Many times I have returned to gaze upon a picture my parents took of me as a child. No older than three, bright blue-eyed, with summer-tanned long limbs and wearing nothing but a green and red striped t-shirt and saggy diaper––I am the quintessential boy-boy. The incredible emotion the boy communicates to me is nearly breathtaking. I hold a water hose in one hand which is clearly the object creating the intense joy prevalent in my child-face. It is an unbeatable grin… perhaps pure, innocent jubilance… as if to that boy he had captured the flailing giant green snake that is spewing transparent poison from its mouth as it twists and turns around from the power of the surging water. The grin is sheer triumph over the imaginary beast he has conquered. In the plain delight of such a moment my mother or father had somehow captured the snapshot on their old canon camera and it lives on to this day there on the faded 4×6 photo paper.
To be a man in his thirties and look upon the babe that I once was holds its own nostalgia. To reminisce this memory though it no longer was there in the forefront of my mind forced me to dig deep into the multi-layered issues of childlike innocence, the joy that erupts from the young, and to question the grief that settles in with age.
Children are filled with innocence. You see it when you look into their eyes and it directly relates to their naive joy. You know they are naive but it doesn’t take away from the effect their joy has upon you. Just this morning I witnessed several children, mine included, begin jumping up and down and screaming at the mention of going into Chik-fil-a and playing in the play-area there. The joy I see in them is confronting and often causes me to question the lack of exuberance I see within myself. The sparkle I see in their deep brown eyes repeatedly outwits me and like a jab to the ribs I double over in my spirit and ponder the details of the Christian story. What makes life so unenjoyable for adults?
I forewarn you, crafty fellow that I am, that this post will most likely not end the way you think. This is not a guilt rally which terminates in the shameful accusation that you as a christian are lacking joy and that you just need to have more! I am attempting to scour the depths of the characters in the Bible and mine a few typically unquoted Scriptures so as to level the playing field regarding the facade of christian jubilation. Let’s define the facade of christian jubilation.
The Facade of Christian Jubilation: The belief that one must always be joyful and exemplify that joy because at the end of the day you have been saved from your sins by Jesus. If you don’t model joy about the reality of your free gift of salvation then you are failing in general as a true Christian. Basically, fake it until you make it.
Simplified: Faking joy, or trying to be joyful because you are a “Christian,” even when you do not feel joy at all. This is usually based off of the belief that the Scriptures command this unceasing “joy” to be inherent to being a believer.
During this year I have been challenged several times on the forefront of what I believe about the Gospel. Particularly, I have been questioned about a “lack of joy” that a few people have perceived in my life. In one instance, I was told “Christianity is about being joyful.” In another instance I was told ,“I cannot believe in the gospel you preach because I don’t see enough joy in your life.” To be honest, both instances offended me, and although I talked through the issues with both parties, they neither cared to understand or believe what I tried to explain. This post is what I said and I’ll leave the decision up to you. These two brothers’ perception of “joy” challenged me to seek out the biblical understanding of joy, of rejoicing, happiness, and what the actual state of Christians should be. First, let’s look at the passages that have most likely already come to your mind.
It’s probable that Philippians is already at the forefront of your mind and it should be. Within this letter we have about 16 mentions of joy.
Paul, writing this letter from prison starts by stating his joy in prayer for the church in Philippi at their participation in the gospel:
“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, 4always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, 5in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now…”
The man who has been imprisoned for his own participation in the gospel, has joy in considering that the Philippians are also choosing to participate in the gospel that has caused his imprisonment. In other words, it seems he feels joy that the outcome will soon be their empathizing with his sufferings––that they have chosen to participate no matter the cost for the furtherance of the gospel. He continues,
“For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus,”
meaning that Jesus will give them the strength to endure the same sufferings Paul is enduring until it results in martyrdom or until He comes again on His day in the future. We see that Paul again in verse 12 directly relates his sufferings (circumstances) to be for the greater progress of the Gospel.
So, in this first chapter we see Paul’s joy relates to the church being willing to suffer, and Paul’s rejoicing is in regard to the furtherance of the Gospel, in which he joyfully endures his own sufferings. In neither of these scenarios do we have an unwarranted, always-smiling face that represents “christianity.” That is to say, Paul doesn’t seem to be jumping around his jail cell in celebration simply because he is a Christian and has been saved by Jesus from his sins. Paul’s joy is deeply present within the context of suffering, and that it is unto something which is the furtherance of the Gospel so that Christ will be exalted in his body whether by life or by death, (cf. Phil. 1:20) and that people would be able to stand firm in this gospel approving the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ (cf. Phil. 1:10).
