Joy may seem elusive, mysterious and intractable, yet we are all commanded to be joyful. We must be deliberate about joy. If we are not living joyful lives, we are actually living in sin, and this is indeed our own fault. Through ignorance and selfishness we miss out on God’s design, and resign ourselves to lead drab and joyless lives, or even bitter and despondent ones. But once we understand joy, what it is and how God has designed us to respond to Him in joy, how God is the ultimate fulfillment of every conceivable human desire, then we can purpose to walk in it.
In the Bible it is written: “Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.” This text in 1 Peter 1:8 states a fact: believers in Jesus Christ may live lives of extreme joy. Not merely happy lives, not merely joyful lives … God says that you can live a life of unspeakable joy … a joy so incredible we cannot fully describe it.
Does a joyful life seem like a dream? That you and I, just ordinary people, could ever reach a state of nearly constant joy?
Most of us lead very joyless lives and we have no idea why. The pressures and cruelty and passions of life steal our joy and we don’t know what to do about it. We’d not live this way by choice, most of us anyway.
It is my purpose here to change all that for you. The truths presented here have changed many lives, including my own. They will change yours too, if you are brave enough to let them. If your life doesn’t change for the better after you read this, it is my intent that this will be your choice, and no one else’s.
Let me be plain, though, from the outset: I have no tricks or gimmicks to offer. I have no Joy Pill to fix all our problems, no switch to flip that will make you happy. I share with you a pathway, a journey. It is nothing new, but a re-discovery, a finding again of what has been lost to many of us. All I offer here is a fresh perspective on something very basic to the Christian life. The concept is simple and practical, but not easy. We need God’s help to do this. Basically, we need to change … or more accurately, to be changed.
It may come as a shock to learn that it is actually a sin to be joyless. God has commanded us to rejoice in Him… always: “Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice.” (Php 4:4) Joy is not optional, for anyone, any time. When God repeats Himself, He is emphasizing. God is demanding that we live this way. He loves us way too much to make this optional. To miss joy is to miss all. Change your mind about it: do not be content to live another joyless moment.
It is not only God’s will that we be joyful, in His characteristic manner He has made a way for us to find joy. We were made for this, designed to live a joyful life. There are three basic things one needs to apprehend:
- What joy actually is, its definition and nature.
- The essence of human design, how God has designed us.
- Who God is and what He is like.
Surprisingly simple, is it not? Joy should not be complicated. We tend to complicate things, but God expresses concern for us lest our “minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.” (2Co 11:3) Joy is not just for clerics and theologians. No, if joy is for anyone that has ever lived, then it is for you. No matter where you are, what you have done, or what has happened in your life … Joy is God’s gift to you. You can get there from here.
From the outset then, purpose to resist the enemy’s lying discouragement that joy must be something beyond your reach. Joy is, in fact, quite within your reach. You might be comfortable with dullness, misery, bitterness and despondency, but it’s no excuse to keep on living that way. That is exactly what the enemy wants for you and me, and he will certainly try his best to keep us there. Resist him; it is not God’s way.
What is Joy?
So, what is joy? A good dictionary gets us started. Joy is defined as follows: the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying; keen pleasure; elation.
Very simply then, joy is a wonderful feeling. We are talking about an emotion: an intense feeling in the heart, soul and mind.
As a feeling then, joy is something that we experience on a spectrum, as a matter of degree. This experience is not like a switch, an “on or off,” or boolean kind of experience, but it is on a scale: joy is a “more or less,” or a continuum kind of experience.
On the lower end of the spectrum, the less intense end, we call this emotional experience gladness or happiness. This is the kind of emotion we experience in response to the common, daily pleasantries of life. But happiness and gladness are not what God is talking about here. He is talking about joy, an experience at the other end of the spectrum.
At the upper end, the more intense end of the spectrum of emotion, we are looking at something that makes you want to shout, or dance, or cry … and sometimes all of the above at once. Joy is the kind of emotion that takes your breath away. You get all choked up, and you may feel like you are going to explode if you don’t do something to express it. This is joy … but, in fact, that’s still not what we are talking about.
We are talking about unspeakable joy. Unspeakable means, exceeding the power of speech; unutterable; inexpressible; indescribable. On the spectrum of emotion, joy is at the intense end. What we are talking about is something on the intense side of intensity. We are talking about extreme joy, something that we can’t even fully describe. Suffice it to say, this thing we are after is wonderful beyond description, too marvelous for words.
You want this, you need this, you were designed for this, and it is available to you.
Joy is also, as one can see in the definition, a response TO something. As we saw in Philippians 4:4, we are to rejoice in the Lord. Let us explore this carefully.
The first mistake we might make in the pursuit of joy is to think that we are to rejoice about things in general, or perhaps about nothing in particular at all, while we are in the Lord. While it is true that we are, as believers in Jesus Christ, in the Lord, the thought here is actually that the Lord Himself is the Object of our joy, about Whom we are to be rejoicing. That is, the exceptionally good and satisfying thing that is the cause of our joy is a Person, a divine Being. We are not to rejoice in an abstract way, simply experiencing an emotion apart from any context or particular thought, but we are to be reacting in joy to our thoughts about God and our relationship and interaction with Him.
