"Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith,
who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross,
despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God."
I 've had a few friends that are what call joyful souls. I envy them a bit because they wake up happy and remain that way most of the day. If something uncomfortable or hurtful happens, they seem to recover quickly and return to joy with out much ado. Their thoughts are usually on the positive side. But this girl isn't like them. I wake up so slowly that when I first got married, my husband often asked me if I was upset about something. Over the years I learned to wake up earlier than everyone so I could have coffee, spend time with the Lord, and go for a walk so I was capable of smiling and conversing when my family woke up.
Several years ago I realized every winter I was finding it harder and harder to get up and was experiencing less and less joy. Eventually I was diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). The treatment is to simply sit in front of a full spectrum light for a period of time each day during the winter months. I hadn't realized how much the light helps until my light burned out. Before I knew it, I was feeling gloomy and struggling with negative thoughts that kept running through my head. It took so much work to find joy. I knew the light would help so I ordered another one and took steps to manage my mood as I waited for it to arrive. I chose to quit shaming myself for the struggle and embraced the way God made me, even though it included a brain needing extra light to function normally. I chose to rest adequately, eat healthier, and counter negative thoughts with the truth. In essence, I chose to be kind and gracious with myself. When the light arrived and my mood lightened, I realized how hard I had to work to find joy. My time without the light reminded me that depression isn't just the experience of sadness or grief or having a "bad" day. It is a change in brain chemistry that impacts emotions, energy level, and thought processes, making it difficult to find joy in one's every day life.
Because I experienced SAD this year, I found myself pondering this thing we call joy. Joy is defined as great happiness and pleasure, especially of a spiritual kind. I looked up some verses that speak of joy. Many of the verses were in relationship to military victories that Israel had over other nations. They were so joyful that people wrote songs to commemorate battles won and they sang as they danced in celebration, praising God for the victories He gave.
King David spoke of joy in the Psalms in relationship to knowing God and the knowledge that He is in control even during difficult seasons of life. When he poured out his heart to God, He spoke of joy of abiding in God, resting beneath His wings, knowing His word, and being blessed by Him. He spoke of the joy that comes in the morning during hard times.
Not all joy was centered around exciting things like winning battles. Hebrews 10:34 says Hebrew believers found joy even when their property was plundered because they knew they have a better possession stored up for them. Even James tells us to count it all joy when we face various trials. Maybe James gave this advice because he understood people would be able to understand the love and sacrifice of Jesus through suffering they endured. Maybe he knew they would be able to see God work in and though them as they navigated difficult times and believe me the early church went through all sorts of growing pains, persecution and hardship. He may have also known that treasures are found in faithfully navigating the hard--treasures like special knowledge of God and His plans, a deeper understanding of spiritual matters, and a deeper intimacy that results when people walk with Him through difficult, painful times.
The verse that has helped me the most over the years when I have needed to fight for joy is the verse at the top of the blog. Jesus was even able to find joy when He was facing the end of His life. That sounds simplistic and like one of those religious platitudes we all hate having thrown at us when we are suffering. But, if we think of all that He faced during His final days it isn't simplistic at all. He was rejected and hated by the religious leaders of His day. He was often misunderstood by the crowds and when He went to the Garden to pray, He took three of the disciples that He was closest to. Even after telling them He felt so much sorrow He felt like dying they kept falling asleep as He prayed. I can't imagine feeling any more alone than that. The Bible also tells us Jesus experienced so much anguish that His sweat was tinged with blood. Then when He was arrested, it was based on false charges as he was betrayed and deserted by his disciples. The trials he endured in the middle of the night were illegal and not based on truth. The crowds he had preached to chanted for His death, He was beaten, disrobed, and crowned with a crown made of thorns and cruelly nailed to a cross. As God, He knew what He was facing. Yet, we are told for the joy set before Him He chose to lay down His life for us. I am sure that He found joy in being obedient to God and to be once again at the right hand of His Father. But I also think that a part of the joy He saw before Him was the joy of presenting His bride--the church--to His Father. He purchased us out of the slave market of sin with His own blood and in doing so He reconciled us to God by faith.
So, what can we learn from all of this? First, when their is a spiritual victory, we should celebrate big! We can sing songs welling up with in our hearts and dance like nobody is looking as we praise God for His goodness. I remember one youth pastor that literally ran out of a room full of students and did cartwheels and summersaults and shouted for joy because some of the students accepted Christ. I can't help but think we should all respond in the same way when someone comes to know Jesus and is translated from the Kingdom of Darkness in to God's glorious Kingdom of Light, is baptized to show their commitment to follow Him, resists a besetting sin, is emotionally healed, answers the calling God has made on their his life, or when someone gives testimony to the activity of God in their lives.
Second, we can choose to live with an eternal perspective like those who joyfully accepted the news their land had been plundered. Not getting a dream home pales when we think of the place that Jesus, Himself, is preparing for us. The fickle human love doesn't bother us so much when we keep in mind the deep, sacrificial love of God. The sorrow we face in this life doesn't compare to the joy we will face when we at last see Jesus. Our perspective during tough times is drastically changed when we remember this world--this life isn't all there is. We have eternity to look forward to--eternity where love never fails and where there is no more sorrow, no more death, no more illness, no more sin, and no more pain.
Finally, there seems to be a lasting joy that comes from obeying God when it is difficult to do. Others may criticize us, dislike us, and persecute us, but if we know we've obeyed Him in the hard and have suffered well, we are graced with His joy--a joy that is not the fleeting joy that comes with happy circumstances, but a long lasting joy, knowing we have honored and glorified our King. That is a joy no one can steal. This thing we call joy is our gift to claim and at times may have to fight to keep, but it will always be found when living with an eye on eternity.