It is the day of Christ Jesus that in Paul’s mind is distinctly supporting this anchor of joy which will be manifested in the future. That future hope causes him deep joy in the present whether his face says so or not. Is this the same joy that believers possess today? Paul will go further into defining his sufferings and proclaiming that the church in Philippi must participate with him just in case there was any confusion,
“For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, 30experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me.”
There is no mistaking what Paul says here. From his stinky, moldy, wet, cold stone cell he reminds the church to experience the same conflict seen in him. His soon beheading relays the same information to us.
I hope that we are beginning to see how Paul is defining joy and rejoicing in these passages. We see that he is definitely not saying, “Always smile lest people not know you are a Christian.” He is saying that he possesses deep, unshakable joy for the fact that he has been counted worthy to suffer for Christ’s sake, and he encourages others to do the same. We see that joy is in his heart when others participate in the gospel even unto their own suffering. His joy is attached to the day of Christ Jesus in the future when those who suffer with Him may also be glorified with Him (Rom. 8:17).
The context of suffering is pertinent to understanding Paul’s demeanor. He sits in a cell––it has furthered the gospel. He resides in chains––it has encouraged others to participate in the gospel. He suffers for Christ-–he empathizes with others and encourages them to be like him. In these things he has joy––the gospel is being lived out in real time and space for the glory of Christ Jesus. What glorious things to possess joy over!
Paul will then plunge into the depths of beauty in writing Philippians 2 by exhausting the insurmountable splendor of our crucified Messiah and how we should be of the same mind as Him. Paul’s conclusion is simple: The Creator of the heavens and the earth became a human servant and died the ugliest death imaginable. Thus, we should do the same for Him. In this he rejoices as the chains dig deeper in his wrists still. He rejoices because Christ has counted Him worthy to be formed into the likeness of what he explains in chapter 2. He will end the chapter with the story of Epaphroditus who became sick to the point of death for the sake of the Gospel and command that such a man be received with joy by the saints since he almost died for Christ’s sake. There we again see joy manifested as they delight in a brother who has suffered for Christ.
On the heels of Epaphroditus is the reminder to rejoice! I wonder if we’re getting the picture yet? Paul is suffering. Christ is suffering. Epaphroditus is suffering. And Paul is telling the church in Phillipi that they need to suffer. However, in the midst of such strong exhortation around suffering is the language of joy and rejoicing! This is simple, yet immensely profound. Is Paul simply saying rejoice when you suffer for Christ? He continues to lump all of his sufferings into one glorious statement of having suffered the loss of all things and count them but rubbish so that he might gain Christ…that he might know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that he may attain to the resurrection from the dead,” (3:7-11).
We do not relate to this intensity. We think we do, but we do not, and we must take a small parenthesis here to explain how intense these words are.
In a previous post entitled “The Making of a Faceless Person” we embarked on the journey of Paul’s self-perception––Paul’s face––being swallowed whole into the face of Christ. Indeed, this had happened for Paul. I doubt any one of us reading this can say that we have suffered the loss of all things for the sake of Christ. This passage persistently blows my mind (insert emoji of your choice).
It might be easier to rephrase these passages for better clarity. This is how I perceive it in my mind:
I have lost everything that I have ever possessed on purpose and counted all things as total sh*t so that I may only gain Christ Jesus as my sole reward. I want to know Him on the day of His power when He resurrects me from the dead, and this is why I have chosen to know Him know in the fellowship of His sufferings, hoping that He receives this weak response of self-sacrifice, not as a work by which I inherit the resurrection, but as an offering of love because I want to be a part of that resurrection in which I receive Him finally as my true reward.
This is how I perceive it being said, I, not the Lord. I have often called this section the resurrection sandwich. Paul places suffering between two statements regarding resurrection in vs. 11. It just seems clear that he is saying I want to know Jesus on the day of resurrection, therefore I take up my cross as He did, so that I might also be resurrected. This is not salvation by works in Paul’s mind––it is simply response to the glory of Christ crucified. It is fellowship with Jesus. Do not be mistaken friends, true intimacy for the chief apostle was not a morning quiet time, it was a jail cell where he was bound hand and foot by chains, slowly undergoing the metamorphosis of becoming like the cross of Christ.
