Does joy look different in each of us?

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For the joy of the Lord is your strength Neh 8:10

I desire joy and you probably do as well.   But, do you or I always know it when we see it?  Can we recognize joy in another Christian?

For sure, there are those fellow believers who seem to bubble over with a happy passion for Jesus. We recognize that as ‘the joy of the Lord’.

My husband, Michael, prays daily for that kind of joy.  He really wants it, but seems burdened by the belief he bears that he is not anywhere NEAR feeling or displaying that kind of visible, expressive contentment in the Lord.

But is he making a fair self-assessment? I wonder if we do ourselves harm and cause a disservice to fellow believers when we narrowly define the expression of joy, when we expect a joy-filled Christian to look and act a certain way.

This morning I read a definition of JOY in a Tabletalk article. The following two sentences brought relief:

  • “Joy is an apprehension of our great God. It is a realization of and a trust in His promises.” (Rev Kevin D. Gardner)

Oh!  So, joy doesn’t HAVE to look like that constant jovial, spilling over, unrestrained child-like delight that I imagine in ‘real’ Christians?  Is it possible that we’re not ‘less’ of a Christian if our sense of and expression of joy is different?

Here is what I think happens. God has wired each of us, his image-bearers, as one-of-a-kind individuals, assigning us temperaments per his wisdom. Could we be incorrect in assuming that OUR particular experiences of God will be or should be the same for each believer?   Could we be burdening brothers and sisters when we describe AND prescribe God’s way of relating to us as normative?

I don’t doubt that you have people in your life who admire you for something, who look to you as a role-model.  By observing you in person, they have bestowed upon you a degree of power to speak into their lives.  You might not even know them.  They may in fact be social media followers who respect you from a distance and want to be more like you.  That is a weighty responsibility, my friend.

I have accorded others that kind of influence over my life.  And it has not always been good for me.  At my very weakest moments when I have measured myself against that ‘Admired One’ and come up short, the self-flagellation has been toxic to my soul and well-being.

In the past, my insecurities as a mom left me ‘that kind of’ vulnerable.  These days, my self-generated critical tapes can play over and over about how I grandparent and how I ‘ezer’ or help my husband. Those times of self-doubt tempt me to look at other older women and draw incorrect conclusions about them.

The result?  I feel bad about myself and think….”I gotta do something different.”  That thought alone feels like pressure and I grow anxious.

Now isn’t ‘anxiety’ another word for ‘discontent’!

Is that what God wants for us, his beloved children?  Does our Father mean for our sense of falling short (of the kind of joy my fellow believing brother or sister displays) to cause doubt about his love for us?  Does he want us fearful that we might not be a Christian?

No!  I don’t think so.

Brothers and sisters, be gentle with yourself.  I believe that joy as a trait or marker of believers comes to fruition by the operative power of Jesus’ Spirit implanted in us at our RE-birth.  Believing, trusting, taking as TRUE all of God’s words in Scripture is what nurtures and grows the kind of joy Jesus had. Jesus loved his flock, his posse of friends and supporters.  But he was a serious Man, the God-Man who suffered in a real body.  I don’t get the picture from Scripture that he was the bubbly type, but the always trusting type, the God-Man who believed his Father.

Brothers and sisters, be wary of describing and prescribing YOUR experience of God’s joy (or forgiveness, peace, guidance, love, mercy etc) as the only fitting expression and communication of God’s goodness.  Yes, be real and share about God and his goodness in your life. But be responsible and wise with your words. Remember those weaker and younger in the faith and be aware of your impact on them. As for me, I don’t assume that everyone enjoys or experiences God the way I do. I am analytical and feel fed through reading and studying and meditating on true ideas about God.  Others feed on God through music or nature or movement.  Our God loves diversity!

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;  and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord;  and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.  1 Cor 12: 4-7

PS: As I was editing this post, I decided to see if I could find out what kind of ‘of’ is meant in the phrase, “The joy of the LORD”.  Does ‘of’ mean FROM, or PART OF or……?  I googled it and found this helpful blog post that shifted my understanding of the verse in Nehemiah.  Please invest the time to read it.

