Gert Behanna was fifty three years old when she discovered God. The shock and wonder of that discovery hasn't worn off after twenty years.
Gert had another shock the very next Sunday when she went to church. She says, "I'd never been to church in my life and I remember how eagerly I awaited that first Sunday. I'd just had a glimpse of God Almighty- me, an alcoholic, a drug addict, rich, lonely, and miserable- already I was beginning to know what joy really was."
Gert was a new Christian. She was eager to attend church to meet and talk with persons who had known the love of God for many years. "What ecstatic people these long-time Christians will be!" she thought. Even though becoming a Christian was probably the happiest day of her life, she was somewhat hesitant about going to church that first Sunday. "I was afraid they would embarrass me with their love and enthusiasm," she said.
Gert did not find the church people as loving and enthusiastic as she thought. What she discovered was, "bowed heads, long faces, mournful singing and funeral whispers." She expected people to shower her with love and affection for making the right choice and wanting to be part of the church. No one welcomed her. No one even spoke to her the first Sunday she went to church.
"As time went on and I attended other churches," Gert writes, "in various parts of the country, I made a bewildering discovery. These long-faced, listless people were present in every congregation." Then she asked a very good question: "How could they come into God's presence Sunday after Sunday without breathing in the joy that danced in the very air?
To be fair I would like to share another side of the issue. This isn't an attempt to balance the scales because I think Gert Behanna's observations are accurate enough. But to be fair, I must tell you I have found Christian joy in some strange places: I've found it in hospital rooms where patients are physically weak and have heard bad news. I've heard of it existing around a dinner table where the family has gathered to hear the news of the father being laid off of work. I've heard of joy living with a house full of active children with laundry and dishes to be done and bills to be paid.
These situations are seldom fun, but they've been occasions where joy has sneaked out. In fact many situations are clearly unsuited to the quality of joy, but it is there almost in spite of the circumstances. The only good explanation is that it is the product of a living partnership with the Holy Spirit.
Read Galatians 5:16-24.
Joy is the second element in this descriptive vision of what the Spirit filled life looks like. We will have to be careful as we study the "fruit of the Spirit" to keep in mind that it is not called the fruits of the Spirit. This vision describes a unified product that requires every element in place- no picking and choosing! In fact, some believe every element of the fruit, after the first (love) is an amplification of Christian love. In that case, "joy is love singing or whistling or delighting." The important thing to remember is that Paul is describing an undisectable unit.
Joy has been on the top of most people's agendas from the beginning. Thomas Jefferson was so convinced that "the pursuit of happiness" was an inalienable human right that he wrote it into the Declaration of Independence and called it a "self evident truth." Unfortunately all that can be guaranteed is the right to pursue happiness. No one (president, supreme court, rich father) can guarantee you'll catch it. In fact, the Bible indicates if you pursue happiness itself, for its own sake, you will never find it for very long. Joy is not a thing that can be caught like a cow that has gotten out of the pasture. Joy is a by-product of intimacy with God. Joy is found- not when you pursue it, but when you pursue Him.
This is why a basically unhappy Christian is a contradiction. A Christian by definition is one who is following Jesus. Joy is meant for the journey. However, we must be careful to not define unhappiness as sorrow or grief. The opposite of joy is not sorrow, but gloom. Grief has its appropriate times, but even there, as we'll see, at least for some, joy is an underlying element.
If this is true then Lloyd Ogilivie asks a good question: "Why are there so many dogged, joyless, do-it-yourself Christians?" If joy is a by-product of pursuing God- why are so many not experiencing the by-product?
Let's look at some obstacles to joy...first, we have to consider the possibility that Jesus isn't a part of their life. In John 15:5 Jesus said, "I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit," and then a few moments later in verse 11 He said, "I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete."
The old Gospel chorus has it right, "If you want joy, real joy, let Jesus come into your heart."
Another obstacle to joy is a personal philosophy against it. Some believe (without thinking it through completely) that "self-rejection" is a Christian virtue. They would never wear potato sack shirts and sleep on a bed of nails, but they can stifle any instinct toward joy as a way of regretting their sin, or doing penance. Self-rejection is not self-denial! It is no different than a potato sack route, but it feels more right. So they say, "No joy until I'm morally perfect!"