This is a critical point to grasp: joy is not just a feeling floating by that happens to reach out and grab us, making us feel good for no apparent reason. We aren’t considering a bi-polar kind of emotion, where we happen to have a mood swing in the happy direction. No, pursuing that IS nonsense, an empty pipe dream … resulting in the kind of sloppy, flapping chaos that goes on in some religious circles, where folk get all worked up by music and shouting and chanting. Make no mistake, such emptiness is a very real experience, it is just a very shallow and transient one. Such emotional manipulations can be, and often are, turned on and off at a whim, being nothing more than emotionalism. This is not what God is talking about. The kind of intense emotion we are talking about is rooted in a rich context. We are to experience the emotion of joy in reaction or response, caused in us by something that is incredibly wonderful, excellent and beautiful.
So, from the definition of joy we can see that we are trying to describe an emotional response to something … outside of ourselves. This is the final point to understand from the definition of joy: joy is outward facing, not inward facing.
An Outward Perspective
You can experience happiness and gladness, emotions on the lower end of the spectrum of passion, by looking at how things affect you. When you consider yourself to be the center of all things, you react to things outside of yourself with an inward focus. You observe your circumstances and notice how they affect you. When your circumstances are favorable to your earthly comforts and affections they make you feel glad and happy. On the other hand, when your circumstances aren’t so favorable, you become worried, anxious, troubled, depressed and angry. If you are like most, you have lived your life this way for a long, long time — for too long, in fact. You have lived at the mercy of your circumstances, with yourself on the throne, trying to reign at the center of your universe.
You probably didn’t do this deliberately, on purpose; it’s just the way we are all born. You may not even be aware that you are doing it. It may take some real shaking in your life to expose it, but this self-centered orientation is present in every one of us. The sooner we recognize it for what it is the sooner we can begin to deal with it. It is this self-ward, self-centered orientation that is at the root of what the Bible calls sin, and it is the enemy of true joy.
In order to experience joy the way God intended, we need to develop a whole new way of looking at the world. In other words, we need to repent, or to change our minds, alter our world view, get a new perspective. We need to begin to understand that we are not the center of our world. Our kids aren’t the center, or our husband or our wife, or our family or friends, or our job or country, or our church or religion.
Something else, or more accurately … Someone else, is at the center of all things. When we are looking inward we can only taste the pallid joys of self serving prides and pleasures. When we quit pretending to be the center of the universe and get off of the proverbial throne of our life, something wonderful can begin to take place. We can begin to function as God designed us to function, as a responder rather than a creator, as a channel rather than a source.
You have been trained by a culture, one corrupted by the god of this world, to think of yourself as the center of the universe. You have been trained to think that joy must come through circumstances that bring you earthly comfort and physical pleasure. Nothing could be farther from the truth. This is the enemy at work to steer you into the shadows of existence and hide its reality from you.
We are not the center of the universe. Life is not about us, not at all. Until we begin to develop an outward orientation we can never experience the unspeakable joys of which we read about in Scripture. It is not until we are re-oriented by God to begin to look outside of ourselves into the Excellency of Another that the deeper joys He has provided for us may be known.
To get the point across, we might use our physical size to illustrate where and how we fit into the grand scheme of things. God has created us to be a certain size in relation to Himself and to His creation in order to help us understand our individual significance apart from Him. By ourselves, on our own, how important are we … really?
To start, you and I are merely two of over seven billion people living on planet Earth. Let’s look at Earth for a bit then, and ponder things somewhat more from God’s point of view. Here is our beautiful planet, with America right in the center. See yourself down there? How about your neighborhood? Your city, or your state? From a little distance, even our own perspective begins to change a little. The interesting thing about beginning to see life from God’s perspective is that what seems important to us as individuals probably isn’t such a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Life isn’t about us. It’s about Someone else.
In fact, if we were to step out a bit farther, we might get an even clearer picture of God’s perspective. This next photograph of Earth was taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 spacecraft as it traveled past the edge of our solar system, nearly 4 billion miles away from us. Voyager, having begun its journey in 1977, had been traveling at about 38,000 mph for 13 years. This next photo is not a misprint; it is a picture of our home: Earth.
Strain to see our tiny little planet from so far away. In this photo, called the Pale Blue Dot photo for a reason, Earth is a light blue spec, one-third of the way up from the bottom, and a fourth of the way into the view from the right. Earth happens to be in the midst of a yellowish band of light, a coincidental optical interaction between our sun and Voyager’s camera lens. This stunning photograph evoked the following elegant response from astronomer, Carl Sagan.
“Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam … Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.”
Dr Sagan has nicely summed up what the prophet Isaiah said many years ago. “Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance: behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing.” (Is 40:15) It cannot be said any better than that. We are nothing compared to God.
We’ll look more at this kind of thing later, to help us see how amazing and wonderful our God really is, but it is important that we grasp a critical point about joy: we can’t experience the joy that God intends for us until we get over ourselves. But, as we all know, this is easier said than done.
To get over our pettiness and self pity, we need to get a good look at God, and a good look at things from God’s perspective. When we do we might just forget all about ourselves for a while. This would not be a bad thing; it would be a very good thing. This is what we were made for.
A Grand Design
Now that we grasp what joy actually is, let’s move on to the second key idea: how we human beings are designed.
