Psalmist, tried the repression route and describes it for us in Psalm 39:1-3 (RSV): "I said, 'I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue; I will bridle my mouth, so long as the wicked are in my presence.'
'I was dumb and silent, I held my peace to no avail; my distress grew worse, my heart became hot within me. As I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue.'"
The verses that follow trace David's heart relationship with God. They also offer what I have found to be the only valid alternative to hostile expression or hopeless repression of inner turmoil. Rather than venting his inner distress and rage on those he saw as his oppressors, David pours it all out before the Lord. He begins by asking God for perspective: "Lord, let me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is!" (Ps. 39:4 RSV).
Then God gives him the insight he requests, and he is able to measure himself and others by God's value system: "Behold, thou hast made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing in thy sight. Surely every man stands as a mere breath! Surely man goes about as a shadow! Surely for nought are they in turmoil; man heaps up, and knows not who will gather!" (Ps. 39: 4-6 RSV)
Like a prick to a balloon, this realistic appraisal of life releases all the pent-up preoccupation with petty pride and self-protection. It delivers him from putting all his eggs in the fragile basket of his temporary sojourn on this planet. And it gives him a sense of identification with others, who are as fragile and temporary as he. David takes another look at the things men strive for, and sees how unworthy they are, that most of our toil, sweat, and tears are spent on things that have no lasting value and no real rewards. Where do we go from here, David?
"And now, Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in thee. Deliver me from all my transgressions. Make me not the scorn of the fool! I am dumb, I do not open my mouth; for it is thou who hast done it" (Ps. 39:7-9 RSV).
It all looks so futile, Lord! All the status seeking, pleasure-oriented efforts, the power plays and subtle maneuvers--for what? This kind of living is not only privately unfulfilling, leaving us feeling victimized and despairing. It is the cause of broken relationships between individuals as well as between nations.
David knew the anguished end of greed and lust. He well knew that the reckless, self-centered pursuit of joy brought an accelerated cycle of heartache and guilt. Now in God's presence, the repression of his outrage against wicked men is no longer necessary. His attention is diverted from their evil to his own need for forgiveness. And he is able to see how small and futile are men's plans for conquest, how truly insignificant are the plans of mice and men. Confronted with the eternal God, his perspective changes, his vengeful angry thoughts subside and he realizes that humility and repentance are the primary issues.
Harley works for a large industrial firm, where men play status-games, jostling one another for rank and sacrificing integrity for small or large personal gains. In this atmosphere of suspicion and fear, good, careful workmanship is often devalued, frequently a secondary issue. Unfortunately, it is not an unusual work scene in a nation that has forsaken moral absolutes from its grass roots to its government.
For many years, Harley attempted to be heard whenever he detected foul play. He would elbow his way to a hearing, and voice his protests. It was a courageous effort but tinged by a subtle self-righteousness. If others were wrong--and they unquestionably were--then he must become their judge. That is an elevation that quickly builds feelings of superiority. But people refuse to be corrected from a pedestal. Humility and identification with need are essential to gaining a hearing.
Recently, Harley has begun to grasp the fact that he cannot take responsibility for the entire industry. He is beginning to see that angry protests, argumentative striving, and derision are hardly the way to restore integrity to his environment; that, as a matter of fact, in so doing he loses not only his credibility but his own integrity.
If Harley is to have an impact for redemptive change, it will be the work of Jesus Christ, first of all in him, and then through him. As the apostle Paul puts it, it is "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Colossians. 1:27). When we try to do God's work by asserting ourselves and strong-arming others, we squeeze out their joy and our own as well. When the Lord Jesus is at work in us to remind us we are not our own but have been bought with infinite price, it relieves us of both our self-righteousness and our illusions of omnipotence. Then we can judge others as we have been judged--with grace and mercy, and we can serve them with integrity and without intimidation--to their joy and ours.
A seminar obsession seems to have developed across our nation, the product of an insatiable quest for success--in marriage, sex, career, personal power, and so on. The human heart possesses a powerful thirst for happiness and joy, for satisfaction and contentment. It is a hope planted in our hearts by our Creator, who planned we should know supreme joy by partaking of his character, then sharing his love with one another. Our Father-God has a seminar for success. It is the crucible of life in which we learn to grow up to his love and share it in everything we do and with everyone we know. Other schemes for success will result in hollow victories without lasting joy, for we were not designed for lesser things.
For the Christian, this joy is not for this life only, but we have an inexhaustible hope of eternal joy in the presence of the Lord Jesus himself. We anticipate "an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading." And in this we rejoice "though now for a lime while (we) may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of (our) faith, more precious than gold...may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:4,6,7 RSV).
The hope of being together eternally with the Lord whom we love fills us with "unutterable and exalted joy." But it is our experience of him now that confirms and feeds our hope of that eternal joy. It is an ageless joy, shared by David of old as his heart and mind turned in trustful obedience to his God, and to us as we live in the confusion and tension of this twentieth century. It is a joy that will unite us all together in praise of him whose love has made it all possible.