“I told you this so that my joy might be in you, so that your joy might be full.” — John 15:11
I love the image of a smiling Jesus. It always inspires me to wonder about the things Jesus might have smiled at. Children, certainly. I have a sense that no child in a marketplace ever escaped his smile. People in the wake of a healing, with their exclamations of wonder and thanksgiving. I bet he smiled at some of the things his disciples said, much like we smile at them today. And I’m guessing he laughed large whenever someone came to a realization of God’s truth. The day Zacchaeus got it, surely Jesus laughed for the sheer joy of the moment.
Now, compare that image with a scene I want you to paint in your mind. Imagine you’re in it. You are a citizen of a closed country. All your life, you’ve been told that the president of that country is a god, and that your country is a paradise. You’re told that a lot, maybe to help you believe it. Because you eat corn gruel. Every meal is corn gruel, and “every meal” is maybe two meals a day. Maybe. Just getting those two meals on the table (if you have a table) takes a lot of work. Your overwhelming thought all the time is food, and how to get it. You are always hungry.
And this is paradise.
You get no news from the outside and very few people from the outside know about you. This isn’t the primitive culture of a forgotten tribe in Africa. Your country has been industrialized. There are electrical wires and tall buildings in cities. But there is no electricity running through those wires. And there are no cars. No lights, no cars, no entertainment. From the sky at night, your country looks like a black hole. People who are old enough talk about the days when most homes had electricity. Lights and even radios. But those days are long gone. For the most part, the purchase of a car is against the law.
Except for a few jobs in mills, there is nothing else to do but farm poor soil or scrounge for food. And this is paradise.
You’d leave, except that leaving is also against the law, and punishable by death. And besides, as far as you know, this is as good as it gets. Sure, life is hard and no one talks badly about the president (your god) or the country without being punished for it. But other countries are hopeless. They don’t have your god, and the people are evil and they live far worse than you do. At least, that’s what you’ve been told.
You have heard of people who left. They snuck out. But for the most part, that has never been a thought to cross your mind. For the most part. You wouldn’t dare tell anyone, not even your mother (because spies are everywhere), but sometimes you wonder if this really is paradise. Sometimes you wonder if the president really is a god. After all, there have been famines in your land and you’re not sure there are famines in paradise.
So yes, you’ve wondered about things. And yes, you’ve wondered about leaving. And the more you wonder about leaving, the less sure you become of staying. You decide to learn more, and you discover that there is a way out. With enough money, you can sneak out of paradise. So late one night, you pay a border guard and cross a river, and on the other side, you find people who do something you have almost never seen. They smile. They are happy to see you, and they have set up a place just for people like you. They give you clothes (when is the last time you got a new set of clothes?), and food that is not corn gruel. It is simple but good. They have a place for you to sleep and the next day, when you’re thinking you’ll go out and find some more food, they bring another meal to you. And then another meal. And then another. Maybe for the first time in your life, you feel like a human. For the first time in your life, you’re beginning to feel like…not an animal or a puppet.
The people who run these shelters for people like you are something. They believe in freedom, and in taking care of people. And they believe in a god, too…who they call Jesus. They tell you all about him. It turns out he is not the god of one country, they say, but the God of the whole world. Even of the people who live in your country, even though they don’t know about him. They tell you about this God and his love and that he wants to set everyone free. Even people who live in prisons. There is a freedom, they say, that happens inside when you believe in this God. And this freedom creates the love these people show, and the joy and the peace.
In your own country people steal from each other. And lying is not unusual, but who can really blame them? That’s how it is when folks are just trying to survive. But these people who follow Jesus talk a lot about truth and about giving up their own rights for the sake of this truth. That’s a really different thought for you. You know what it means to have no rights or privileges. You’ve lived a lifetime like that. But to give up your rights freely for the sake of something bigger than yourself or your survival? That’s a radical thought.
They tell you that this is what it means to follow their God. This Jesus. While it doesn’t make sense, the more you look at these people, the more you want it. They laugh. They hold their heads high (in your country, people who follow a foreign god are often forced to hold their heads down). They serve, and it’s a blessing. You’re learning to smile.
And then, you get caught. You are taken back across the river to your old country where they toss you into a filthy, crowded prison and a return to daily starvation. You are interrogated regularly (with force) for the purpose of getting you to renounce all you’ve been taught. But here in the midst of this suffering, you discover perhaps the most amazing thing of all: what they taught you across the border is even more true here than it was there. In this prison, you discover that this God of theirs doesn’t have borders. He really is God in any country. You know this to be true, because when you think about him while you’re sitting in this prison, you feel hope. You feel loved. You feel options.
This prison isn’t your truth; he is. This certainly isn’t joy, but he is. This isn’t freedom, but he is. Sitting in that prison, you discover what those people who took care of you possess. You discover a hunger for others to know this Jesus. Why should anyone be denied the right to his hope, this freedom that comes not from crossing borders, but from knowing the truth.