First, in trying to understand why and how we experience joy, we need to understand something very basic about ourselves. God has designed us to respond to exceptionally good and satisfying things with the emotion of joy. It is perfectly natural for us, when we hear an excellent piece of music, or behold a beautiful person, or a brilliant sunset, or taste an exquisitely pleasurable morsel … to react. We respond with delight, with elation. The emotion springs from us naturally, organically, instinctively. This response is inherent in our very nature, and it is a wonderful thing. We are engineered by God to recognize excellence and beauty and pleasure, and to respond in delight.
However, as everyone knows, none of these earthly experiences last very long. There is an initial excitement when we first experience any one of these wonderful things, but the emotion soon wears off. The new purse, the beautiful girl, the shiny new car, the new home … they all grow common to us over time. The initial wonder and pleasure and excitement doesn’t satisfy us indefinitely. The emotion eventually dulls, and we are off to find something else to renew the happiness, to give us another faint taste of joy.
There is a reason that earthly experiences don’t fully satisfy us. These pleasures aren’t necessarily wrong, we are simply designed in such a way that they can never fully satisfy us. Temporal pleasures are not supposed to permanently satisfy us … that is not their purpose. Our longings, our loves, our appetites, and our cravings … they are all shadows, they are mirrors pointing to something beyond the physical life.
Everything we enjoy in the physical realm, every single thing one can possibly enjoy in this earthly life, is a mere reflection of something greater. The pleasures of this life are by comparison tasteless shadows. Earthly pleasure and excellence and beauty are all designed by God and provided by Him in order to remind us of one thing: Himself. The purpose of earthly pleasure is to remind us why were made.
There is ultimately one extremely beautiful thing which we, in our very nature, are designed to behold. There is one incredible pleasure that we are inherently designed to enjoy. There is an absolute excellence which we are designed to delight in. There is an ultimate Lover, over Whom we are designed to swoon. It is this ultimate One that will satisfy us permanently in every conceivable way, and to which all other joys and pleasures point. They are all clues, hints of something vastly greater.
God has designed each person to respond to Himself with indescribable delight. Everything you enjoy in this life is merely an echo of this design, a reminder of this reality. When you see something beautiful, marvelous, awe inspiring, the ensuing emotional response is just a faint taste of what God has designed into you, the capacity to become absolutely enraptured with the most beautiful and amazing Being in all existence: God Himself.
Finally, we come to our last point, and it is again, quite simple: God Himself is the ultimate fulfillment of every possible human passion and desire. God has designed us to enjoy Himself. He is the most complete, perfect, excellent and beautiful Being in existence.
God created beauty and beautiful things because that is what He is, and all that He has made is a form of His self expression. Can the Creator of beauty be anything else? God not only created beautiful things, He IS beauty! He designed into each one of us the ability to appreciate beauty so that we might appreciate Him. God not only created excellence, He IS excellence! Not only is He loving, God is love itself (1Jn 4:8). Jesus Christ is wisdom itself. (1Co 1:30) God is Himself, very virtue, very excellence, very beauty.
When you hear a beautiful piece of music, a truly excellent piece, one that stirs your heart into ecstasy, until you feel your very soul being caught up into the realm of the spirit, feeling connected with all that is excellent and amazing and wonderful and awesome … this is just a sliver, just the faintest taste of what awaits those who pursue the face of the living God. He is the ultimate source of music, and of excellence itself.
Sex that leaves us breathless, delirious with pleasure … is only shadow, a pale shadow of something greater, more pleasurable, more intense. These wonderful physical pleasures are just a faint hint of the pleasure of being intimate with God. “Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.” (Ps 16:11) The rapture that He has designed into the undiluted experience of His face by one set free from the pollutions of this world makes the most rapturous sex pale in comparison.
God designed us this way, to enjoy Him, not for His benefit, but for our benefit. God is not “worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things.” (Ac 17:25) God is perfectly happy and content and joyful, in and about Himself, and He has always been that way. He has created us so that He might share his beauty and excellence with us, allowing us to feast on Him. He has designed us so that what we long for is what we need, and what we need is Him: what satisfies us is God Himself. As C.S. Lewis so aptly said, “God is the fuel on which the human machine is designed to run.” (Mere Christianity) Nothing can ever satisfy us like God. Ultimately, only God Himself can satisfy the longings of our hearts. That is the way He has made us, and it is a very good design.
A Check Up
So, let’s take a moment now for a spiritual check up; take stock of where you are in joy.
What brings you joy? Anything? When was the last time that you choked back the tears and were speechless about anything? What was it? When was the last time that you bit your tongue to keep back the shout, the amazement, the exuberance, the joy? What were you, specifically, rejoicing in? Have you ever danced for joy? Or sung for pure joy? Where is your joy? Do you have any idea?
More specifically, when you think of Christ, what springs from your heart? I mean really: what happens inside when you ponder Jesus Christ, or God your Father? If this activity doesn’t immediately result in a joy so intense that it nearly takes your breath away … then something is wrong, something is broken. This is not how God designed you to function. Something is amiss and it needs to be corrected. What is it?
You’ve have been lied to … and you have believed the lies. That’s what happened.
