Thursday, May 26, 2016

a simple path to joy (part 3): faith for the bend in the road

In the first two posts of this series, I've suggested that true joy comes when we face life honestly and cultivate gratitude for what we have and where we are. These choices get us through the gate and onto joy's path, and they help us navigate each intersection.

The third choice on the pathway to joy comes when we reach a bend in the road. It's a fact of life that we can't see what's ahead. But joy does not depend on knowing what comes next or being able to control it.  True joy cannot be seized or managed.  We don't get there by straining harder, but rather by releasing our hold on what we cannot control anyway. Christian joy comes when we recognize our own helplessness. That is, it comes through faith -- faith rooted in the reality of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, and in what he promises to do for all creation. We await the renewal of all things. We believe it is coming. Trouble may lurk around the next bend, but the pain, sorrow, and madness of this world is not final. It is merely a symptom of our world's brokenness and need for restoration. That restoration has been promised by the God who created all things. We can count on it. And it has already begun to take effect with the resurrection of Jesus. 

The story of Jesus is powerful precisely because when he became human he entered fully into the mess and the brokenness of this world. But his life was fully surrendered to God the Father and therefore fully energized by the Holy Spirit. His mastery of being human, his perfection, is more than just a model for us to follow (though it is that). It's what qualified him to break the power of sin and death by offering himself in our place. He took the punishment we deserved. He died our death, so that we could truly live.

The New Testament calls joy a fruit — one of the character qualities that naturally arises from a life energized by the Holy Spirit. This, too, suggests that joy comes not by straining, but by surrender, not by trying, but by trust in the transforming power of God. That power is made available to us in Jesus Christ. A gift to each of us who surrenders. We can walk in this joyful reality by facing our brokenness with honesty, embracing our present with gratitude, and responding in faith to life's uncertainties. We may not know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future. And that makes all the difference.

Now for a word of warning. The pathway to joy is not a path we walk only once. Honesty, gratitude, and faith are not quick fixes for joy. They must become habits. We must continue to face life with honesty, to receive our circumstances with gratitude, and to embrace the future with faith. As one Bible scholar puts it, "Like muscles, the capacity for joy atrophies if we do not use it regularly. Those who wait for some great occasion for joy and gratitude to God are not likely to recognize it when it happens." (Ellen Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs, 221; quoted in James Limburg, Encountering Ecclesiastes: A Book for our Time, 114). We begin practicing honesty, gratitude and faith right here, with whatever we're facing.

Paul was among the early Christians who traveled around the Roman world to spread the news about Jesus' resurrection from the dead. He had some utterly strange things to say about joy:

In his letter to the church in Corinth he said, "In all our troubles my joy knows no bounds." (2 Corinthians 7:4) He spoke of others who had "overflowing joy" "in the midst of a very severe trial (2 Corinthians 8:2). And Paul was not alone in noticing that joy and trials often went hand-in-hand. James, the brother of Jesus, wrote "Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds." (James 1:2) Pure joy? When facing trials? Why? He goes on to say, "because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." (James 1:4) James is saying we ought to be grateful for the effects of those trials on our character. Through the eyes of faith, we know that hard times help us to grow in important ways -- provided we respond with open hands and open hearts. That brings pure joy.

We no longer need to worry about what's ahead. If something good happens, we can celebrate. If we face difficult times, we can be glad for what those experiences will do in us so that we can become who we were meant to be. We win either way! That frees us to face our present situation honestly and receive it with gratitude.

Paul discovered this. He wrote, "I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength." (Philippians 4:11–13)

And so can you!

Monday, May 23, 2016

a simple path to joy (part 2): the intersection of gratitude

In my first post in this series, I claimed that true joy is impossible to find when we are living in denial. We begin our journey to joy by facing life's messes head on and choosing to be honest. That's how we enter the gateway on the path to joy.

Next we come to an intersection, and we have to make our second choice: gratitude. We cannot be everything we might have been, have everything that can be had, go everywhere there is to go. We can only be and do and have this. Once we have faced our disappointments with brutal honesty, we are free to move on with gratitude for what our life actually holds.

Our world is full of constant reminders of what we don't have. Ads surround us incessantly, telling us all day long about the products and services that will make life easier, or sweeter, or more successful. But joy depends not on what we have but on our disposition towards what we have. The Greek philosopher Epicurus warned, "Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not." Put another way, "Happy is the woman who wants what she has." In fact, sometimes we uncover joy by having less, by simplifying our lives -- clearing out our closets and giving things away. Every item we own gets a piece of our care and attention until we have no energy left to care for the things that really matter. It is freeing to declutter, to downsize, to keep only what we actively use.

