As Christmas makes its final approach on the runway of our calendars, it may be that we are dangerously close to being swallowed up by the angst and stress of trying to coordinate holiday traditions or by the crushing pressure of trying to appease the tyranny of Christmas lists of our children or other family members. If you find yourself being hurried and harried by trying to make sure that it is “the best Christmas ever”, don’t allow the bullying of unrealistic expectations be a thief that steals from you the opportunity to draw from heaven the joy of God.
There is a danger, even in the church, for us to not understand joy and to not know how to experience it. What we too often settle for is a kind of contentment that is founded upon circumstances in our world which, at best, is fragile and subject to an instant’s nullification at any moment if and when trouble comes or tragedy strikes. A pseudo-joy such as this is dangerous because it anesthetizes us against the hunger for God which moves us to receive His grace and be transformed by His Spirit.
But joy – true joy – is of God and He delights in our experiencing it and cherishes its aim which is for us to know Him and know His eternal love for us. And there are a number of “mechanisms” in which our appetite for it can be taught to recognize it and, ultimately, to savor it. One of these mechanisms is the relief that comes from the healing of persistent pain (physically or emotionally) which invariably results in joy. For example, a person afflicted by physical pain for any length of time can become consumed with the need for relief. Hence, one’s propensity to turn to things that mask pain or distract one from it. It is easy to see how despair from not receiving healing can be allowed to trigger a person’s settling for counterfeit experiences, learning only too late that such alternatives only breed new hurts and sorrows. But when that person experiences for the first time that the weight of pain has been lifted – and lifted for good – he or she experiences a surge of joy.
Another way in which we become acquainted with joy is through the reversal of misfortune or failure. There are perhaps a few exceptions to this, but generally we are all somehow and at sometime touched by failure. Failing to achieve a sought after goal, whatever that goal might be, depending on how we have labored and sacrificed for it, can be so disheartening that some people do not recover from the experience. After dreaming with all one’s heart, striving with all one’s strength, and sacrificing all one has, the dark night of soul that comes from failing to win what seems utterly important and even necessary can turn into glorious day when such failure flip-flops unexpectedly into success, especially a success that surpasses what he or she had hoped for.
Yet another is the return or finding of something that seemed hopelessly lost. Jesus illustrated this kind of joy in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 15, in the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost (Prodigal) Son. In each instance, the restoration of what had been lost resulted in a joy that bubbled over into celebration!
One that is hard to explain, yet is extremely profound for the one it blesses, is the recognition of the sublime which is why art and music can be so powerful in affecting our emotions. This is the kind of joy that I believe C.S. Lewis refers to in his auto-biography, Surprised by Joy, which describes his journey from atheistic skepticism to his eventual experience of faith in Jesus Christ. In it, he relates how such rare yet vital emergences of joy ultimately helped him to recognize the authenticity of Jesus as true Lord and Savior.
Finally, receiving what the heart desires most is cause and catalyst for experiencing joy. There is innately programmed into each of us a hunger for more than anything that this world can supply. We are so confounded by it, yet so ignorant of what it is we truly crave (namely, authentic relationship with God through Jesus Christ), that we try to plug the hole in our souls with all sorts of things that promise fulfillment, yet cannot deliver the goods.
Indeed, happiness in the wrong things can be spiritually lethal and seal our eternal destruction because it lulls us to complacency in regard to our spiritual need for Christ and His atonement for us. This kind of “joy” is not the joy that God has in mind for you. When Jesus spoke with His disciples in the Gospel of John, the occasion being the eve of His crucifixion, He promised them, that after a season of grief, their sorrow would turn to joy (John 16:20). The joy He promised them was otherworldly and supernatural for it in no way finds either its source or its end in this temporal life, but flows from His eternal Being. This joy has enormous power to make a difference to you and me in this life and serves us like an anchor when we face trouble, sorrow, or pain in the here and now.
And here is the point: Jesus satisfies perfectly every condition for happiness that you and I have. He brings us relief of the pain we feel in our souls by accepting and comforting us with His precious presence; His grace serves as a balm for every hurt of our hearts. He achieves for us the reversal of our failure by succeeding in our stead both as a sinless man and perfect sacrifice for us on the cross; through faith in Him, we have victory. Because He came and died for us on the cross, we, the lost sheep, coins and sons, are reunited with our heavenly Father, Who does not turn us away as we deserve; He takes us out of our lost condition and places us where we belong as children of God. In Jesus, we see that which is truly sublime, perfect and pure in every way; “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15 ESV). And when we receive Christ truly as both Savior and Lord, we finally receive what our hearts have truly desired; we obtain that which we have hungered and thirsted even when we did not know what it was we needed.
This Christmas, open your heart to God and receive Him as Lord and Savior. In doing so, you’ve opened the door to true joy, “… and no one will take your joy from you” (from John 16:22b ESV).
(Thom Mollohan and his family have ministered in southern Ohio the past 23 years, is the author of The Fairy Tale Parables, Crimson Harvest, and A Heart at Home with God. He blogs at “unfurledsails.wordpress.com.” Pastor Thom leads Pathway Community Church and may be reached for comments or questions by email at firstname.lastname@example.org).