Putting it very plainly, the enemy has stepped into our lives and lied to us about the nature of God, Who is the ultimate and real fulfillment of every healthy human desire. Satan has suggested to each of us in a thousand different ways that God is dull, lifeless, boring, unfair, untrue, unfaithful, selfish, distant, uncaring, capricious, condescending and cruel. He has then suggested that we look to something else to give us joy. His very first lie, way back in the Garden of Eden, was just like this: Satan lied to Eve about the nature of God, and about what would fulfill her … and he’s been lying to us all about the same things ever since.
When Satan tempted Eve to eat the fruit in the Garden of Eden, he said: “Ye shall not surely die: for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” (Ge 3:5) In this lie Satan made two fundamental assertions that comprise the root of nearly every joyless life:
1. God will not satisfy you.
2. Something else will.
Satan, an incredibly intelligent and gifted being, starts with an understanding that we humans are looking for fulfillment. He knows that men and women have built into their very nature a desire, a longing, a searching, a pursuing tendency. We are not fulfilled in and of ourselves, we seek fulfillment outside of ourselves. This desire is a gift to us from God and it is very good, given to us to cause us to pursue God, to find Him, and to be completely fulfilled in Him.
Satan understands this, and he also knows that he cannot actually do anything about it: he cannot alter our fundamental design. However, through his lies, Satan can try to convince us that God cannot satisfy us. If he succeeds on this one point, then it is relatively easy for him to leverage the strength of our desire to turn us away from God in order to pursue something else, anything else. Once our strength is spent chasing after this second lie, he can then let that one go, and convince us that nothing at all can satisfy us. This kind of dynamic is the root and cause of every single joyless life.
Satan’s first claim then is that God Himself cannot — or perhaps will not — satisfy our desire, that God does not have our best interest in mind, that He cannot be trusted, that He is hiding something good from us. From there, it is an easy step to get us to pursue something other than God in order to satisfy our desire. So, naturally, Satan follows the first lie with more lies about the purpose of earthly delights, and with lies about ourselves. He says that the shadow itself is what will bring us ultimate joy, and that we can be fulfilled apart from God. From the very beginning then, the enemy has been inviting us to pursue the shadows as if they were the reality, to take them out of context, pervert them, and pursue them headlong. For Eve, it started with a piece of fruit. What has it been for you?
The devil tantalizes us with the pleasure of the shadow while lying to us about the reality behind it. In this manner, Satan has convinced us all, at some point and to some degree, that we need to enthrone ourselves in the center of our lives, take control, and make the best of life by chasing after whatever can gratify our dulling senses, worrying over our circumstances, fretting over life’s ups and downs.
Then, as we should expect, after taking us down this road a while, the enemy often does something even more insidious to some of us: when we come up empty pursuing the shallow pleasures of this life, he convinces us to give up pursuing anything at all. He actually allows us to see through the second lie above, that something else other than God will satisfy us. He enjoys watching us come to the ultimate realization that nothing else can satisfy us, so long as the first lie is firmly entrenched. In this, he manages to kill what little zest we have for life, persuading us that our very design is corrupt and that we ought to give up pursuing anything, so that we pursue nothing. We become convinced that personal satisfaction of any kind is impossible for us, and we simply give up, resigning ourselves to bitterness. We just exist, and suffer, enduring this calamity called life until it’s over. This is his ultimate triumph: a bitter, angry, despondent soul.
This is where the battle for your joy lies: in order to walk in joy you must re-discover, or discover for the first time, who God is and what He is like.
So, how effective has the enemy been in stealing your joy through his lies? It is, quite likely, stunning. Perhaps there are some earthly things that have brought you moments of joy in the past. Perhaps you felt real joy shortly after your conversion to Christ. But what about walking in continual joy now? Unspeakable joy that does not fade away? Do you know this as a present reality in your life?
The enemy has done his job quite well in all of us. No wonder Jesus calls him the father of lies. (Jn 8:44) He is very good at what he does.
When did he accomplish this in you? Do you remember some big event where the enemy stole your joy? Probably not. We seldom see him coming, or see him present, setting up shop in our lives, taking ground. No, he does this in nearly all of us without our slightest notice. The insidious dulling of our senses, the stirring of our lusts and hatreds, the darkening of our thoughts and motives, the perverting of our affections … this all happens in us as we receive and respond to his lies. We seldom notice what is happening. Before we know it, our joy is lost … and we don’t even know where to begin.
But if you could, right now, see Jesus Christ as He really is, see Him with the heart He has designed for you, a heart set free of all of the deceptions and lies of the enemy … you would never again, by comparison, desire anything else or anyone else with any real intensity. In fact, if the truth be known, if this were to happen completely right now, you would probably not live through the experience at all; you would probably actually die from the overwhelming intensity of it. Your affections for this world and for all that it has to offer would vanish in comparison with your desire for Jesus Christ. It might be kind of like someone offering you a dime after you had just won the lottery. It would be a chuckle at best.
But the reality is that, right now, between you and your Joy, Jesus Christ, crouch a thousand lies about Him. His nature, His purpose, His character, His heart … all hidden through lies sown very strategically by the enemy in every single human being. This is his triumph: a heart grown cold and hard against the bright and morning Star … the very jewel of the universe, counted as a shame, a wearisome burden, a drudgery, a bore. Only when dressed up in ritual and pretty music does such a heart stir in even the slightest, bound up in a vast web of lies. The proof is in a joyless life. It is quite simple.