What if I don’t FEEL any joy?

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Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.  Romans 12:12

We’re a feeling culture. We don’t ‘think’ anymore.

I often hear people say things like:

  • I feel that we must accept everyone’s religion as being equally valid.
  • I don’t feel like we’re going to make it to the end of the month!
  • I feel that if she made an effort to understand me, then our marriage would have a chance!

The above statements are not feelings; they are beliefs or thoughts.  Since it appears that we don’t even know how to frame our thoughts accurately, then should it surprise us when we struggle to understand feelings?

I came upon Paul’s exhortation above in a collection of R.C. Sproul’s sermons on Romans.  This is what he wrote regarding Romans 12:12 (page 424 of St Andrew’s Expositional Commentary, published by Crossway):

  • ….faith looks forward and finds its anchor for the soul in the future promises of God.  That is the foundation for our joy.

That reassured me that Biblical joy is based on facts.  Promises made by our God and recorded by the prophets for us.

You probably know from past essays that my natural bent is NOT first toward feeling something.  I have to think, ponder and work out thoughts and notions in my mind before I feel.  The feelings do follow I have observed.

Most of the time I don’t FEEL joy in God.  But that doesn’t bother me.  When I substitute the words:  “I’m glad that” for ‘I feel joy in’, then I understand the command to rejoice.  I THINK joy.

I am VERY glad that God’s promises are true and reliable.

I know that I am entitled to them as a follower of Christ.  For Christians are those folks for whom Jesus lived, died and was raised from the dead.  They know what Jesus and the Godhead did for them, OUT OF LOVE, and are VERY glad.  And that being VERY glad begins a deep, lasting and ongoing transformation into the likeness of this very God who has demonstrated His love for us.

So, what makes me glad each day?  That I have Jesus, that I am wedded to Him as part of the Bride.  And as Paul wrote, ….. all the promises of God are “Yes” in Christ. 2 Cor 1:20a

My response?  a grateful glad and hearty And so through Him, our “Amen” is spoken to the glory of God. 2 Cor 1:20b

How to understand suffering – some of the ways

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A friend applies for job after job, only to make it to the final interview and be rejected. Not just once, but discouragingly, a number of times.

Another gal miscarries, yet again. The hope of carrying a baby to term erodes with each pregnancy.

Then there is an older sister in the faith who has been through so many cancer treatments, from chemo to radiation to surgery to enduring experimental drugs in clinical trials.  Nothing seems to work.

One more example, a brother who struggles wholeheartedly to save his marriage through prayer, fasting and pursuing counseling.  Alone.  Nonetheless, his wife wants no part in an attempt to reconcile and files for divorce.

These are 4 standout examples of suffering that quickly came to mind.  We all can enumerate such cases and more.

How about the more mundane types of painful struggle like trying to give up drinking, one more time? Or losing that weight, over and over?  Or attempting to engage in conversation your silent, sullen teen?

Do you ever feel like you keep praying, even quoting scripture BACK to God yet nothing changes?

I have significant unanswered prayers in my own life and have…. and am walking through similar suffering in the lives of friends and family in the faith.

Now at age 60, I’m recognizing some of the reasons that God seems sovereignly to ordain such circumstances.  I’ll mention a few, but as John Piper has taught me over the years of listening to his sermons, (and I’ll paraphrase): ‘God is doing 1000 things at one time in any event and we might only be able to spot two or three.’

(If you don’t yet know what to do with evidence in the Bible that God CAUSES suffering, here is one verse to illustrate that fact: Psalm 88:8 ‘You have removed my acquaintances far from me; You have made me an object of loathing to them; I am shut up and cannot go out’

Here are the reasons that I’ve seen in the past year or so that God might be saying ‘No’ to the sincere and fervent prayers of a righteous Christian:

  • What you are praying for is not ‘good’ per God.  For if something IS good, then He doesn’t withhold it:  Ps 84:11  ‘no good thing does he withhold from those whose way is upright’
  • The way you are choosing to go and asking for his permission does not showcase God’s righteousness.  Ps 23: 3 ‘He leads me in paths of righteousness, for his name’s sake.’
  • Per Anne Graham Lotz, our Father sometimes repeatedly shuts doors to a work until he has refined our purpose FOR the project.
  • Since God has created us to showcase his value as explained in Isaiah 43:6-7  ‘Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made’ then in some cases God blocks ways and projects that work counter to his purposes.

