How do we experience joy in the midst of struggle and suffering? Jesus and the early church provide a model for such joy, a kind of joy that does not ignore the reality of the difficulties that we face, but that gives us the ability to see beyond those circumstances to embrace the promise that God is making all things right.
If ever there is a time when we need to find a sense of joy it is the Christmas season of 2020. How does one actually find joy during this time, without ignoring the reality in which we live?
Jesus was born in a time when the people of Israel were experiencing oppression under the rule of Rome. It was not a time of celebration, but one of great difficulty. In fact, the early Christians had to embrace joy intentionally in the midst of incredible suffering, as illustrated in Acts 5:40-42 and Acts 13. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” (Phil 4:14) while sitting in prison.
Whether experiencing good times or bad, what kind of good news can cause people to respond with joy?
Jesus Himself experienced this kind of joy, as explained in Hebrews 12:1-3, which reads, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
The joy set before him was not the cross. It was what he saw by faith on the other side of the cross. He saw what his sacrifice on Calvary would accomplish. He experienced the joy of seeing us and all creation fully reconciled to God, each person and each thing reflecting the radiant multifaceted love of God. We are to look to him as ”the pioneer and perfect of our faith,” the example we’re to follow. We are to be willing to sacrifice and endure great suffering (if necessary) for the Gospel, and we are to do it for the joy that is set before us.
It’s important to notice the difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is based on circumstances. Happiness is antithetical to sorrow. However, Kingdom joy is not based on circumstances. Kingdom joy is premised on faith in the good news that God is going to wrap things up. Paul wrote about this in 2 Cor 6:4,10 and Romans 8:18. In the words of Saint Teresa of Avila, “In light of heaven, the worst suffering on earth will be seen to be no more serious than one night in an inconvenient hotel.”
Acts of generosity, the sacrificing of time, the sharing of the Gospel, willingness to suffer for the sake of the Gospel and the welfare of others, all of which will cause some form of suffering, are an investment in our future treasure. Every Kingdom act reverberates throughout eternity and the joy of knowing this reality is part of what motivates us to do it. We sacrifice in the present for the joy set before us. We sacrifice in the present to see people ministered to, homeless given housing, friendless given community, hungry fed, marriages healed, at-risk youth cared for, unbelievers brought to faith, and outsiders made insiders. This not only gives us joy knowing we’re making a difference in the present, but it gives us joy knowing that this act will become part of our eternal joy.
This closing prayer offers a way to move deeper into the experience of God’s joy:
O Lord, you are truly the Star that rises out of Jacob,
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and the scepter that rises out of Israel.
In a new star you showed yourself as God,
and lying in the manger you showed yourself as God and Man,
so we confess you to be the one Christ.
In your great mercy grant us the grace of seeing you,
and show us the brightness of your light,
that all the darkness of our sins may be driven away.
Even as we long to see you,
refresh us with the joy of seeing you in your holy Word. Amen.