by Jack Wald | May 12th, 2019

Philippians 4:4

Where do you go in the world if you want to experience joy? A wedding? That would be a good choice. A man and a woman in love, eagerly setting out on the adventure of married life. There is the ceremony with the bride walking down the aisle to the groom who is waiting for her, and then the pronouncement of marriage, the kiss, and coming down the aisle, hand-in-hand, with beaming smiles. This is followed by the celebration with good food, music and dancing, family and friends.

Or how about the birth of a baby? That is a time of great celebration. Birthdays, families gathering to celebrate a holiday, relaxing on vacation. These all seem like good candidates for finding joy.

Where would you go in the Bible if you wanted to read about joy? Would you pick a letter written to a community that was experiencing severe persecution? Would you pick Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi?

Paul had to leave Philippi suddenly because of the violent threats made against him. After he left, those who opposed him opposed those who had become followers of Jesus. When Paul wrote to them, he acknowledged their suffering under persecution. (Philippians 1:29–30)
For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, 30 since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.

Paul wrote this letter from a prison cell, most likely in Rome. So Paul, who was in prison because of persecution, wrote to people who were being persecuted. And yet, Paul’s Philippians letter is known as a letter of joy. Joy is a central theme in the book of Philippians. There are fifteen explicit references to some form of either the noun “joy” or the verb “rejoice” in this short letter. Let me share just four of them.

Paul begins in Philippians 1:4–5
In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now,

Paul has joy when the believers are unified and single-minded. (Philippians 2:1–2)
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.

Paul would be glad in his sacrifice for the sake of their faith, so that his ministry was not in vain. (Philippians 2:17)
But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. 18 So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.

Then at the end of his letter, Paul reminds the Philippian followers of Jesus: (Philippians 4:4)
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!

What is joy?

Joy is an important word in the Scriptures and there are several words in the Hebrew and Greek that we translate into the English word “joy.”

There is simchah. This is a Hebrew word that has the connotation of bright and shining.

Bright and shining eyes. Like the joy filled eyes of a small child looking at the presents under the Christmas tree on Christmas morning or perhaps the joy filled eyes of the bride and groom as they look at each other when the bride walks down the aisle toward the groom.

After David defeated Goliath and the Philistines had been routed, there was a celebration that occurred when the troops returned from the battlefield. (I Samuel 18:6)
When the men were returning home after David had killed the Philistine, the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with tambourines and lutes. 7 As they danced, they sang:
“Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his tens of thousands.”

This was an expression of simchah joy. Eyes bright and shining with joy as they saw the victorious troops return.

There is another Hebrew word for joy, masos. This is leaping and jumping joy like that experienced by the man who was healed by the Beautiful Gate as Peter and John passed him. (Acts 3:8)
He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God.

He was so filled with joy that he could not be restrained.

Another Hebrew word for joy is rinnah. This is an exuberant expression of joy with particular reference to shouting. It was either 2006 or 2010 when I invited the Ghanian students to my home to watch the World Cup match between Ghana and the USA. I fed them, treated them well, and then when Ghana defeated the US 2-1 they repaid my hospitality by forming an impromptu circle in the salon and danced and shouted to celebrate their victory. They celebrated with rinnah joy.

One more Hebrew word for joy is gil. This word has its root in “moving around in a circle”. Have you ever seen a puppy so playful that it starts running around in a circle trying to bite its tail? This is exuberant joy. I had horses when I was young and after a hard winter, when spring came, it was a thrill to ride them because they had so much pent up energy they would just race and race with the sheer delight of being free.

In C.S.Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, the last of the seven books describes the joy of being taken up into heaven and racing along. Running and not getting tired. Racing faster and faster. Racing up waterfalls and on to deeper and higher experiences of heaven. On and on and on. Joy!

In Zephaniah 3:14&17, in just two verses, eight different Hebrew words are used for joy or joyful expression.
Sing, Daughter Zion;
shout aloud, Israel!
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart,
Daughter Jerusalem!

The Lord your God is with you, 
the Mighty Warrior who saves. 
He will take great delight in you; 
in his love he will no longer rebuke you, 
but will rejoice over you with singing.”