The other morning I was listening to an archived John Piper Sermon about joy.  And what I realized is this:

IF God’s purpose in creating us is to showcase how much we treasure HIM above anything he has created, then it is possible he is ordaining our circumstances in the optimal manner to fulfill this purpose.

Recall that God fashions, calls and redeems a particular group of people for his glory, that is for us to showcase just how much we esteem HIM above anything else in the universe.  If this is so, then how does the world figure out that we consider God OUR MOST valuable possession?

Yes, by taking away other sources of contentment and pleasure. For if we have ‘earthly success’ but actually treasure God more than that success, what would be the evidence to the non-believer that the Triune God is more precious to us than gold or good health or a happy family or fame?

How will my non-believing neighbor see that knowing God makes me supremely happy?

I think you can figure out where I’m going with this.  Perhaps the most striking example of a Christian being content with Christ is when something normal and important is removed.  Or everything is stripped away:

  • think of Paul beaten and confined in prison
  • or Stephen stoned to death
  • or heroes of the faith burned at the stake for their beliefs
  • or a Columbine High School teen standing up and identifying herself as a follower of Jesus
  • or the Amish families who ministered to the widow and children of the murderer of their girls

That kind of faith doesn’t make sense to the world, but it sure does make God look good.

Is this why you are suffering? why God seems to be keeping doors shut or saying no?

I don’t presume to say.  I will say, though, that the longer I live, pray with friends and read my Bible I see more redemptive reasons for suffering for Christ’s sake.

If the above examples leave you depressed, here are two other reasons that will lift your spirits:

  • Joseph was sold into slavery, slandered and forgotten for years in Egypt before God’s good plan was revealed – Genesis 50:20  ‘You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.’
  • Job’s suffering – at the time, he likely did not know about or understand God’s purpose in giving Satan almost free reign to harm him. But over the centuries thousands of Jews and Christians have found help and strength to endure their own painful trials and losses.

Let’s allow God the final word:

1 Peter 4:19 ‘So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.’

 

Why do we stiff-arm God?

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Why are we all so afraid of God?  We must be, for we hold back giving Him ALL of our hearts and All of our wills. How do I know this about you?  I know my own heart. And I consider myself a Christian!

Let’s imagine a happily married couple. They have learned to live secure and content in their relationship. They savor one another’s company.  People who know them observe how they exude mutual requited joy and trust.  The man and woman skillfully craft beautiful, creative works of art. They can work side by side for hours, marveling as beauty emerges from their able hands.

One day their thoughts turn to opening their home to children in order to include others in their happiness. Their motive?  Simply this: they understand the fundamental design of the universe, that a pleasure shared is a pleasure multiplied and intensified.  As they make plans to expand their family, their exuberance grows at the prospect of bringing new family members into their happy union.  They eagerly talk about the children on whom they will lavish love.  They discuss how they will expose them to Truth and Beauty.  They talk about training these little ones in the pursuit of Goodness and authentic creative happiness so they can share their parents’ joy.

Do they NEED these children?  No, for they lack nothing.  They aren’t looking for children…

  • to complete them
  • to work for them
  • to fulfill unmet dreams in their stead

Their exuberance just bubbles over.  Love abounds and seeks a recipient.  No strings attached.

The longer I read the Bible, the clearer grows my understanding of God.  We, humans, were created in the image of this happy, triune divine Creator and Lover. The perfect God already lives in relationship as Father, Son, and Divine Spirit.  He lacks nothing. He is the archetype of perfection.  By nature, Joy overflows.

Luke records my favorite passage in the Bible about the loving ‘Father-ness’ of our God.  “So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20)

Why do we hold back from running to embrace Him? We have nothing to fear.  Taste and see that the Lord is good! Psalm 34:8

How can I rejoice?