The story you’ve just imagined is being lived out right now, every day, among people living in North Korea. North Korea has the largest population in the world of what are called political prisoners, which is a broad category encompassing any offense against the state, including disrespect of the president. Citizens are imprisoned in their own country by a system ruled by a man who lives under the delusion that he is a god. They say North Koreans don’t smile much.
The story you’ve just imagined is also being lived out spiritually in many places, among people oppressed by a system of beliefs based on tyranny, force and legalism. Paul, who wrote most of the New Testament, lived most of his life under such a system. In fact, the very literal story we’ve just imagined could well have been his spiritual story. The Bible tells a story of a people who lost their connection with God. They were like a country that used to have electricity running through its wires. The Law that was supposed to build their character, teach them holiness and define boundaries in their relationship with God, became nothing more than one more oppression in an oppressive society. Rather than a goal of being perfect in love, they’d become sticklers for perfection. And any misstep was cause for punishment. That pursuit made them angry and bitter people. They were starving, spiritually. Imprisoned by a system of obedience that stole their smiles. Paul was raised in that culture.
Live like that long enough and either your heart grows hard or you start longing for life beyond the borders. Paul didn’t exactly long for that life, but when he encountered it on a road between cities he found it irresistible. Jesus himself walked Paul across the border into freedom, where Paul discovered those things — like love, joy and peace — that make life worth living. When they came for him and threw him into prison, it only intensified his passion for truth.
Paul’s letter to the Philippian church is written four years into his imprisonment in a dank, dark first-century jail. He would surely have gone without meals there, but it only made him hungry for souls. He may well have been chained to a prison guard, but it only made him obsessed with spiritual freedom. Not just for himself but for everyone. In a circumstance seemingly without hope, Paul writes an ode to joy. In each chapter, Paul explains his source of joy.
Chapter 1: My mood is rooted in something bigger than myself.
“Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance. It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” – Philippians 1:15-21
By the time Paul writes this letter, he has been in prison for at least four years, yet the overwhelming emotion in his communication with the church in Philippi is joy. He rejoices in Christ, rejoices in a community that has supported him, rejoices in the good news. His response defines the nature of spiritual joy:
• Joy is a spiritually generated response to God’s goodness.
• Joy is a deep down assurance that the quality of life is not rooted in feelings or circumstances, but in the love, cover and hope of a good and faithful God.
• Joy is a natural fruit of the Spirit-filled life.
Paul proves by his own testimony that the quality of life is not rooted in circumstances but in the care and cover of our Heavenly Father.
Chapter 2: My relationships are centered in partnership, not competition.
“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” – Philippians 2:1-4.
Christians have overused the word fellowship (and have massacred it grammatically by trying to turn it into a verb!), but it is a rich word for us. It means “mutual support” or “living in unity.” Given those definitions, fellowship describes the spirit of the relationship between Paul and the Philippians. This is what held them together across the miles. The Philippians look to Paul for spiritual leadership and Paul finds delight in their faithfulness. His mood doesn’t depend on their acting or thinking the “right” way, but he can still delight in their faithfulness.
Chapter 3: My journey is focused on progress, not perfection.
“Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is not troublesome to me, and for you it is a safeguard. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.” – Philippians 3:1, 12-16.
Paul says, “forgetting what lies behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” As those pressing on toward the goal of holiness, we require the child within to step back so the adult can lead, because we understand that maturity is a source of joy.
Chapter 4: I practice joy by pursuing intimacy with God.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:4-7
Intimacy is hard! It requires vulnerability, and vulnerability means letting my guard down and being fully present. That is hard work. More and more, I’m convinced that discipline and the pursuit of the Holy Spirit are keys. The disciplines of prayer, personal devotion, and searching the Word for my own life are remarkably important. Pursuing the Holy Spirit and seeking his gifts and presence in my life, I discover closeness to the Father that bears the fruit of devotion.
Paul’s journey from the country of legalism into freedom in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit bore the fruit of the Spirit — love when before he’d only known hatred, joy in place of duty, peace in place of striving, patience in place of anger, kindness in place of “breathing threats and murder” (Acts 9:1), goodness in place of spiritual pride, faithfulness in place of self-righteousness, gentleness in place of legalism and self-control in place of self-imprisonment. He teaches us that there is another country where we, too, can be free, and where we, too, can find joy.
Will you pray?
Lord, I want to live in that world where my relationship with you is defined by love, joy and peace in any circumstance. I want to give more of myself to you so I can discover more of your heart. I want freedom. I want to be filled with the Holy Spirit, like electricity running through a wire. I want to know you intimately, and I ask now that you help me let go of pride so I can confess any sins that stand between me and a growing relationship with you. I want to be able to say with David, “In Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever” (Psalm 16:11). Speak to these deep longings, Father, and hear my prayer, in Jesus’ name. Amen.