Joy and Suffering

Christ's hands

Joy to the world the Lord has come!

The angel declared, “I have come to announce good news of great joy…”

Jesus said, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.”

He later added on that solemn last night, “You will have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”

One of the great characteristics of Christian conversion and living is joy.  It is a fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23.  It is the Holy Spirit in this passage that shapes us to be like Christ, and Christ-likeness is precisely what the fruits of the Holy Spirit reveal:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control.

How’s your joy?  Or rather, how is Christ himself being fashioned in you?  What does it mean to say ‘The joy of the Lord is your strength’?  It just seems to me that joy is crucial and central to the vitality of our lives.  How’s your joy in the Lord right now?

Going back to the earlier Scripture reference, no one can take this God-given joy from us, even in the midst of sorrow.  And we all suffer from sorrow, yet we must grow the fruit of joy.  Sorrow is certain but joy is the promise!

Real joy does not flee in the face of sorrow or suffering.  Real, Spirit infused joy, that divine fruit growing in the garden of the human heart tended by Father God, is that element of the fruits of the Spirit that can’t be faked!

We are masters of undercover living!  We can look like we love, show kindness, be gentle, be faithful and all these things, we can force ourselves to do a loving even sacrificial act, but we can’t, in a million years, force ourselves to be full of joy.

It’s like the 10 commandments.  We can tick right down the list, 1 through 9 and proudly assert that we do all these things, and do them quite well actually, thanks for asking!  But number ten will get us.  That inward, secret chamber of the heart, where coveting what others have, is born!  No one sees that!  They all think I’m a great worshipper and lover of God, but dang, that last one sure sorted out the wheat from the chaff.

Joy is like that.  Why is it even a fruit of the Spirit?  Think of someone you know who is full of joy, the joy of the Lord.  Aren’t they just attractive to be around?  Joy is that secret weapon of God that he gives to not only show us what He is like (heaven is going to be great – and you can quote me on that), but to enable us, in Christ, to live through, bear with, to survive well, the sorrows and traumas of living in a world broken by sin’s destruction and death.

And so the promise of this fruit of the Spirit is a way God assures us of inner healing.  We all need healing.  We all seek wholeness.  For some, maybe most, our search for wholeness is a life long quest.  Christ came to make us whole, and we are only whole when we are fully and finally in him.  Our life here, on earth, together, is a step-by-step journey towards that ultimate promise:  “I will heal you” says the Lord.

And the agony we face is this:  Unless we attend to our inner conflicts, pains and contradictions in Christ, not only are we harming ourselves, but in all likelihood, we will inflict wounds on those around us.

But God has created us for wholeness not brokenness.  And our search continues from the first day to our last day.  The joy of the Lord, the promise of something that God is, keeps us going.  Joy.

Evidence that our world is broken is seen in any old bookshop.  Books promising healing and wholeness may help in some small way, but their very existence reveal the gravity of the human problem.  And yet joy isn’t a Christian version of mere positive thinking.  In her book, ‘Smile or Die – how positive thinking fooled America and the world’ Barbara Ehrenreich exposes the folly of forcing joy and how in the end it actually leads to catastrophe.  Thankfully she doesn’t even spare the cancerous church problem of the health and wealth gospel, which is no gospel at all, but a disease.

The world is broken.  Christ is the answer.  Joy is the down payment.

There are no short cuts.  Look at Job.  After all the discussion with his so-called friends, God eventually speaks and gives him a better lesson on creation and nature than anything even the BBC can do!  Job’s ‘comfort’ begins with the chilling words of a God who shatters our illusions, even if we are roughly right about our own suffering.  God doesn’t comfort Job in any sense of the way we mean.  Before his devastating tour through the natural world, God simply says, “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?”  There was no “there there” because there are no short-cuts.

Jean Vanier writes, “Each human being carries their own wounds, their own difficulties of relationships and their own anguish.  It is a question of learning to live day after day with this reality and not in a state of illusion.”   Fake joy maintains this illusion (i.e. ‘Smile or Die), real Christlike joy exposes it (i.e. Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice – while chained to a prison wall no less)!

So this Spirit given gift helps us in our lives to become like Christ in the midst of our fragmented lives, with ourselves, with others, the wider world and not least, with God Himself.  The joy of Christ, sustains us as we face each of these areas in our lives.