God delights in us. He rejoices over us with singing.

In the New Testament, joy is taken to a much deeper level. The New Testament talks about joy that is present even in the midst of sorrow and suffering.

James, the half-brother of Jesus, began his letter by writing (James 1:2)
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds,

Jesus spoke to his disciples who were confused. He told them he was going to be leaving them and they wondered what he meant by that. So Jesus told them, (John 16:20–22)
Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. 21 A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. 22 So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.

This deep joy is not dependent on circumstances. This joy is not dependent on whether the battle is won or lost, whether we are healed or not, whether things work out as we want them to or not. This joy is present at funerals as well as at weddings. It is present in the ashes of defeat as much as it is present in the thrill of victory.

This joy is not the same as happiness and not the same as the words for joy in the Old Testament. This joy does not make itself known with a big smile and exuberant behavior. This joy is not rooted in what happens or does not happen here on earth. It is rooted in what is true for eternity. It is rooted in eternal truth, Kingdom of God truth.

Joy is an important word in the Bible and the second of the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5. What becomes clear as you read the 210 verses in the Bible that contain the word joy is that God wants us to be filled with joy, joyful.

To be overwhelmed by the pressures around us, to be beaten down, to walk around in a cloud of gloom, this is not God’s desire for us. God wants us to be joyful. To live a life of worry and anxiety, to be filled with fear, to live a life controlled by strict adherence to rules and regulations, this is not God’s desire for us. God wants us to be joyful.

Let me make five observations about the joy of the New Testament.

First, joy is not an emotion. Joy can be expressed emotionally, but it is not an emotion.

In the first few years of my Christian life, in Boston, I knew people in a Christian group whose leaders taught them to praise the Lord in all circumstances. So they went around with smiling faces, always saying, “Praise the Lord!” regardless of what was happening in their personal lives. To not have a smile was a sign of a weak faith.

When I meet someone who is always smiling, always positive, I wonder what is going on in their mind. I don’t trust people who always smile. They don’t seem authentic to me. Are they hiding what they feel? There is something wrong.

“My wife and kids died in a car accident, I lost my job, my friends have deserted me, I have no money, but “Praise the Lord!’” How authentic is that?

When tragedy hits or when we are overwhelmed with struggles, it is OK to grieve, OK to weep, OK to be angry at God. We need to be authentic as Christians and this means we need to deal honestly with the emotions that come with difficult circumstances.

It is inappropriate to stand in the midst of suffering and put on a happy face and say, “Praise the Lord!” when that is not where your heart is.

How did Jesus respond when he received word that Lazarus had died? He went with his disciples to Bethany and when he met Mary and Martha and saw their grief, he smiled and said, “Praise the Lord!” Is that right? Of course not. Jesus responded to their grief by weeping. John 11:35 is a favorite verse for those who are supposed to memorize a scripture. Just two words. “Jesus wept.”

There has to be room for authentic response to tragedy and suffering. It cannot be a rule I follow, to praise the Lord in everything. It must be a genuine, authentic response to suffering. I suffer, I grieve, I reflect, I pray and then I conclude that despite the suffering I will give praise because there is a reality beyond this one. I am not happy that something bad happened, but I can have joy because it is not the end of the story.

I talked this week with Rose Johnson, whose husband Don died a few weeks ago. You may remember that I wrote about Don and Rose in a RICEmail after Don died. Rose knows that Don is much better off in heaven than he was in his last years here on earth, but that knowledge does not take away from the pain of losing the man she was married to for seventy years.

Is God good? Yes. Is it time for grieving? Yes. Will this grief last forever? No. Is joy present in the midst of grief? Yes.

Joy is not an emotion. Second, joy knows that suffering is only temporary.

Peter wrote to followers of Jesus who were being persecuted. He began by reminding them of their great hope. 1 Peter 1:3–9
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, 5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.

And then he tells them that they rejoice in this hope, even through they are having to suffer in the present.
In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.

“A little while,” that is the encouragement. Joy knows that there is a future without the suffering and allows us to hold on, persevere in difficult times. And, the icing on the cake is that this present suffering will produce faith, which is the wealth of heaven.
These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 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, 9 for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Despite great suffering, there is “an inexpressible and glorious joy.”