The enemy has had his way in this long enough … drawing us after the shadows of reality to have us groping here and there to find a crumb of pleasure in the darkness. He has leveraged a powerful design, the fact that we are created by God to respond to excellence and beauty and perfection with joy, to turn us from the reality of God and have us chasing after scraps, fighting over the hints of God’s beauty and perfection rather than pursuing and finding and enjoying God Himself.
The enemy has trapped us, each one God’s lover by design, in our ignorance and our selfishness, turned our thoughts inward, and has thereby largely defeated us, disarmed us, and alienated us from the only One who can satisfy us. What an amazing liar! What an awful distraction he has been to us!
Enough! Let us arise, and go to Jesus. While we yet breathe, it is not too late to discover Him.
A Baby Step
The first step toward joy is to ask God to do in you what He has already sent His Spirit to Earth to do: glorify Jesus Christ by revealing Him to you. “But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me. (Jn 15:26) He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you.” (Jn 16:14) When you ask God to reveal Jesus Christ in you, you can be sure of one thing: He is willing to do so. A simple prayer like, “God, so reveal Jesus Christ to me that I respond in joy.” It’s that simple to get started.
Now, as with all of God’s commands, there are two facets to this. When we start after God in a new way we must bring along with us two things: “He that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (He 11:6)
First, there is the initial realization of our need, a surrender, an admission that we need God to help us, and an earnest asking for His help. There is faith, to some degree, that God is indeed with us and that He is willing to help us. Then there needs to be an understanding that God rewards those who pursue Him. In other words, we have a decision to make: we can prayerfully open our Bible … or turn on the TV.
In other words, we can’t just keep on doing the same old things we’ve always done and expect to get different results. That’s the definition of insanity, right? Something basic needs to change about how we think and how we live. The fight begins in earnest the moment we pray for God’s help.
Here is the question: “Now that I’ve asked God to reveal Christ to me, will I do whatever I can to put myself in a position to receive God’s help?” I might not be able to do very much, but whatever I can do, am I willing to do that? If I really want God to reveal Christ to me, somehow I’ll start studying Christ, and meditating on Him.
But if I want to hang on to my joyless life, I can: I just keep on doing what I’ve always done. My lazy little prayer won’t help much, if at all.
Toward A Journey
This first step in a new direction can be a glorious one, but every case will be unique. Some may immediately begin to experience fullness of joy, while others may find only a taste to start off with. Only one thing is for sure, upon taking this first step we all must take another, and yet another in this same direction: it is the pursuit of God. It is not complicated, but it is continuous. It is as Paul said, even after living a very full and productive life, “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus.” (Php 3:12)
Our ultimate goal is to know Him, (Php 3:10) but we will never know all there is to know about God. The riches of Jesus Christ are unsearchable, unfathomable, (Ep 3:8) for in Him “are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Col 2:3) We certainly can find God by pursuing Him, and truly begin to enjoy a rich relationship with Him in this way, but we will never get to the place in this life where we are now, close enough to Him. There will always be more to discover and to rejoice in. What an exquisite pleasure … even the pursuit of God itself!
This first step puts us on a journey, it starts us on an adventure; we find ourselves in a kind of race. There are challenges ahead: the enemy will never quit lying to us about Jesus, and he will never quit trying to discourage us. The world and all of its enticements and entanglements will ever lurk by the way, and the enemy will leverage them to tempt us as much as the Father allows. But, Jesus continually says, “I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you.” (Jn 16:22) Your joy lies in seeing Jesus, and in continuing to see Him, and no one can take this away from you – except you, of course. So then, “let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.” (He 12:1-2) We must keep on going in this direction in order to walk in joy.
Continuing in this way of joy leads us to, “the pulling down of strong holds; casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God.” (2Co 10:4-5) In taking away the lies, God must, of necessity, begin to show us many things about ourselves, as well as about Christ, that we don’t yet know. Most all of the things He will show us about ourselves will likely be very unpleasant things. As He shows them to us we must be willing to yield to His correction and refinement, which may include suffering. He may need to take us through the fire for a bit, to burn some selfishness and pride off of us so that we will begin to look beyond ourselves, to consider the needs of others as if they were our own, and to be free enough to behold beauty and excellence wherever it is.
To get us where He wants us, the Spirit may also need to target our very understanding of Who Jesus really is, and this may, at times, shake the very roots of our theology. It is God’s intent that we see Him clearly so that we can begin to really apprehend the beauty of Jesus Christ.
Every lie that you believe, every single one, is in some way a hindrance to joy: every single one of them must be held with open hand … if held at all. He’ll show you all you need to know about Him to abound in joy, if you are only willing to receive it. Let God deal with each topic as He will, in His timing. Let Him have His way.
