“Rejoice and be glad!” Jesus says this to his followers who are persecuted and reviled and slandered as they follow him. Be glad. Have joy. Even in your suffering. (Mt 5:10)
Is he kidding?! How in the world can we possibly be joy-filled and glad in the midst of persecution and suffering? And there will be persecution, Jesus declares again and again. Jesus may have promised to lead us through a rose garden but he was clear that there would be many thorns in the following. Where’s the joy in that?
But maybe we’re looking for joy in all the wrong places. Too often we confuse joy with happiness. But they aren’t the same thing and we run into trouble when we think they are.
Happiness is an emotion, often fleeting, that comes and goes based on the events that happen to us. We spend a lot of time, energy and resources searching for happiness, looking in all sorts of places – possessions, relationships, money, success, drugs etc. – for the next high of happiness. But since it’s transitory, happiness quickly disappears until it’s replaced with the next “happy hour”…at least until the timer runs out.
Joy, on the other hand, is spiritual and is centered in our relationship with the one who calls us to follow. Joy is a gift, often given over time and through a cumulation of our experiences of God’s love, peace and blessing with us. Joy doesn’t disappear over the next hill or into the next valley. Joy, once discovered, remains with us, not through our work but through the power of the Spirit when in faith, we open ourselves to the in-spirited Christ within.
What does this joy look like in everyday life? If I had to pick two of the most joy-filled people in the Bible, I’d pick Anna and Simeon. (Luke 2:25-38) And it’s not just because they eventually got to see and touch and hold the salvation of the world, although that was the moment their joy was fulfilled. No, they lived in joy even before that special day.
Neither Anna nor Simeon had an easy life. They were members of a persecuted and oppressed people, practicing their faith in an Empire that saw them as conquered. Anna had been widowed and left childless early in life. Simeon had received a promise that seemed to take forever to come about. Yet both Anna and Simeon lived their lives in the joy of expectant waiting, prayer-filled worship, and devout relationship with the God whom they trusted to bring new life to the world. Anna and Simeon didn’t spend their lives searching for momentary instances of happiness; they lived every day in the new life given them each moment through God’s promises, celebrating the beauty and blessing of God’s life they were receiving.
Joy is a gift shared by God, not only as an end result of following Jesus but in the following itself, thorns and all. In our following, we find joy in the now through the promised new life of God’s indwelling future. Joy doesn’t deny the pain and persecution of the following; it acknowledges it as real. But at the same time, joy says to death, suffering and persecution, “You don’t get the last word. Life does. Love does. Impossible-to-understand peace does.” Joy always finds God’s new life and blessing in the present (as difficult as it may be to see sometimes) and hopes through faith for the new life God gives.
So let us follow Jesus, falling in joy with God in the same way we fall in love with God. In this following we will discover what it means to love…but more about love next week.
In the joy of Christ,
Bishop Laurie Jungling