My oldest sister is a retired physical therapist who worked with handicapped people, many of them who were severely handicapped. I asked her what it was like for someone with a functioning mind to be imprisoned in a broken body and she sent me this story.

One child I think about I had many years ago. He was a third grader and had “brittle bone” disease where his bones were extremely fragile and weak (due to low levels of collagen). I always saw him on a Tuesday when he was wearing his Cub Scout uniform. One day he came in with his arm in a sling. I said, “Oh Stevie, what happened?” He said, “I broke my clavicle.” I said, “How did that happen?” He said, “I sneezed.” On another day he was rather depressed. We talked awhile and because I knew his family went to church, I said, “You know, someday you will be able to run and jump and not have to worry about ever breaking another bone because you will be with Jesus.” He smiled and said, “I know.”

In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.

Joy is not an emotion. Joy knows that suffering is only temporary. Third, joy knows that death is not the end.

In I Corinthians, Paul is writing about the resurrection body we will receive. He writes a passage that is very often read at funerals. (1 Corinthians 15:54–57)
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

As you stand in front of a box containing the body of a friend or a family member, it is a sobering experience. The person we loved, ate with, talked with, enjoyed, is gone. The box reminds us that this life will come to an end, and then what?

Funerals make us think about ourselves. What is my future? What will happen to me when I die?

I have shared before about Steve Hayner who died January 31, 2015. He and his wife, Sharol, were leaders at Park Street Church where Annie and I attended after we became followers of Jesus. After seminary, Steve was a pastor, professor, president of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, (GBU in French-speaking countries), and then president of Columbia Seminary.

In the spring of 2014 he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He and his wife kept a blog during the nine months of his cancer and he died on January 31, 2015. Their posts were published in a book, Joy in the Journey: Finding Abundance in the Shadow of Death.

Steve was one of those people who radiated joy. This is how he was in the days when we first knew him and his joy stayed with him all the way to the end. His last post was on January 1 after the doctors told him there was nothing more they could do.

January 1
I remain committed to the conviction that every day still contains both a call from God and a journey from which I need to learn.
So with this New Year comes a new chapter. I am now officially under hospice care. This new team will walk me to the finish line of this life. I will have whatever medical, social and spiritual support I need from both the hospice team and our family, friends, church and seminary families.
Facing the hard realities of this new chapter is not easy. Sharol and I are grieving. Even when we have known for months that I only had a short time to live, we have had only a vague timeline. But being in hospice makes it more concrete.

Today, I’m just relaxing into the gratitude of having such good care.
Today, I’m not afraid, though some fears will undoubtedly sneak up on me as I get sicker.
Today, I’m trying to be attentive to what is happening to me without feeling like I have to be responsible for everything.
Today, I am living once again into joy.

Joy is not defeated by death.

“Where, O death, is your victory? 
Where, O death, is your sting?”

Joy is not an emotion. Joy knows that suffering is only temporary. Joy knows that death is not the end. Fourth, joy knows that there is a future glory coming.

The writer of Hebrews spoke of heros of the faith and then gave us the example of Jesus who persevered through a terrible death to be raised to glory beyond our imagination. (Hebrews 12:1–2)
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

“For the joy set before him he endured the cross.” Jesus knew that after the physical, emotional, and spiritual pain he had to suffer, glory awaited him.

Paul persevered through his suffering because he knew what awaited him at the end of the race. (Philippians 3:13–14)
Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Steve Hayner went to his death with joy because he knew what awaited him after death. Rose has joy in the midst of her grief because she knows where Don has gone. We have hope in this life because we know who we are and where we are being called.

Joy is not an emotion. Joy knows that suffering is only temporary. Joy knows that death is not the end. Joy knows that there is a future glory coming. Fifth, joy carries us safely through the most difficult of life events.

Barry Gaeddert was a member of RIC from 2014-2017. He came here a year after his wife died of a brain tumor, glioblastoma. His wife Suzy, like Steve Hayner, was someone who radiated joy. Barry kept a blog during her three year struggle and published a book about this incredibly painful experience, Mosaics of Redemption: Discovering God’s Restoration in Our Broken and Shattered Lives. This devotional is from that book. The passage of scripture it is based on is Habakkuk 3:17–19
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
19 The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.