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Luke 1:47

…and my spirit has begun to rejoice in God my Savior…

It was an ordinary day.  Maybe 13-year old Mary was kneading bread for the evening meal, a chore her mom might have left her to complete so she could head to the market. Maybe this young Hebrew girl was alone with the goats, distributing straw.

Whatever she was doing, she might have been musing about whether life with Joseph would be all that different than life at home.  She’d still working with other women in a family similar to hers. The daily and weekly tasks would be the same:  to supply Joseph’s household with food and clothing.  Of course, there would be children to raise, but not that first year, or at least not for 9 months…..

When I read Mary’s reaction to both the news AND the reality of her changed circumstances, i.e surprise pregnancy, I was struck by the wording of this New English Translation (NET) of Luke 1:47.  The text reads that Mary BEGAN to rejoice.

And that made sense.  Until her encounter with Gabriel and his announcement, Mary’s understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures would have been from her parents’ treatment of God’s word, from annual celebrations and local worship traditions.  I can well imagine that God’s truth had yet to penetrate her very soul.  There’s a hearing and there’s a HEARING.

But then….God’s word intruded into her life in more than a figurative sense.  Her Instagram hash tag might well have read #lifeinteruppted!

So how did Mary react?  She BEGAN to rejoice.  Before she encountered living Truth, I doubt she even thought of rejoicing.  For sure I can imagine she was happy to be engaged to a kind and hard-working man like Joseph.  Most likely she enjoyed her girlfriends in the village and felt comfortable in knowing the routine of Roman-occupied Galilee.  But rejoicing?  What was there to rejoice about?

Nothing,….that is until God’s Truth became real to her.  And so it is with us.  I don’t think I ever rejoiced in a deep and meaningful sense until the facts and promises of Jesus began to sink in to my consciousness. Yes, I was excited to travel to Europe, to leave home to attend college, to start work as a new lieutenant, to marry Mike, to give birth to Graham and then Wes.  But rejoice?  That is something categorically different.

Christians who have been ‘surprised by joy’ like CS Lewis or Blaise Pascal, startled by God’s heavy presence (Best Annotated version of The Pensées by Peter Kreeft) know a bit of what Mary experienced.  And they have rejoiced.

So what about us?  The truth is, even if we never experience the Holy Spirit’s heavy presence like Pascal or talk to an angel, we STILL have God’s living Word, given to us in written form.  We have access to TRUTH, which provides fuel for our rejoicing.  The facts and promises we receive by grace are precious.

Ps 119:162 – I rejoice in your word like one who discovers a great treasure.

If you haven’t BEGUN to rejoice, then this time of year is the perfect time to start reading and receiving as truth what the Bible declares and promises. Nothing else is going to last forever.  Nothing else is secure, unchanging, liberating, power-filled and life altering. Nothing else is worth this kind of exultation.

My first duty of the day – to make myself happy in God

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My hero in the faith is George Mueller, the 19th-century British pastor who together with his wife established and ran orphanages for four to five decades.  He intentionally journaled throughout those years in order to encourage the ordinary Christian to live and work by simple but powerful faith.  He wanted the average Christian to KNOW that learning to pray in reliance on Jesus was a tool and blessing that all could learn to do, with powerful results.

One of his personal resolutions that he followed to the benefit of thousands goes like this:

“The first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day is to have my soul happy in the Lord.

Life may be falling down around us, but to be a Christian means to be the possessor of the most precious and lasting treasures imaginable.

It’s probably like this for you, but when that morning alarm breaks into my oblivion, it’s like I have forgotten all that is true and unchanging.  What hits me is the immediacy of the day’s circumstances.  And given this suffering and corrupted world, many days seem to loom difficult and heavy-laden when I get up.   If I let my feelings take their cue from those first thoughts, I will stay depressed throughout the day.  Or I will use something created to distract myself, what God calls an idol. (food, email, escape reading)

God offers an alternative if we but follow it.  Christian are called to rejoice always (1 Thess 5:16). Therefore, Mueller’s advice is not optional if we are to obey our Father in heaven.