Once you purpose to hang on to a lie, you limit your enjoyment of God and of His ways, you set yourself up for a good spanking (He 12:9-10), and you open the door again to the enemy to steal, kill and destroy in you. (Jn 10:10) Be sure that the enemy will design just the right circumstance to put such a lie squarely between you and Jesus. This is his relentless objective. “Do not err, my beloved brethren.” (Ja 1:16) “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.” (Pr 4:23)
As God removes the lies so that we can behold and enjoy Him, consider also what God says about how we become like Jesus Christ: “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” (2Co 3:18) When you behold Jesus, when you think about Him, you not only move your soul to rejoice in Him, you engage in a behavior by which the Spirit of God actually transforms you from one level of Christ-likeness (glory), to another. We not only find our joy in beholding Him, but our growth in the holistic fruit of the Spirit is linked to this focus as well.
Fruit of the Spirit
Joy is certainly not a switch we turn on and off, but rather evidence of a transformation that encompasses the entire person: the mind in its beliefs, the heart in its affections and the will in its choices. Emotions are the out-flowing of who we are, and so joy is perhaps the chief barometer of how we are doing. Yet it is not joy itself that we seek, it is simply a measure of how much of Him we have truly found: joy is the barometer of our apprehension of Him.
In this transformation then, do not expect joy to appear by itself; we must remember that joy is a fruit of the Spirit. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.” (Ga 5:22-23a) Notice that the fruit of the Spirit is not expressed in the plural fruits but the singular fruit. As we grow in likeness to Christ, as we mature in wisdom, in peace, in goodness … joy will naturally be more and more a part of our lives, just like all of the rest of the nature of Christ. This change comes organically and supernaturally as we behold and enjoy Christ, and this practice of beholding Him is actually itself the means by which we are transformed.
This brings us to a place where perhaps the motive of our enemy in fighting our joy is more obvious. Why is the enemy so bent on stealing our joy? Perhaps it is because he is terrified of us becoming more like Jesus. He hates Jesus Christ, and we are the only living beings through whom Jesus Christ has chosen to live. If you or I get hold of Him, and His joy begins to flow through us, and we are in this way transformed into His very nature … then the enemy has to deal with two Christs, as it were, rather than one.
Filled with joy, you are a terror to the enemy. Every last one of us could be the key to the next great revival, and the enemy wants to see to it that Jesus is dishonored and vilified through our lives instead. One of his greatest weapons is the joyless Christian. No wonder he fights us so.
The battle for joy is certainly a spiritual one; we must learn to fight for joy, to contend for it as we pursue Him, the One Who is the Truth. This fight must be sustained by a continual reviving of our hearts by God’s Spirit. “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds).” (2Co 10:3-4) Pulling down the enemy’s lies requires the omniscient, strategic power of the Holy Spirit, constantly prompting us to return to the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ep 6:17) as we stand against the devil’s wiles.
But, in order for the Spirit to have any Word to work with in our hearts, we must hide His Word in our hearts on a regular basis that we might not sin against Him. (Ps 119:11) Memorize God’s Word systematically as a defense of joy. Once we have hidden God’s Word in our hearts, God’s Word is then constantly available to us to meditate on, by the prompting of the Spirit, which the Spirit will then use to renew our minds in the truth (Ro 12:2) when and where He is pleased to do so, one lie at a time. (Php 2:13) It is from this position, soaking in the Word of God day and night, that we are prepared to quote it when the enemy comes after us, like he did our Master in the wilderness. (Mt 4:2-4, 5-7, 8-10) Be sure that he will come after us for the same purpose. So, too, ought we to follow our Master’s steps in our response. (1Pe 2:21)
Meditations on Christ
Having laid a good foundation, I pray, let us come now to the favorite part: meditating on God. What a vast wonder He truly is! Let us consider some basic things about Him to whet our tongues.
Think of it, that there was once a day, no doubt, in which you could have knelt down beside a little Boy playing the sand, Who had made this:
This is the Whirlpool galaxy. It takes light 100,000 years to cross it, and it contains 160 billion stars. Its center, with a span of 5 light years, contains the equivalent of 40 million of our suns. If our solar system, from the edge of which the Pale Blue Dot photograph was taken, was reduced to the size of a quarter, the nearest star to our sun would be two soccer fields away, and this galaxy would be the size of the North American continent! Jesus Christ made this galaxy, with all of its fury and splendor, just by speaking it, and it is just one of billions more. He made all of them with ease.
It is said that astronomers have trouble with the size of the universe, as if to counter the claim that the universe was made merely as a home for Earth. The skeptic’s challenge leads us to reconsider God’s purpose in making the universe so immense: Why did God make the vast stellar spaces, with all of their remarkable grandeur? “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.” (Ps 19:1) God did not make the universe merely to house us, but to give us a hint of what it might take to house Him! It is to show us, in some faint way, what He is like, to give us some clues to His unfathomable magnificence and splendor.
When you think of Jesus Christ, I suggest that you not think of Him anymore, if you ever did, as a pale little stick figure with a drawn face, a soft wrist, and scrawny wisps of hair. He can certainly appear as He wishes, and He did, in fact, come to us the first time such that “He had no form nor comeliness; and … no beauty that we should desire him.” (Is 53:2) But don’t be misled by this display of apparent weakness. This too had its purpose. But God has chosen to declare His glory, the glory of Jesus Christ, through spectacles like the Whirlpool galaxy. As amazing as they are, they can’t begin to fully declare it.
