Selfish Joy?

“What gives you the most joy? I think some of us feel guilty even saying those words out loud. As if perhaps it’s a selfish thing to think, ‘what gives me joy?’ As if perhaps joy is acceptable for rare moments on the weekends or glimpses of sunsets on vacation, but has no real purpose in the real world.” (Acuff, Start, 108)

It wasn’t always this way. God exists as three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit, called the Godhead. Within the Godhead, they existed in perfect community, love, and joy! Joy is at the very heart of God, Himself. It was an out flowing of community, love, and joy from the Trinity that man was created. Joy is central to God’s purpose for mankind, just as it was central to his creation. So why then is Acuff spot-on in his analysis of human joy? Why does joy scare us? shame us? guilt us?

Our culture twists and distorts so many things. Intimacy trafficked for sex. Influence exchanged for celebrity. Compassion confused as pity.  Joy is often misappropriated in this culture as happiness.  Sadly, most, if given the option, would choose happiness over joy.  It was never meant to be this way. In Genesis 1-2, God created this world that was good. When humanity was added in and stirred well it was very good. God created man in His image for paradise and partnership, to rule and reign, to serve and multiply. When the sin of Genesis 3 happens (which Paul reminds us that we had a share in) everything about the Genesis 2 world was turned upside down. Since joy was central to God’s plan for humanity, everything that about it became tainted as well.

You have heard the lies as I have: “God only uses miserable, suffering people for great things!”; “Desiring joy is selfish”; “Happiness is easier to find”; “Joy is something you don’t deserve”. These are the lies that come from our sin nature…the nature we weren’t created to have. I believe Acuff is correct because we buy into the lies the world tries to sell us. I believe he is right because we often forget our true identity. We were created in the image of a joyful God, whose plan for us was joy.

Joy is something that must be manufactured, practiced, learned. But we cannot do these things if we are convinced that we are undeserving of it, shamed for desiring it, or guilted because we have it. Forget the lies, the shame, and the embarrassment that the world tries to sell you, and be the joyful creation you were always meant to be!

Joy redux

I went to bed last night unhappy with my last effort explaining joy.  I racked my brain for the last 24 hours trying to figure out why joy so often escapes my life and is seldom at the forefront of my thoughts and attitude.  Where as happiness is fleeting, joy is a constant.  Joy refuses to be dictated by circumstances.  Where does that consistency come from?  Something is unmovable only when it is attached to something else that is unmovable.  Tie a horse to a trailer or a fence and an hour later there they remain.  If you tie them to something that is unanchored, then you’re chasing your pony down the highway.  Paul’s joy was tied directly to the Father.  God, who is unchanging (James 1.17), whose mood is constant, whose nature remains the same, is the unmovable anchor that Paul’s joy and the joy of the Macedonian Church is attached too.

Joy can only be constant when the source and anchor is constant.  When we attempt to find joy in money, security, relationships, etc. we ultimately get let down by these things.  Only when our joy is tethered to that which is unmoved, can we be filled with joy that transcends circumstances.  So what needs to change for me, is my trust in the unchanging nature and character of God, the Father, and his activity in my life.  Only then will joy become central to my life.

That Three Letter Word

Joy is a three-letter word. Around mid-July, on ranches, farms, and arenas, 4 letter words are far more common. Rarely has that three-letter word come to mind in haylofts, stacking alfalfa bales when the mercury in the thermometer is boiling. Or when your good heading horse decides one day that the roping box is the last place it wants to be. When your dog pretends to go deaf in the middle of chores or when the lead cow doubles back just as she enters the gate taking the herd with her. It doesn’t come up when the baler, which you affectionately refer to as “el diablo”, is broke down yet again or the trailer blows another tire. For certain, that three-letter word wasn’t found on my lips today as barbed wire was taking off strips of my flesh and then a chunk of my tire. It wasn’t found this weekend as my cell phone went missing due to my own stupidity and my i watched a box of fencing staples glisten in the sun as my dog knocked them off the bed of my truck.   These were minor things compared to other joy stealers.  When the diagnosis of cancer comes, or the layoff that was rumored becomes a reality; when the stack of bills keeps getting higher or your kid hits the rebellious phase; when loneliness takes over and despair becomes entrenched.  These things make joy nearly impossible.