I have recently asked myself the question: How will you relate to Jesus on the day He appears if you never suffer as He did? If I’m a soccer player and I walk into a room full of soccer players, we have common ground. We have fellowship so to speak. We all know the game, the equipment, the field, and we can all run a very long time playing this game we have in common. The question with Christ is far more reaching. When you stand in the room with Jesus, the overlooked rejected prophet/messiah who had a ‘failure’ of a ministry that resulted in His brutal flogging and staking to the crossbeam in execution––will He relate to your american dream? Will you have common ground with Him is the question? Did you play the game of life before eternal life by His rules? Did you understand the equipment of humility and servanthood? Did you run the race with endurance pressing on towards the goal to win the prize? Paul and the other apostles who were all martyred will relate to Jesus on this common ground. Imagine when Jesus asks Peter to recount out loud when he was crucified upside down… Peter might immediately think “Good grief I’m so glad I went through with it!” And in that moment he can relate to the same death Jesus experienced, upside down! There will be fellowship between the two of them, there will be common ground. For those who have never chosen to suffer for Christ’s sake, the same cannot be said.
I’m being a little over dramatic for the sake of emphasis. I am not saying that everyone must be martyred to relate to Jesus. I am saying that embracing the stigma that comes along with standing for Christ without compromise is the common ground that you will relate to Him on. There is an actual fellowship that happens with Jesus when someone curses His name and you do not shy away from your faith. There is a bond of affection between you and Jesus when you are slandered for being a Christian. True intimacy occurs in the flames of the stake, in the bottoms of the guillotine, and at the end of the scourge… We enter into this fellowship of sufferings. We follow their example.
Ending our parenthesis, we come to the end of Philippians chapter 3 where Paul makes a statement that will catapult us into the antithesis of joy. Grief. Here within the confines of the four chapters normally cited as the reason for why Christians should always be happy without cause is a crucial point. Direct your attention to verse 17,
“Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us. 18For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, 19whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things. 20For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; 21who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.”
Here we behold Paul weeping over brothers who have turned away from the Cross to serve earthly realities; effectively they have stopped their participation in the gospel. His exhortation remains as consistent as before. Follow my example, and the example of those who walk according to the pattern. The pattern he has identified as willingness to suffer for Christ’s sake with joy, which is participation in the gospel and fellowship with Christ. He continues the section by fixing the hope upon the Savior who will bring resurrection life and power in the future for those who have followed the pattern, and he confesses that this event is what we eagerly wait for while we yet suffer.
Paul is weeping because these once participants in the gospel have seemingly refused the pattern seen in him and it will result in their destruction. The tears falling from his eyes contain sorrow over their final state.
Weeping is the antithesis of joy and rejoicing. We see the apostle in this epistle continually exhorting the believers to rejoice, yet here he is weeping. Does that not strike you as odd? I think this lends helpful insight into the essence of joy we are trying to discover. In the midst of Paul suffering in prison for the gospel, he is rejoicing in the day of Christ Jesus which will bring reward for his sufferings, while he weeps tears of grief over the brothers who were not willing to suffer and have become enemies of the Cross. This is an occasion for weeping.
What does it mean to become an enemy of the Cross? Paul does not tell us… or does he? An enemy of the state is opposed to the state laws. An enemy of the Cross is opposed to the laws of the Cross. The law of the Cross is suffering BEFORE glory. To be an enemy of the Cross is therefore simply unwillingness to suffer in this age-–believing that Christians should be blessed, rich, and having a joyous inheritance on this earth now. This makes you an enemy of the suffering beheld there, while the friends of the cross possess fellowship with Christ Jesus as they suffer in hopes of the reward in the next age.
Paul is surely familiar with Jesus’ words we find in Matthew 5,
11“Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. 12“Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
So, we rejoice in the midst of suffering because great is our reward in the kingdom of heaven. Paul is consistent with Jesus. In addition Paul is weeping over these men who will not inherit eternal life. This is the tension for the apostle. This is the subject we are attempting to unveil.
In Romans 9 Paul lays bare his inmost being. We cannot skip over the language he uses and the terms he employs to explain his state.