But this intersection on the pathway to joy isn't only about what we have. It's also about where we are and who we've become. There are more possibilities in life than we have time to try, more opportunities than we can pursue. When we cultivate the habit of thankfulness, our hearts are positioned for joy. We cannot take every path, but we did take this one. To spend our time wondering about all the other paths we could have taken robs us of joy. I am not an astronaut. I am not a midwife. I am not a famous singer. I am not a jungle missionary. I am not even one of those amazing stay-at-home moms who actively volunteers at the elementary school and whose kids have really creative birthday parties every year. Saying 'yes' to one path has meant saying 'no' to others.

About a year ago we realized that I would probably never finish my doctoral degree unless I started to say 'no' to good opportunities. I resolved not to say 'yes' to anything but family until I was finished. At first it was painfully difficult. The things I was asked to do were right up my alley. They were things that would energize me. Ways to plug into my church and my community for which I was uniquely suited -- lead a small group, speak in chapel, teach a college class. But after half a dozen difficult 'no's' my schedule was completely open for the task I dreaded -- revising my dissertation. And I discovered that when I had complete focus, I did much better work and enjoyed it far more than before! I relished the gift of concentration. We shoot ourselves in the foot when we try to do it all or have it all, or spend our energy wondering what would have happened or what could have been. Those things are not. This is what is. Here is where we are. So let's embrace it and move forward with gratitude. 

This is a sure way to begin to find joy. But what about the uncertainties ahead? In my next post, I'll talk about what to do when we can't see around the bend in the road.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

a simple path to joy (part 1): the gateway to honesty

Last week I had the opportunity to speak at the May Festival at Evangelical Bible Church in Dallas, Oregon. My assigned topic was "Joy in Simplicity." Here's a glimpse of what I shared:


How do we find joy? Joy is not automatic. A life free from trouble is no guarantee of joy, and a difficult life does not prevent it.

From 2002 to 2005 we lived in the Philippines. In spite of widespread government corruption, crippling poverty, oppressive heat, and high unemployment, we found Filipinos to be some of the happiest people we've ever met. They can fall asleep anywhere, turn a 1-year-old's birthday into a wedding-sized celebration, and laugh in the face of trouble. They are among the poorest in Asia, but arguably the happiest. Clearly, joy does not depend on circumstances. So how do we get there?

If we imagine a pathway to joy, forward movement depends on three deliberate choices. (There may be others; I'm addressing three here.) The first comes at a gateway, the second at an intersection, and the third at a bend in the road. To enter the gateway we need to choose honesty. To navigate the intersection we must choose gratitude. And to lend perspective for the bends in the path, we need faith.

We make the first deliberate choice at the gateway of honesty. We will never arrive at true joy by pretending to be happy. Denial is the enemy of joy —a closed door to joy's garden path. We cannot bypass grief and pain, guilt or unforgiveness and expect to find joy. That thing that robs us of joy must be faced head on. We must look it in the eye and name it.

In fact, psychologists tell us that when we avoid honesty, we invite poor health, both emotionally and physically. In the words of one scholar who has studied this phenomenon (Brent Strawn, on James Pennebaker's study, in Brueggemann, From Whom No Secrets Are Hid, xix), "Inhibition is hard work, and that work eventually takes its toll on the body's defenses." So you want real joy? Step one is to grieve your losses. Admit your fault. Express your anger. Own your failures. Voice your disappointment. Forgive those who have let you down.

This is a bit awkward to say in church. Most churches have lost the art of making space for this kind of honesty. We give the distinct impression that "putting on your Sunday best" always includes a bright smile. We rarely confess our sins, name our failures, face our fears, and grieve our losses in community. And so our unexpressed emotions become roadblocks to joy. One way to recover these practices is to pray the Psalms together. The Psalms let it all hang out. Every ugly emotion you can imagine.  It's like reality TV, minus the TV.

God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer! By night, but I find no rest! (22:2)
Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help! (22:11)
Break the arm of the wicked man; call the evildoer to account for his wickedness (10:15)
All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears (6:6)
Heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long? (6:2-3)
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight. (51:4)
Troubles without number surround me; my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see (40:12)
Let evil recoil on those who slander me; in your faithfulness destroy them (54:5)

Through prayer, all these raw and gritty realities are brought into the presence of God and given over for Him to handle. The Psalms are proof that God invites us to come as we are. To say it like it is. And by doing so, to find a new way forward. There's no way around it.

So we begin our journey to joy by choosing to be honest.

Then we come to an intersection, and we have to make our second choice: gratitude. I'll talk about that intersection in my next post on joy.