I’m not going to lie – finding joy during 2020 was difficult for me. I suspect many of you may have found that challenging as well. For me, it was difficult when the traveling ministry that brings me so much fulfillment was put on hold. I faced new challenges in family relationships and finances, and an unexpected medical challenge brought me to my knees (literally).
As much as I’ve preached and written about joy in the past, last year I was not feeling it. It’s humbling to admit that I just felt sad. I found that almost embarrassing; sometimes leaders struggle to say it without feeling ashamed or guilty. In the middle of challenges and grief, though, I knew that joy was still possible. After all, the Gospels show Jesus as a man who felt sorrow deeply. He wept. He was tempted. He knew hunger, thirst, rejection, and loneliness – and yet he gladly made water into wine to keep a party going! Jesus knew the range of what it means to be human.
Forget the somber, anemic portraits of Christ you’ve seen on funeral home walls. Jesus was a joyful person. We know this because in his final moments with the disciples, the Lord said his greatest desire for them was not that they have strength, salvation, or peace, but that they would share his joy.
In John 15:11, he said to his disciples, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”
In John 16:24, he instructed them, saying, “Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.”
Then he prayed for them, “I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them.” (John 17:13)
Soon to be beaten and pierced with nails for a crime he didn’t commit, Jesus prayed that his friends would be as joyful as he was. The Lord showed us by example that joy isn’t the result of an easy life. He had joy even in the midst of pain, because he wasn’t swayed by what was happening to him. Jesus’ heart was only moved by the heart of his Father.
Joy is the atmosphere of heaven and the very fabric of who God is. In Psalm 16:11, we read, “In your presence is fullness of joy.” Yes, Jesus felt pain in his body and soul, but his spirit was always resting in his Father’s love. Joy was the overflow of the constant presence of God within him. In the same way, it is possible to find joy in any time and in all circumstances when our hearts stay focused on the Lord. Our faith makes room for his joy when we are willing to trust God’s purposes even when we don’t understand.
I love how the prophet Habakkuk rejoiced despite the fact that everything in his life seemed to be going wrong.
Though the fig tree may not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines;
Though the labor of the olive may fail,
and the fields yield no food;
Though the flock may be cut off from the fold,
and there be no herd in the stalls—
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will joy in the God of my salvation. (Habakkuk 3:17-18)
The word “joy” in that last verse is not a noun – it’s a verb! Though his circumstances were desperate, Habakkuk chose to rejoice in the God of his salvation. He took joy in who God was even in the middle of catastrophe, rather than allowing his response to be determined by the disaster. When we begin to praise and thank God regardless of what we feel like doing, the Holy Spirit is eager to fill us with the joy of his presence and even change the atmosphere around us.
One of my favorite examples of joy in action is found in the book of Acts. Paul and Silas were arrested in the city of Philippi simply for preaching the gospel. Having been falsely accused, they were whipped and then locked in the inner prison. Though their backs were bleeding and their feet were chained, Paul and Silas chose to worship their God!
“But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were loosed.” (Acts 16:25-26)
I weep as I read these words yet again. Paul and Silas were so full in the presence of the Holy Spirit that injustice and injury did not dampen the joy of the Holy Spirit’s presence within them. In fact, the power of God was released through Paul and Silas’ praise; it was so great it caused seismic activity in the earth. The prison gates were jarred open and their chains came loose – not only their chains, but the shackles of the other prisoners who found themselves in jail. In the end, even the jailer and his family were saved, becoming believers.
Paul and Silas received joy in the dark and painful place; they chose to join their worship with the worship of heaven even in those circumstances. They knew that no power on earth could stand against the purposes and goodness of God. I even wonder if, by faith, these men already knew what was about to happen. Perhaps they could picture the Lord smiling and saying, “Wait for it…wait for it!” Notice that the earthquake rumbled and shook as they lifted their voices in praise to God.
Would I have acted the same as Paul and Silas did that night? I don’t know, but perhaps I can learn from them as I face hardship in my own life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking for opportunities to be beaten for my faith! But I want to learn to live in the overcoming joy of the Lord, regardless of the circumstances I find myself in or how I feel. I want to be so aware of God’s goodness and love for me that my response in every trial is simply worship.
If you have felt stuck this past year, be encouraged. When we face upheaval and darkness, there is something we can do. We can join our song of God’s faithfulness with the song of the saints, the joy of heaven. We can praise God for his promises for the future, and we can worship the Lord for who he is right now. The Lord is our Shepherd, our Father, our Strength, our Shield, our Shelter, our Rock, our Peace, our Righteousness, our Savior, and our God in whom we trust.
Yes, these are difficult days, but the joy of the Lord is our strength. (Nehemiah 8:10) As we boldly lift up his name in the middle of our circumstances, the one who raised Jesus from the dead will surely lift us up. God uses even our trials to do miracles we could not foresee. However painful or lonely your situation may be today, know that you are not alone. The Holy Spirit is with you and within you. Call out in prayer. Sing praises to him! Joy in the presence of the God of your salvation, and listen for the rumble and rattle of seismic shift.
Featured image courtesy Jenni Peterson on Unsplash.