1I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, 2that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. 3For I could wish that I myself were accursed,separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, 4who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and thetemple service and the promises, 5whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
Firstly, Paul states that his following statement is the truth in Messiah, testified of as true by the Holy Spirit. You could even say that Paul is “swearing on the name of Christ and the Holy Spirit”, that what he is about to say is authentic and neither fabricated nor exaggerated. He takes what he is saying seriously enough to announce this before his statement. When I am giving a message to a group of people and I am about to share something personal to me that God has done to make a point, I will often preface it by saying, “I am going to share a pearl of my heart with you – please do not turn and trample it underfoot.” I make a statement like this to qualify the vulnerability out of which I am about to speak and that what I am sharing is absolutely true whether they believe it or not. It seems Paul is doing this same thing here.
Secondly, it is helpful to define the Greek words Paul uses in order to see clearly what he is saying.
Sorrow is from the root greek word odýnē meaning: intense emotional pain (personal anguish); consuming grief, which is emotionally lethal if experienced apart from God’s grace which comforts.
Grief is: lýpē, meaning: distress, vexation; (figuratively) physical or emotional pain; heavy, heart-sorrow (grief) that brings a person down.
Paul’s use of the adjectives great and unending only further and strengthen the point he is trying to carefully articulate. Understanding this helps us to define the intensity of Paul’s statement and what he was trying to communicate. I paraphrase: Before Messiah and His Holy Spirit there is something I must to tell you about me that is absolutely true. Deep inside of me exists a perpetual unending reality of intense emotional pain, consuming grief, great heavy hearted sorrow and vexation of soul at the current state of God’s people Israel.
Welcome to Paul’s reality. I wonder at who might explain to Paul after the reading of such verses that he’s obviously forgotten that the purpose of Christianity is experiencing joy and he needs to break through into the reality of what Christ has done. “Come on Paul! Do you know what Jesus died for on the Cross? Stop misrepresenting Christianity!” No. Paul had a divine burden from the Lord because he understood something that we most likely do not. Have we erased the calling of grief from its Christian orientation?
Jeremiah had a very similar reality.
My sorrow is beyond healing, my heart is faint within me! …For the brokenness of the daughter of my people I am broken; I mourn, dismay has taken hold of me. 8:18-21
“Oh that my head were waters and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” 9:1
“Woe is me, because of my injury! My wound is incurable. But I said, “Truly this is a sickness, and I must bear it.” 10:19
Within the context of impending judgment is the prophetic heart burdened with grief at what is about to take place. Jeremiah’s apparent grief was carried within a heart that “understands and knows the Lord,” (cf. Jer. 9:24).
What about Jesus?
“When He approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. “For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation,” (cf. Lk. 19:41-44).
We gather from the way Luke tells this story that there had been something keeping Jerusalem out of Jesus’ direct line of vision as He rode atop the colt. The journey from Bethany can involve twists and turns around the small mountains outside of Jerusalem. We picture Jesus there, atop the virgin burro. Mobs of Israelites are there, possibly thousands upon thousands yelling ,“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord,” as they cast palm branches and their very own garments on the road before Him. Surely the festive nationalistic spirit of the messianic expectation was overwhelming as they praised this Man in belief that he was the promised One!
But did Jesus smile and receive their praise? Did He nod in affirmation of their chorus? The Scripture doesn’t record this. Instead, Jerusalem comes suddenly into sight and in the midst of such celebration, Jesus’ eyes look upon the city and well up with tears.
What a Debbie Downer Jesus was! Couldn’t He have been more merciful towards the cheering crowds? Why this blade of sorrow cutting through the air with such sad sword?
Although His weeping is not described in detail, we can assume that when God weeps there is nothing attention-seeking nor pretentious about it. The pure and undefiled emotion in Jesus’ declaration tells us of the deep burden within His heart–that the same great sorrow and unending grief within Paul was also bound up in Him––an integral part of His nature was bursting out. It is the very essence of the Man of Sorrows found in Isaiah 53. And there we must stop and meditate on the ludicrousness of the Creator atop an animal of His creation, surrounded by humans, His very chosen ones, weeping un-conjured tears at the condition of “distress and bloodshed” He saw in the city before Him.
What must’ve filled His heart as He beheld the city that He has chosen to be the eternal resting place of His feet? What overtook Him when he gazed upon the city where His throne––the throne of David––is to be established forever? The city which the nations will stream to saying “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord and learn His ways!”, lay there before Him, arrayed in foreign colors as a wayward prostitute. Israel lay captive to Rome under broken covenant, riddled with the sin of the nations… and the Holy One of Israel looks on from a donkey just outside her gates. What a paradox!
