–April of 2007
Surprised By Joy Again
For over thirty years, I have been on the most wonderful journey with Jesus that any Christian could desire. Yet for most of that time I have been somewhat perplexed by joy. Joy is a recurring theme in the New Testament and is listed as one of the fruits of the Spirit. It is clearly one of the graces of the Christian life. The Apostle Peter refers to knowing Christ as “joy unspeakable and full of glory.” The apostle’s statement sounds to me like an “ecstasy of overflowing happiness.” Yet, in all honesty, I have had only brief encounters with anything that would fit this description. Furthermore, though I have met many pleasant and happy Christians, I have not met very many who seemed to possess such a state of life. My muddled mind kept posing two questions: “Is there something deficient in me?” or “Is there a problem with my definition of joy?”
A window of insight opened for me while probing around in John 13-17. These five chapters record one evening in the life of Jesus and His disciples — not just any evening, but the last one they spent together before His death on the cross. He has so many things to tell them that they haven’t yet understood. In solemn tones He shares with them what is soon to happen. He tells of Judas’s betrayal and Peter’s denial and speaks plainly of His departure back to the Father. He warns of tribulations, hatred by the world, and times of sorrow so extreme that He compares it to the labor pains of birthing. The disciples reel emotionally as they try to comprehend such news. Yet running through this dialogue of despair is the recurring theme of joy!
As I dug around in these verses and their context I discovered two very important insights. The first is that joy is both a feeling and a condition. As a condition, joy is the assurance of faith that we are acceptable to God and the knowledge that God’s good providences are working on our behalf. This joy is an inner comfort and confidence in God. It is untouched by outward circumstances and is not diminished by pain and sorrow.
As a feeling, joy is a kind of ecstasy or overflowing happiness. C.S. Lewis said that “peace was joy at rest and joy was peace dancing.” The feeling of joy is simply a graced moment whose duration may be brief or remain for an indeterminate amount of time.
The second insight I found was that Jesus gave His disciples a basis for their joy. Actually, He anchored their joy to three things, three things that provide everything that both they and we need in order to have joy under any circumstances. 1. Love and acceptance. In John 15 Jesus assured them of their connectedness to Him, of His unconditional love for them, and of His constant presence with them through the Holy Spirit. 2. Purpose and hope. John 14-17 unveils His unfolding purpose for these and all future disciples. It is a mission that includes trials and rejection, but more importantly divine enablement and inevitable victory. 3. Security. John 17 allows us to listen to Jesus praying that we may be “kept from the evil one” and “may be with Me where I am.” With these truths for an anchor no wonder Jesus proclaimed that their – and our – joy could be full!
The insight gained here in John helped me understand James’s statement, “Count it all joy when you fall into divers temptations.” It also gave new meaning to Hebrews 12:2, “…who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross….” C.S. Lewis wrote in another context of being “surprised by joy.” Well, another seeker on the journey for truth has once again been surprised by joy!