The true appearance of Jesus Christ would overwhelm our senses to the point that we would lose consciousness, if we could live through it at all. If He does not transform us, and enable us to bear the weight of His glory in some way, the experience will most certainly kill us. John went through such an experience, and described Jesus Christ as follows: “His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters. And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength.” (Re 1:14-16)
Try to imagine being at the base of Niagara Falls, the thunderous roar of the water crashing down about you so loudly you can barely hear yourself yell. This is somewhat like His voice. Now imagine staring into the sun, this is somewhat like His face. Finally, try to imagine the power of a category five tornado bearing down on you during a massive earthquake. This is a faint hint of His vast power. You would be, like John was, absolutely terrified. Is it any wonder that our Bible says, “Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.” (Ps 2:11-12)
An incredible scene on which to meditate, breathlessly depicted in The Passion of the Christ, is Jesus carrying His cross toward Golgotha. While He is stumbling along under the weight of the heavy cross beam, He functions. In the movie He looks up. One eye is swollen shut, the other is simply stunning: clear, solid, almost joyful. In the Bible Jesus speaks as He stumbles, “Weep not for me, but for yourselves and for your children.” (Lk 23:28) Jesus Christ bore the ultimate in suffering with an incredible clarity, with an amazing resilience.
This can also be seen during His interrogation of Pilate. That’s right … Have you ever noticed that every time Jesus was put on trial that He asked the questions? What an amazing Being this is! Pummeled, whipped, bruised, gashed, dehydrated … He stood before them as if they were on trial! “Why askest thou me?” (John 18:21) “Why smitest thou me?” (vs 23) “Sayest thou this thing of thyself, or did others tell it thee of me?“ (vs 34) The pattern is very consistent. Actually, His accusers were on trial before Him and He acted accordingly. He was never intimidated, He never wavered. What a divine model in suffering He has provided for us!
Study the Gospels and just marvel at the wisdom of Jesus Christ! One can see it at every turn. Once, in John 8, the Pharisees dragged an adulterous woman before Him, taken in the very act. They tried their best to trap Him: “Agree with Moses and stone her, or disagree with Moses and reveal that you cannot be Messiah.” Had Jesus agreed with Moses in that circumstance He would also have violated His obligation to respect civil authority: the Romans were in power and it was unlawful for Jews to carry out capital punishment. (Jn 18:31) Had He disagreed with Moses and told them to ignore the Law, that would have been extremely misleading: Moses was not the author of the Law — it was God’s Law, given to Moses by Christ Himself! What a predicament!
He stoops down, writing something on the ground. They continue pressing the issue. He stands up, facing them all, and says, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” (vs. 7) A little turn of events I’d say! If you aren’t a sinner then you aren’t subject to lawful governmental authority, I suppose, and God will certainly be pleased to intervene and rescue you when the Romans come to lock you up. Want to go there … be my guest! They all, one by one, left on their own accord.
I tell you, there isn’t a human being that can make up stories like this! Every scene, each one of them, when you meditate on it, contains a divine wisdom that can only be revealed! This Jesus cannot be contrived by the wittiest imaginations of Man. We do well to ponder His every word, His every move, and worship unto joy!
Much has been written about the love of God; any attempt at it is certainly daunting. But the love of God is so incredible we must give some time to capture it. Considered from an outward perspective, rather than focusing on How much He loves me, it is amazing to ponder who God loves, how He loves, and how much He loves.
First, God doesn’t just love good people. He certainly would love good people if there were any … but there aren’t any good people, really. Jesus Himself observed, ‘there is none good but one, that is God.” (Mt 19:17) We can certainly understand how God loves good people, but that doesn’t get us very far.
To get a grasp of God’s love, we need to see who He loves. God loves sinners, people who are so broken and corrupt that they despise goodness itself. That is what we are; that is who we are. In other words, God loves the villain in every movie, the pervert, the criminal, the terrorist. Think of the very worst of humanity. That is what we all are in God’s story. The differences between us down here in our self-evaluation pale in contrast to His evaluation of us all. From the perspective of holiness we are all pretty much the same: broken, rotten, wicked, selfish. In order to grasp the mystery and depth of God’s love, we must realize from the very outset that it is very much different than our own kind of love.
How does God love? He does not admire us, for there is nothing admirable about us. He does not seek anything from us, for we have nothing to offer Him, and He has need of nothing. It is difficult to find a parallel in our minds to which we can relate. We must try.
God’s love contains, at its heart, the concept of jealousy, “for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God.” (Ex 20:5) A jealousy that, say, a groom might have over a wanton bride, but it is for a kind of bride that has never actually been in love with her groom … a bride that has actually always deeply hated her suitor.
It is not a love for a lovely bride either, but for a despicably filthy, dirty, and ugly one.
It is not a love for a decent, reasonable bride either, but for an out of control, arrogant and treacherous one.
It is not the love of a lonely groom either, or a needy one, but the love of a groom who is perfectly content and happy without his bride.
It is not a half-hearted love either, but a love that gives all. And after giving all, has no less to give.
It is not offered with the wish to force any inherent distance between them either, but with a call to deepest intimacy.
It is a love born of design and truth and purpose. It is a completely different kind of love than we know naturally, or that one can even really grasp without His help. It is an entirely selfless love that is willing to cross the seemingly impassible chasm between Himself and fallen men, and then to radically transform us.