It is so easy to let my circumstances dictate my mood. On sunny days, with pleasant people around me, I’m happy. But if there’s no place to park in the rain or I have to deal with my mobile-phone service provider, I find myself turning angry and surly. So add to that the frustration of not understanding what Suzy wanted to say or the heartache of watching as she struggled with pain, and I found myself anywhere but in my happy place.

Circumstances. They are what they are. But are they the dictators of my mood? Are they the determiners of my reaction and response to God?

Habakkuk spent a great deal of time looking at the circumstances around him. The evildoers were flourishing. The enemy was about to invade. And he talked with God, telling him that he needed to correct the situation – now. It is not until the very end of the book, the final verses, that Habakkuk states his trust in God regardless of the circumstances. It is a lesson I have learned and am still learning through my journey. When I looked at our circumstances, I lost heart – there were no buds on the fig tree, no crops and no livestock; Suzy’s muscles were wasted and useless, and there was incontinence and pain. I became discouraged and downtrodden. It is only when I looked at God – and I mean fully at God – that the circumstances faded so that what really mattered could shine.

As I continue in my life, I am choosing to place my trust in God – in good circumstances and bad. My only hope is to place my trust fully in the One who made me, knows me best, and still loves me even when I no longer deserve to be loved. I am still working on this. I can be distracted quite easily by the circumstances around me. But trust is a choice, and I am learning, slowly, to put full-stock trust in God. The circumstances look significantly different when you do that.

Suzy often amazed me with the trust she displayed. Every single day she found herself trusting aides to bathe and dress her, medical folks and therapists to manage meds and equipment, and me to remember how to keep track of and manage all of it. She remained the most pleasant, most cheerful, most Jesus-reflecting person I know. Her trust was firmly established. The assaults of a brain tumor, which were countless, fierce, and relentless, did not trouble her. She trusted. She had learned to not look at circumstances but at Christ. The withering fig blossoms and lack of sheep in the pen did not concern her because she believed with Habakkuk that “the Sovereign Lord is my strength.”

Oh, to have the faith and strength, the courage, the wisdom, the willingness to trust, no matter the circumstances and storms that blow all around me.

One more thing: God tells Habakkuk that the enemy, the destroyer, will be destroyed (ch. 2). I take great hope in that. Make no mistake, just as Babylon was eventually destroyed, there will be a day in our world when cancer reigns in evil terror no more. Glioblastoma multiform will be defeated, and no one, absolutely no one, will suffer or struggle with the hell in which we walked. Until then, I will continue to unashamedly affirm my faith and trust in a good and loving God, who, at the right time, will make all things new.

Circumstances be damned. You do not win in the end. So I’m lining up my trust in the One who does.

Joy is not an emotion. Joy knows that suffering is only temporary. Joy knows that death is not the end. Joy knows that there is a future glory coming. Joy carries us safely through the most difficult of life events.

How do we get joy? We know we need more joy, what can we do to have more joy?

There is only one way to have more joy in your life and that is to abide in Christ. Why is this? Joy is a fruit of the Spirit.

Galatians 5:22–26
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control.

It is easy to see the fruit of the Spirit as something Christians need to see developed in their lives, but it puts a whole new spin on it when you realize that the fruit of the Spirit we are to see develop in our lives is a description of the character of God. These nine fruit describe what God is like.

What this means is that when we grow in the fruit of the Spirit, we become more like God. This is the work of the Holy Spirit who is working with us to transform us to be more like God. As we grow in the fruit of the Spirit, we become more Christ-like.

This should not come as a surprise. If you have an apple tree, why should you be surprised when it bears apples? If you have a grapevine, why should you be surprised when the vine produces grapes?

Jesus used the analogy of a vineyard to describe our relationship with him. (John 15:5)
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.

Because we attach ourselves to Christ when we become Christians, when we grow as Christians, we increasingly take on the character of the one to whom we are attached. We take on the character of God.

