Choosing Joy

April 12, 2014

She was beautiful and outgoing, already well established with friendships at the seminary. I was introverted and introspective, new to the city and new to the seminary. I don’t remember how many weeks into our very first semester it took, but one day, as we both worked for our professors in the copy room, it happened. We became friends. And soon, once a week or so, we would spend a couple hours over cinnamon rolls and coffee, hearing each other’s stories and sharing each other’s dreams.

I was always struck by how different we were. Me with my more brooding reflection, she with her sunny and bubbling personality. And yet we somehow made it work. But the thing that was most lasting about that friendship was the way in which her face glowed, her eyes twinkled, she smiled almost all the time. For awhile I just thought she was a happy person. But in time I learned that instead this characteristic stemmed from a place deep within her. It was more than just happy. It was joy. Real joy. 

In some ways, she was the first person I knew who truly exuded joy. I’m sure I had met some others in my life and looking back I know I did, but this young woman was the first time I got to examine this fruit of the Spirit up close.

For a time, I felt inferior in the face of such exuding enthusiasm. How she must think of me! I often wondered. I wasn’t so outgoing, I tended to the more pensive things, I wanted to be in community with people but just enough on the edge that I could still keep my sense of reflection and insight. She on the other hand was the center of so many things. So, for a time, I felt inferior in her presence. But that joy… that joy was inescapable. It drew me in, if anything out of curiosity.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this person from my past. She and I no longer connect like we used to. Life and distance and time and experience all get in the way sometimes. But she has been coming to mind so many moments in recent weeks.  And inevitably thoughts of her lead me to thoughts of what the scripture calls a fruit of the Spirit… joy.

When I was in high school, a youth leader explained the difference between joy and happiness. This leader said that happiness was a like a balloon. It gets bigger and bigger and bigger when circumstances are good, but when they are not good, or as she put it “when the arrows of the Enemy come my way,” that balloon pops. But joy, she said, joy is like a rock. It stays put through everything. It stays strong. And when the arrows of the Enemy come its way, it crushes the arrows.

I have no idea if that’s accurate or simplistic or what. But I remember it. It seems to me that joy flows from something deeper. Something more than a feeling. It seems to me that joy plants itself in a soul willing to live into it and grows, anchored in the soil of Christ in us, the hope of the glory. Joy is a fruit of anchoring deep, of experiencing the gratitude that comes from being united with Jesus.

But joy also seems to be a choice. Because we live in a world where joy is not easily found. Real joy. It’s easy to get pretty down about how things are going. About what’s happening around us. About what’s not happening in our lives. I think sometimes joy has to be a choice. Especially for those of us not created the way my friend was. Some of us are not so easily prone to it like she is.

When I was facing what felt like insurmountable struggles with health, loss, God, and hope, I sat across from another woman, many years my senior. This woman held an impressive resume from missionary to mother to accounting to leading. She stood very tall and intimidating and intense with the way she would look at others. She had a quick wit and a concerned smile. We talked over bagel sandwiches and water as she accompanied a piece of my pain. And then she spoke these words: “Don’t let this steal your joy.”

She knew. She knew how easy that was. How joy had to be a choice. How it had to be something I let in day after day, or even moment after moment. I did not know how to do it at that time, but looking back, those words still sink in deep. “Don’t let this steal your joy.”

In Hebrews we read these words, “Fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for joy set before endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God the Father.”

“Who for the joy set before him.” The Greek word for could mean a couple things. It could mean “instead of.” Using it this way we would read this verse is saying that instead of continuing in the joy of what he had, he chose to be born here, to live and die in agony on the cross. It also could mean “in exchange for.” If this is the right way of using it, it means he willingly enduring all he did because he could see that there was joy beyond it. There was joy to be had after the agony of the cross.

I lean toward “in exchange for.” I could be wrong. But that’s where I lean. Because the encouragement here in Hebrews is for us to look to that as our point, our guide, where we fix our eyes when we are struggling to live the life we have. For the joy set before him… for the joy set before us.

This is why joy sometimes has to be a choice. This why we throw ourselves on the help of God to choose joy. Because suffering is real. And it is hard. And it is painful- sometimes more painful than we even imagine. We have to choose to have joy in order to endure. We can be honest about the pain, about the struggle, about how difficult it is. We can weep, we can moan, we can even lift our hands in sorrow without any words at all. But even in the suffering, we can choose joy. The rock. The seed that plants deep in us to bear fruit. Honest about who we are and where we are and honest about the hope we have. Even when that hope is so very small.

Perhaps it’s a spouse who is angry and generally difficult to be around… “for the joy set before you, endure.”

Perhaps it’s unemployment that lingers on and on and on… “for the joy set before you, endure.”

Perhaps it’s the stress of bills and a car repair…  “for the joy set before you, endure.”

Perhaps it’s the daily grind of work, parenting, too many expectations and demands… “for the joy set before you, endure.”

Perhaps it’s the stress of bills and a car repair…  “for the joy set before you, endure.”

Perhaps it’s a child who has you up night after night worrying…  “for the joy set before you, endure.”

Perhaps it’s your own internal struggle…  “for the joy set before you, endure.”

I don’t think this is easy. Some of us are naturally gifted like my beautiful friend who loved to chat over cinnamon rolls and coffee. Others of us know how hard it can be, like my older friend who had lived struggle and knew how joy could be so easily stolen.

Regardless of which each of us is, when we choose joy, joy becomes a gift. Not simply to us… but to others who might need to sit across from us and hear about where we try to fix our eyes. On Whom. And why.

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