We behold Paul possessing a perpetual internal state of sorrow. Jeremiah’s eyes gush flowing tides of tears. Jesus weeps atop the colt. The apostle, the prophet, and the King of glory did not express unending joy? Why do many Christians see weeping and grief as an illegitimate representation of Christianity, instead of as an integral part of being a true Christian?
These three men knew something… these men lived in reality. They were marked with deep burden that I would question many of us understand or ever partake of. When judgment is upon the horizon the response is not to be weirdly optimistic and dance in joy that many people are about to perish under the wrathful judgments of God coming upon the land. The response is to feel what God feels in the midst of it. This is what sets apart His friends who understand Him from the masse that claim His name.
There are numerous other verses to cite in such a post as this but time fails us. Paul and the apostles continually reference the groan of being delivered from this wicked age,
1For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven, 3inasmuch as we, having put it on, will not be found naked. 4For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed but to be clothed, so that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life. 5Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge,” (2 Cor. 5:1-5).
For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. 23And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. 24For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what healready sees? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it,” (Rom. 8:22-25).
Maybe you are the rare breed that smiles, laughs, and pretends everything is ok while they are groaning? Fantasy! Those of us who have admitted the wickedness bound up in these bodies of death are contorted in our innards while we long for the day of deliverance, the day of Christ Jesus, when He will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself,” (Phil. 3:21). This mortal has been given the Spirit as a pledge of the day in the future when he puts on immortality.
Yesterday I held my son and daughter in my arms and launched them through the air and onto the couch. Over and over, time and time again it was fulfilling for them to participate. It gave them joy. Often I feel that I am looking into their eyes and seeing the same things I do in that photo of me. I could compare it to standing on a rock at the foot of Niagara Falls and just watching in awe. I want what they have… their joy is powerful… more powerful than the waters surging over the shelf of Niagara. I desire to be filled with that powerful joy overflowing and engulfed in laughter that continues until I cry every tear out of the ducts in my eyeballs. That’s what I want! But… it’s not that simple is it?
Many times I have heard the exhortation that we are to be this way because we are simply Christians, and that is what Christians do: Be joyful! From what we’ve looked upon in the Bible though, it would seem that this is not the constant state of what Christians should be. Solomon says something in Ecclesiastes that teaches us true wisdom (whenever Solomon talks, I always remember that this was the wisest man that has ever lived on earth because God made him that). He says, “Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain,” (1:18).
As Christians we should be growing in the wisdom of the Gospel and increasing in the knowledge of Christ. If Solomon is right, which he is, then with the growth and increase of these things comes the growth and increase of grief and pain. This is the point that I have been attempting to get us to. I may not have done it well in this post, but I want us to consider these things.
When I am a child I don’t understand how out of order the world is, that murderers exist, and that child molesters could live on my street. I possess innocence and naivety to “bad” things. As I grow up I learn those things, and grief and pain settles in. If Solomon’s formula holds true, which it does, then Christians who possess wisdom should also possess grief and believers who increase in knowledge will also increase in pain.
In my thirties I behold the state of the earth in rebellion towards God and realize that things are bad. It causes me grief. I perceive that from the garden until now things have only increasingly become worse, and are only growing worse still, and this causes me pain. I know that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and I understand that most people are not fearing Him. This causes an ache. I see the firstborn people of God apostate and the land promised to them war-torn and divided. This causes true sorrow. I am wiling to suffer persecution in the midst of these elements and bear the stigma that comes with believing that Christ is the only mediator who can reconcile these things. In this I have joy. I know that the Father has fixed a day when He will vindicate His Name and His Messiah will descend on the clouds of heaven, give resurrected bodies to those who have suffered with Him and begin his reign on the throne of Jerusalem. On that day He will make Jerusalem a praise in the earth (Is. 62:7) and the gentiles will rejoice with His people (Deut. 32:43)! I groan for that day, and in this I have immoveable and unshakable joy. It may not manifest as a smile all the time. In fact, it might even be present there in the wailing and contorted face of sorrow… you just have to see it through a different lens. Christians don’t define what joy is–– Christ and the Bible does.
In my thirties I stare into the niagara falls of my children playing and it moves me… I miss that naive joy. I gaze upon that picture of me as a child and it steals my breath. I long to be that boy. I rejoice to know that this is not the end and I will soon be like my son and the boy in that photo again.
Even so, “Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!”