How is it that we grow in the fruit of the Spirit? Should we make a list of the fruit of the Spirit and each week work on one of the fruit? Week 1: love. Week 2: joy. Week 3: peace and so on. Should we make a checklist and make sure that each day we are more patient, have more self-control?

We need to cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit in our transformation, but this approach misses the mark.

If you have an apple tree and you want it to grow apples, what do you do?

Stuart Briscoe tells the story of a boy and his brother who used a tree just outside of their bedroom window to escape any time they were restricted to the room for one reason or another. One day they heard their father tell their mother that he was going to cut down that tree because it was a fruit tree and was not bearing any fruit. This put a bit of panic in the boys. Their route of escape was about to disappear. So in desperation, they went to the market, bought a bushel of apples and that night, tied the apples onto the tree branches. The next morning, they heard their father exclaim to their mother, “It’s a miracle. The fruit tree is bearing fruit! And what is even more spectacular is that it’s a pear tree but it’s bearing apples!”

Tying fruit on the branches of a fruit tree is not the way to make the tree produce fruit. The fruit tree needs to send its roots deep so it takes in the water it needs. It’s branches need to be pruned. It needs to be sprayed with the right spray to protect it from damage from insects. It needs bees to cross-pollinate from one tree to another. When the fruit tree gets this kind of attention, fruit is produced.

In the same way, it is ridiculous to think that we can be transformed simply be exerting our will and trying to tie onto our lives the fruit of the Spirit. Our own efforts will not produce love, joy, peace and the rest of the fruit in our lives.

It is by sending our roots deep into our relationship with Jesus, soaking up the living water of God, allowing God to discipline us as his legitimate children, feeding from the Scriptures, bathing our lives in prayer, that we bear fruit. As we remain attached to Jesus, through good and bad, easy and difficult times, we become more like him and the fruit of the Spirit that describes the character of God begins to also describe us.

Deep joy cannot be imposed from without, it must come from within. Joy that stays with us through trials and tribulations comes from a heart that is being transformed by the Holy Spirit.

Let me finish with one more story. My friend Michael died of the same glioblastoma as Barry’s wife, Suzy. And like Suzy, like Steve Hayner, Michael was someone who radiated joy in his life. At his funeral someone spoke of him and said that people are described by whether they see the glass as half-empty or half-full. For Michael, the glass was overflowing with Dom Pérignon champagne.

As Michael went through his struggle against this cancer which was taking his life, people would ask him how he was doing and he would cup his hands and say, “I am in God’s hands.” Two or three days before he died, his pastor came to see him and asked him, “Michael, how are you doing?” Michael was too weak to talk but he slowly moved his hands together to make a cup.

We are in God’s hands.

We are in God’s hands in little struggles. Parents are caught up in an emotional struggle because their daughter who will be entering first grade is not going to the school they want her to go to. A university student is contemplating dropping out of university because of the mean behavior of a professor. A boss criticizes more than he or she affirms. There are so many things that cause us to be anxious. We need to remember that we, and those we love, are in God’s hands.

We are in God’s hands in matters of life and death. Someone you love becomes gravely ill, someone you love dies. We know that we will all eventually die, but we do not expect people we love to die before old age. We do not expect our children to die.

In all of life’s events, we are in God’s hands.

As we hold on to Jesus, spend time reading the bible, praying, reflecting, journaling – all the things we do to deepen our love relationship with Jesus, joy and the other fruit of the Spirit grow in us. We become more and more like Jesus.

We will face persecution and difficulties of all kinds. Smiling and putting on a happy face will not take us through suffering and persecution. Unlike putting on a happy face, deep joy does not repress pain, cover over pain, or ignore pain; joy looks pain full in the face and is victorious.

In the big and small struggles of life, let a deep joy flourish in you even while the world around you is crumbling.

Barry wrote, “Circumstances be damned.” There will be good days and bad days in our lives. I wish for you and I wish for me only good days but I know that this is not how the world works. And so I pray for you that you will so firmly attach yourself to Jesus that nothing will be able to separate you from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. I pray that in your attachment to Jesus joy will bubble up from your depths and you will find that joy present even in the most difficult and bitter experiences that come.