I don’t intend to talk about how I go about making myself happy in God.  What I rather mention is why God wants his children to be happy they belong to him.  I’m learning the reason God commands me to exult in him is because joy in God is key to loving others.

Listening the other day to a sermon by John Piper I actually felt capable for the first time of LOVING OTHERS.  You remember how Jesus summed up the Law in Matthew 22:40 by saying in effect:

  • Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength
  • Love your neighbor as yourself

Because I seem to be wired more as a rational person than a loving, emotional person, I’ve struggled with what love looks like according to God.  I often feel guilty that I don’t FEEL love towards my neighbors.

But the way John Piper explained love, it sounded doable for a Christian empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Piper explained what God means by love like this: “Love is the overflow and expansion of joy in God, which gladly meets the needs of others”

Given THAT definition, making myself happy in God each morning is not only life-preserving to me, but equally necessary for those around me.  When I have re-established and reconnected with WHY I can be happy no matter how crummy the day’s circumstances may be, then I have strength and energy to move out of myself toward others.  That is the ONLY way to love others.

Have you ever had someone do something for you out of duty?  How does that feel?

It’s like when we tell a child, “Tell Sammy that you are sorry!”

and the child’s “Sorry” doesn’t satisfy at all.  It’s not from the heart.

Same with our deeds done to meet a neighbor’s needs.  If we help out of obligation, it’s not the same as initiating something out of the energy and God-given strength borne of joy in Him.

Joy in God is a pervasive and persistent theme in the Bible.  It doesn’t seem optional or healthy to neglect.

May this truth from Nehemiah 8:10b find its roots in you and me:

“Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the LORD is your strength!”

 

This baby bird got fed!

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Baby bird gets fed   Psalm 86:4    Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, do I lift up my soul.

I felt like crap Friday night.  And I woke up feeling the same.  In a complaining, whiny mood, not content.  Why?  just the same ole-same ole reason – ‘not enough Maria time’ to satisfy me. (yes, school is back in session)

When I went to bed, I wisely made the decision to forgo exercising in the morning. I reasoned that just MAYBE I needed more time with God.  If I could start my quiet time earlier, then maybe I could find refreshment for my soul before we headed out the door with our planned Saturday’s activities.

Providentially, I had noticed the above verse from Psalm 86 the previous day and written it down. God used my hand-copied Psalmist’s plea to revive me.  It occurred to me – If the writer was begging God to give him joy, then he obviously wasn’t feeling enthusiastic about anything.  Why would he ask for what he already had?

A very weak, half-hearted request formed in my mouth.  No fervor or confidence accompanied this prayer.  It wasn’t mixed with strong faith.  It was all I could do to THINK the words.  No sound waves left my lips.

Praise be to my good Father who has planted His Spirit in me! For one of the happy jobs of the Spirit of Christ is to intercede for those saints in whom He resides.

Here’s what happened:  the Lord DID gladden my heart.  Just like the baby bird in the nest who can do nothing but open his mouth (thereby blocking sight of mom and dad arriving with food), I lifted my soul to the One who could fill it.  The invisible but real supernatural and almighty Sovereign Lord of the Universe filled my emptiness:

  • Our dreaded ‘change-the-water-filter-under-the-house-all-the-while-praying-the-seal-holds‘ bi-monthly task proceeded stress-free.
  • Our hike along a section of the Appalachian Trail out of Hot Springs turned out to be delightful.  The incline worked our bodies but didn’t punish our calves or thighs.  God provided a beautiful summer day.  The vista views and the close-up trees and bushes together with the pine straw smells and QUIET, all worked together to calm and renew our souls.
  • Grilling pork chops and spotting examples of grace in a Downton Abbey episode blessed us.
  • Coffee and reading on the deck as dusk approached and the mountains darkened quieted us for the night
  • A solid 8-hour sleep brought us to a new morning, thoroughly equipped with new soul and body strength.

And this morning, during my quiet time I gave thanks to the Lord who showed me mercy yesterday when I didn’t deserve it and hesitantly asked

Matthew 12:20a – He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle.

 

 

 

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