I love ziplining. There’s something about being buckled into the harness and plunging into the unknown, knowing that as you rush through the trees you are securely held to the line.
I remember my first ride very well. The biggest obstacle was being willing to take that first step off the platform, trusting that the equipment would hold me. I hesitated until our guide practically pushed me off. But, once I experienced it, I was hooked and there was no turning back.
I was thinking about that experience this week as my small group came to the end of a study on Philippians. The main theme of this book, written by the apostle Paul from a Roman prison, is joy.
But what does joy really mean? When we are going through a difficult trial, how do we experience the joy that God promises to give? When we are just living the routine of everyday life, how do we infuse it with joy? How do we step off the platform, resting in the harness and trusting our lifeline to hold us?
Maybe you’ve read verses like “Rejoice always” (Philippians 4:4, 1 Thessalonians 5:16) and thought, “How am I supposed to be joyful when my life has been shattered into a thousand pieces?”
Maybe you even “get” that happiness and joy are two very different things: happiness coming from enjoyable external circumstances and joy being an inward result of knowing and trusting God in spite of our circumstances.
But…knowing what joy is supposed to mean and experiencing it are not the same. The reality is, we still tend to equate joy with happiness and the emotion of gladness. When trials come, we have trouble sorting it out. I’m not glad when my child or spouse dies. I’m not glad when my husband has an affair. I’m not glad when diagnosed with a life-threatening or chronic illness. I’m not glad when addiction is devastating the life of someone I love. I’m more likely to be sad, angry, or fearful. What does it mean to be joyful?
Maybe joy doesn’t mean what we think it means. Maybe it’s time to deconstruct our definition of joy and reconstruct it in a way that we can experience it and receive it even in the worst of trials.
Here’s what I’ve learned through our study:
1. Joy is a gift received, not a feeling achieved.
The Greek word for joy is chara, which is the root word for grace (charis). We can’t make ourselves joyful any more than we can earn God’s grace. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22), a gift from God produced by His work in us, not by our own self-effort. We can’t produce joy in our lives, no matter how hard we try. Forced joy is fake joy. What if we think of joy as we think of grace, something to be received from God, sufficient for every trial? As we receive and respond to God’s grace, joy begins to bud and bloom, not because we’re glad of our circumstances, but because we are grateful for God’s presence in the midst of them.
2. Joy is a person, not a place or a thing.
Remember what the angels said when Jesus was born? “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-12, ESV). We can’t have joy apart from the presence of Jesus Christ. Psalm 16:11 (ESV) says “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy.” We have to change our unrealistic expectation of having joy in spite of our circumstances to having joy because of the presence of Jesus in those circumstances.
3. Joy is rooted in rest.
Maybe you think of being joyful as being a cheerleader for God, demonstrating your own strength and ability to praise him even when your world is falling apart. Or, maybe you think you have to be the Energizer bunny, keeping on keeping on when you have nothing left to give. My friend, this will eventually wear you down and wear you out. Our strength will fail us every time.
Twice in Philippians Paul says to “Rejoice in the Lord” but we often skip over or misinterpret the prepositional phrase. That little word “in” conveys the idea of being in something or Someone so that you are resting in that something or Someone. Joy comes from resting in the Lord. Resting in and leaning into His love as you step off the platform, trusting it to hold you to Him.
The chorus of this old hymn by Jean S. Pigott (1876) says it well:
Jesus I am resting, resting
In the joy of what Thou art
I am finding out the greatness
Of Thy loving heart.
Where do you need to revisit your expectations of joy this week? Will you rest in the joy of his presence and receive that which he so desires to give?