Confusion can be an obstacle for others. Nowhere does the Bible say joy is a spiritual ecstasy that is especially passionate when all our problems are solved even momentarily. These people tend to think of joy as a reward for working all their problems out before new problems pile up! So they focus on their circumstances instead of the Spirit's companionship.
Joy is a quality independent of circumstances precisely because it is a product of "who" is inside you rather than "what" is happening outside of you. As Paul reminded the Thessalonians, "You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit" (Thessalonians 1:6).
Joy is a product of the presence of the Spirit within. Perhaps a brief review of who the Holy Spirit is would be helpful. The Holy Spirit is the Biblical name of the third person of the God-head, but as a name it is not especially descriptive. He is not a spirit or holy in any sense that the Father and Son are not. Their spirituality and holiness are all the same quality. A descriptive name might be "God the Helper."
In the book Healing the Masculine Soul, Gordon Dalbey says that when Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as the helper, he uses a Greek word, paraclete, that was an ancient warrior's term.
"Greek Soldiers went into battle in pairs," says Dalbey, "so when the enemy attacked, they could draw together back-to-back, covering each other's blind side. One's battle partner was the paraclete."
Our Lord does not send us to fight the good fight alone. The Holy Spirit is our battle partner who covers our blind side and fights for our well being. "God the Helper."
"Helper" also helps us see that we are not mere tools of God's spirit. We are voluntary servants or even co-workers. This passage says "walk by the Spirit" or "be lead by the Spirit," which describes a carefully maintained relationship. You might picture two people walking side by side down a trail together. One is the Spirit, one is you. This passage is saying conduct your journey under the guidance and with the assistance of this powerful Helper. As you journey together the Spirit will not intimidate or overpower. He is a gentleman.
Now the main difference between this picture and reality is that the Spirit journeys within us. Some would object that if the Spirit of God really moved into our spirit, that it would overwhelm our true self or personality. We'd become like people in cults- zombies. But think abut this: God took special care to make you unique from everyone else. He is not going to counteract that creative effort destroying your unique personality and turning you into some kind of cookie-cutter-produced-Holy-Spirit-person. In fact, the Holy Spirit heals and then enriches your true self.
It is kind of like the affect marriage had on me. Before I married, I was a selfish, shallow, small person. My interests were very narrow. Marrying Penny didn't stifle my personality; if anything this new relationship stretched and challenged and grew me much closer to what a "real" person should be. Coming into a relationship with Jesus amplifies this process a thousand times over.
Because this vision is describing a relationship, many times it is experienced against a backdrop of adversity: Whether it is Job saying, "Though He slay me, yet will I hope in Him" (13:15), or the prophet Habakkuk saying, "Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior" (3:17, 18). Adversity, but joy!
Two words: "Saved alone" was the message Horatio Spafford received from his wife after the ship sank that was taking her and their four children to England in November, 1873. After reuniting with his grieving wife at sea, the boat came near the area where his children had drowned. It is speculated that at that time he wrote the words that vividly described his own grief and faith:
When sorrows like sea billows roll-
whatever my lot
Thou has taught me to say,
It is well with my soul.
Adversity, but joy! The Gospel is a message of joy. It says God has come to the rescue. Jesus Himself told us there is great rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents. God knows no greater joy than when we let Him love us.
What is your greatest joy? Remember the parable of the talents. Three men were given varying amounts of talents. Two multiplied their investments. The result was they were invited, "Come and share your master's happiness."
The key here is understanding what the talent represents. It is investments in the Kingdom of God. As far as God is concerned the only thing worth taking to heaven is people. These two invested their lives in people. Is there anything that gives you greater joy than leading someone to Jesus? Truly, when you've done that you have "entered into the joy of your Master."
Remember the one talent person? He was afraid to risk, so he didn't. His punishment was severe. Who is alive in Jesus because of you? Does the answer to that question correlate to the quality of your joy?