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!

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