The reason why the story of Adam and Eve is so important to the understanding of sin, is because every human being is either Adam or Eve.  We live our lives playing out their drama until the New Adam comes, Christ Jesus, to rescue and restore.

The perfect and sinless Adam and Eve are set in a garden.  All around them the glorious and mysterious presence of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.  “It’s all yours” God says with joy.  “The whole world, all of it…..except…..except that little tree over there, don’t go there, that’s the only condition.”  And suddenly, with that command, millenia before the 10 commandments are given, they break number ten.  Millenia before Paul writes of the fruits of the Spirit, their joy in God and joy in the world now vanishes as they covet and desire the only thing they were not to touch.

And when desire is conceived, it gives birth to sin, and sin fully grown, gives birth to death.  They take the fruit, and eat.  Sin comes, joy goes, they hide, God searches.  “Where are you” he calls, as a father calls out when playing hide-and-seek with a toddler!  “Oh there you are….er, why the fig leaves…, I found this half eaten apple, is it yours?”

In rejecting God and his Word, they reject their wholeness.  They and the entire human race lives with this legacy.  We embrace sin and we get sorrow.  Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the snake, it’s all rather pathetic.  Sin’s curse is set:  enmity between men and women, pain and suffering, toil and sweat.  Relationships broken and creation groaning.

And unless our relationship with God is made whole, we all remain standing, fig-leaves flapping in the breeze, under the tree in the Garden of Eden.  Joy-less and sin-full.  And the only way to end this joyless and sinful existence is to say ‘Yes!” to Jesus and stand not under the tree that condemns us, but the Tree that condemned Him.  Where he took our joyless and sinful nature and nailed it.  For the joy set before him he endured the Cross.

Adam and Eve took a short-cut when they disobeyed.  The cross tells us that Jesus took no such short-cut when He obeyed.  The mingling of the Joy of the Lord and the sorrow of our sin is a lifetime process of becoming like Jesus.  The wood that made the cross was once a seed, and the tree took years to grow.  It was fashioned, cut, stripped and reshaped.  Chosen.  Like us.  And this is never easy or comfortable.  It is drawn out and painful.

And then it is thrust into the earth, a horizontal and vertical.  As our arms reach out to the forbidden fruit, so Jesus’ arms reach out.  His reaching out cancels our reaching out.  His obedience cancels our disobedience.  His death cancels our death, and his joy is ours when, and only when, we too see that we have been crucified with Christ.  You’ll have joy all right, now pick up your cross and follow me!

The Old Adam loved his tree.  The New Adam endured his.  The Old Adam hid from God.  The New Adam assures us that God has found us.  The God who is near, seeking us out, searching for the waifs and strays, the lost, the broken, the joyless.  And he brings them home, clothed in robes of righteousness not fig-leaves, healed, whole and full of joy.

1500 years ago a Benedictine abbot wrote, “To seek God means first of all to let yourself be found by him.  He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  He is the God of Jesus Christ.  He is your God, not because He is yours but because you are His.   To choose God is to realise that you are known and loved in a way surpassing anything you can imagine, long before anyone had thought of you or spoken your name.”

When you were born, God whispered, “I’ve been expecting you.”  And when you are Born-again, God says, “Ha!  I’ve found you.”

And then God says,

“Now that I’ve found you, I’m going to sanctify you, heal you and give you a mission to do.  I accept you just as you are, but I’m going to change you, in the same way a highly desirable tree with forbidden fruit can change and be crafted into a crude and undesirable cross, I’m going to change you.  I’ll take your sin, your brokenness and sorrow, slowly but surely, and nail it to the Cross.  I will forgive you, and change you, from glory to glory, and make you like Jesus. 

And because Jesus is so full of joy, I will give you his joy in all fullness.  You will have sorrow, and trials, and temptations, but I promise, I am with you, keep your eyes on Jesus and my Spirit will grow the most wonderful, delightful fruit in your life.  Your relationships can be restored, when modelled on Jesus.  And by His stripes, I will heal you.  Now go and tell all people everywhere about this good news of great joy that is for all people.  Go, go on.”

And as Paul writes at the beginning of Philippians chapter 4, so I say to here, “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!”

Joy to the world, the Lord has come.


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