All too often we confuse joy and happiness. Happiness is the good feeling you get because things are happening right because of circumstances where as joy is the good feeling you get despite of the circumstances. Happiness comes and goes, but joy is constant. I am ashamed to say that joy is not something that I exude a lot of, nor is it something that I see a lot of in Churches. Apparently, there are a lot of people like me who fill the pews every Sunday with their hearts devoid of joy. This was not the case with the Macedonian churches.

Paul brags about the churches of Macedonia in the middle of his 2nd letter to the Corinthians. Paul, in trying to pick out what makes the Macedonian Church so special, highlights among other things, their “overflowing joy.” Where does contagious joy come from? How does joy become someone else’s bragging point? It goes hand in hand with another one of Paul’s points in 2 Corinthians. Not only were the churches praised for their joy and their generosity, but the severe trial they were under. Paul is seeing firsthand the severe persecution in Macedonia because he is writing 2 Corinthians from there (Acts 20.2; 2 Cor. 1.16, 23). He sees the trials and the persecutions, the threats from outside the church and the fear from within (2 Cor. 7.5). He brags about their perseverance under these trials at other times. (2 Thes. 1.4) Their joy was being tested everyday.

Just imagine the situation: rumors running around Philippi and Thessalonica about who the authorities were questioning now; wondering whether someone was just late for worship or whether they found themselves in chains; a simple knock at the door during prayer or dinner sending chills throughout the room. It was real life in Macedonia. People were imprisoned, beaten, or even dying, in Macedonia. Paul was well acquainted with their suffering even to the point of sharing in it (Phil 1.29-30). Yet their joy despite the circumstances would forever make its impact on Paul and find its place in scripture.

How did they do it? In spite of the every watching eye of the Roman authorities, the suffering at the hands of those opposed, the suffering in poverty, the fear, and the trials, how did they maintain their joy? I believe it has to do with the word joy. In the original greek, the word for joy is chara. This word is a cognate of the word charis, meaning grace. The Macedonian church understood joy because they understood what grace was. They knew that death was the punishment for sin, yet they were still alive…that is grace. When there is starvation and death surrounding them, yet the are still being provided for by God…that is grace. What is the only appropriate response to life where there should be death…joy. That is what the church at Macedonia understood and what I fail to understand often.

I am joy impaired. I struggle to put off a joyful vibe. When its too hot, too cold, too windy, too rainy, too expensive, too lengthy, too poorly constructed, or too difficult, my mood suffers. When I am hungry, thirsty, tired, exhausted, stressed, over-committed, underfunded, weak, or just apathetic, my mood suffers. My attitude is a slave to my circumstances, the exact opposite of joy. Joy is free, unbound, and liberated from the confines of circumstances. Joy transcends situation and condition.   Joy sets the temperature in the room, it dictates the feel and refuses to acclimate itself to its environment. Joy is a direct reflection of my proximity to the Holy Spirit (1 Thes. 1.6) and a response to the grace given to me by God through Christ. John Ortberg, in his book The Life You’ve Always Wanted, says: “Joy is at the center of God’s plan for humanity and the center of who He is as a community!” (61) I need to have more joy!

Joy is cultivated by reacquainting ourselves with the grace that God has given us; reconnecting with the Holy Spirit that animates us; and by learning to embrace and utilize the gifts that God has blessed us with. The life we have in Christ, the breath in our lungs, the community we share, and our relationship with Him are all things that give root to our joy. Eternal perspective is what kept the church at Thessalonica and Philippi joyful, make it a point today to embrace the view from a heavenly perspective and watch your joy increase. As for me, I have a lot of work to do that involves me using a lot more three letter words.