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Seeking Transforming Joy That Transcends Circumstances

Let’s begin today with some unusual news you might have missed.

  • An Illinois man won a marathon last weekend when two Kenyan runners who had far outpaced him were diverted by a race volunteer who mistakenly led them off the course.
  • A herd of goats brought to my former neighborhood in Atlanta to eat weeds behind a Kroger store got loose and wandered the area before they were eventually caught and removed.
  • In other animal news: wild boars rummaging for trash have invaded Rome, prompting officials to allow selective hunting of boars in some parks.
  • In still more animal news: an Australian wildlife tour operator says his hand is a “bit sore” after it was bitten by a seven-foot-long crocodile.
  • Closer to home, yesterday was National Coffee Day. If you missed it, don’t fear: tomorrow is International Coffee Day and Pumpkin Spice Day.

Here’s what these stories have in common: they illustrate the transitory nature of the present. You’re winning a marathon until you’re off course; goats, wild boars, and crocodiles can disrupt your familiar surroundings and routines; annual celebrations come and then they go (which is why they are “annual”).

And yet, the present is all that is available to us. Neuroscientist Abhijit Naskar writes: “Time is basically an illusion created by the mind to aid in our sense of temporal presence in the vast ocean of space. Without the neurons to create a virtual perception of the past and the future based on all our experiences, there is no actual existence of the past and the future. All that there is, is the present.”

Singing hymns in prison at midnight

We’ve been focusing this week on ways to help people seek God who don’t believe they need to seek God: exhibit life transformation that is attractive to others, choose compassion over condemnation, and embrace excellence through dependence on God.

Today let’s add a fourth dimension: demonstrate compelling joy despite changing circumstances.

“Happiness” (first used in the 1520s to mean “good fortune”) is based on happenings. Biblical joy, by contrast, is “choosing to respond to life’s difficult situations with inner contentment and satisfaction.” This is why James can call us to “count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2).

Joy is a “fruit” of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22), the result of the Spirit’s empowering work in our lives (Ephesians 5:18). The Spirit is working to mold us into the character of Jesus (Romans 8:29), who “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2).

We were made for perpetual joy, but all this fallen world offers is occasional happiness. As a result, when we “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4), others take notice. When we sing hymns in prison at midnight, the other prisoners listen (Acts 16:25).

People whose joy marked my life

The joy of the Lord is especially compelling in an ever-more secular culture. One reason Stoicism has become so popular is that our circumstances have become so discouraging. In an era dominated by an ongoing global pandemic, frequent natural disasters, ever-widening partisan divisions, and drug and addiction epidemics, responding to our problems with fatalistic determination can be attractive.

But happiness is no match for joy.

Think about people you have encountered who demonstrated the joy of Jesus in the face of great suffering and challenges. I’m remembering a dear friend who died of breast cancer but walked in worship to the very end; a college professor and spiritual mentor whose joy in the Lord was so powerful the day before he died; an elderly father in the faith who smiled joyfully and reassuringly at me as he was wheeled into life-threatening surgery; and a former university president and dear friend whose joy while undergoing horrific chemotherapy marked me for life.

Here’s what they knew that we need to remember: the key to the joy of Jesus is experiencing Jesus. Not just a Savior who saved you from hell or the subject of Bible studies and sermons. Not just a figure of history and theology, but a real-time, present-tense person who lives in us by his Spirit and who wants us to “abide” in his presence every moment of every day (John 15:4-5).

If we embrace obstacles as opportunities to seek the peace and power of Jesus (Philippians 4:6-7), we will find his joy in the midst of suffering and pain. If we view happy circumstances as opportunities to offer gratitude to Jesus (1 Thessalonians 5:18), we will “serve the Lᴏʀᴅ with gladness” (Psalm 100:2). This is because, as David testified, “in your presence there is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11).

"The great mystery of the spiritual life"

Eternal life and the joy of the Lord are not only gifts for the future when we step from death into life. Rather, they are gifts for the present as well. Jesus famously said of himself that “whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, my emphasis). Your eternal life began the moment you made Christ your lord. As a result, you can have the joy that is part of your new life today.

Henri Nouwen noted: “Wondering how things will be for me after I die seems, for the most part, a distraction. When my clear goal is eternal life, that life must be reachable right now, where I am, because eternal life is life in and with God, and God is where I am here and now.

“The great mystery of the spiritual life—the life in God—is that we don’t have to wait for it as something that will happen later. Jesus says: ‘Dwell in me as I dwell in you.’ It is this divine in-dwelling that is eternal life. It is the active presence of God at the center of my living—the movement of God’s Spirit within us—that gives us eternal life.”

Here’s the bottom line. If we ask Jesus to manifest his joy in our lives for his glory, he will answer our prayer: “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:24). Others will see in us the joy their souls yearn to experience. Secular people will see the difference Jesus still makes in our secular culture. And they will be drawn by the Spirit to the Source of our joy. 

When last did you pray for the joy of the Lord?

Why not today?

Publication date: September 30, 2021

Photo courtesy: ©GettyImages/fizkes

For more from the Denison Forum, please visit www.denisonforum.org.

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