It is the love of One Who is perhaps, as C.S .Lewis thought, in a kind of eternal joyful dance with Himself, and Who has created us all so that we might enjoy Him, participate in this dance, and fellowship with and in the Godhead. We are made for this, and we are invited by Him to come into Him so that we can enjoy Him as He enjoys Himself. It is a mystery, for sure.
It is in looking at who God loves, and how God loves, that we may begin to grasp the love of God, and to grasp it unto worship. Yet it is here in this focus that we also unveil the fury of God … unto worship. Are we to worship … in response to God’s wrath? How so?
This is challenging indeed. We don’t think much about God’s wrath anymore; most avoid the topic at any cost… or speak of it only in apologetic, timid tones. We certainly don’t sing about it much… much less worship and rejoice in it.
For sure, the Jesus being preached today is not one to be feared. Yet, even in the paleness of God’s first earthly appearance, as much as they felt His love for them, there were times when the disciples were afraid of Jesus. “But they understood not this saying, and it was hid from them, that they perceived it not: and they feared to ask him of that saying.” (Lk 9:45)
And Jesus, while He was here, spoke often of Hell. Do you suppose He did so with love and joy? Do you suppose that He was moved to worship at the thought? If He was, would you have been afraid of Him too?
Is there anything about the Father in which Jesus does not rejoice?
How can we mortals ever understand Hell, viewing it from such an earthly perspective?
But there must be something sharply clarifying about being in Heaven, because the saints up there are singing about God’s wrath. An amazing scene unfolds in Revelation 15 to show us this, a scene that blends worship and wrath in an amazing way.
“And I saw another sign in heaven, great and marvelous, seven angels having the seven last plagues; for in them is filled up the wrath of God. And I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire: and them that had gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name, stand on the sea of glass, having the harps of God. And they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, Great and marvelous are thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints. Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name? for thou only art holy: for all nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy judgments are made manifest.” (Re 15:1-4)
Those present before God in that amazing day will worship as none have ever worshipped here, and it will be in delightful response to the unveiling of the judgments of God. The worship team itself will comprise those who’ve been directly persecuted by the anti-Christ, and the rest of us circling about will doubtless join them in perfectly glorious wonder. Perhaps we could learn a little, looking into how these perfected saints worship.
The first thing they point out to us is that God’s works are, indeed, amazing! All of His works, even those revealed in the destruction of His enemies, are truly awe inspiring. An endless parade of His ways calls to us to ponder them. We ought not to neglect any of them; in order to change our own dark orientation we do well to ponder those we fail at first to fully enjoy … such as God’s judgment of the wicked.
The second focus of their worship is God’s justice and perfection: “just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints.” There is utter perfection, an absolute trueness in every act of God, in His response to every situation. Even when God does not appear to respond, He is always being perfectly just in every conceivable way, all the time, in every circumstance. If we find a problem with something God says or does, or perhaps when He does not say or do as we think best, it’s time to reprogram, time to be transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we can say from the heart that every one of God’s ways is good and perfect. (Ro 12:2)
Finally, the saints exclaim how unreasonable it seems to them that anyone would not fear God and glorify Him, because He is so holy! They expect all nations to come and worship before God as He makes His judgments known. What is it that they see, that we have somehow missed?
What is evidently hidden from us, as we behold the wrath of God with anything less than glorious worship … is who … and what … has enraged our King. It would seem that we have not yet seen our King as He is, nor ourselves and others as He has.
Perhaps, in seeing God more as He is, we’ll finally begin to realize how awful sin is, how dreadfully wicked it is to be self-oriented and proud. Perhaps we’ll have some real grasp of the extent to which God has gone in giving up His Son as an offering for sinful men. Perhaps we will finally comprehend that every single human being outside of Christ was aware of God and His gift in some real and tangible way while on Earth. We will see that the wicked have willfully neglected God’s offer of salvation, and have despised Him in it. We will see that the wicked have chosen to be – and continue to choose to be – outside of Christ, and we will behold them, even in judgment and death, continuing to do so … even beyond death, and out into eternity.
Perhaps then we’ll realize how reasonable it is for God to be deeply enraged at every single human being outside of His Son. Perhaps then we’ll see the beauty and perfection of God’s fury toward sinners … His perfect hatred of them (Ps 5:5), and understand in the deepest places of our being that any other response is unthinkably dreadful.
After all, what could enrage a good man more than to have the death of his only son mocked and despised … continually … by those for whom he died?
Such is the pursuit of Joy. It is the disruption of our darkness, of our apathy … a wrenching of ourselves out of our selfish, seemingly safe, comfortable dullness, into His marvelous light. It can certainly be an upheaval, but what a glorious one!
The pursuit of joy is really the pursuit of God Himself. Please do take this pursuit, with God’s help, from here. Continue pursuing Him. Get connected with others who are willing to walk this way with you, and together seek the Holy Spirit’s revelation of God until you overflow with worship and adoration and joy in every thought of Him. Do this with every breath, until He takes you home.
In pursuing Jesus Christ with our whole heart, may we all be transformed more and more into His image. May the reality of the kingdom of God so shine forth in our faces, voices, words and deeds that God may be glorified in us all. Amen.