Often it is the people closest to suffering who have the most powerful joy. Friends of Mother Teresa say that instead of being overwhelmed by the suffering around her, she fairly glows with joy as she goes about her ministry of mercy. One of the English officers imprisoned at Flossenberg with Dietrich Bonhoeffer said of him, “Bonhoeffer always seemed to me to spread and atmosphere of happiness and joy over the least incident and profound gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive.
True joy, as it turns out, comes only to those who devoted their lives to something greater than personal happiness. This is most visible in extraordinary lives, in saints and martyrs. But it is no less true for ordinary people like us.
One test of authentic joy is its compatibility with pain. Joy in this world is always joy “in spite of” something. Joy is as Karl Barth put it, a “defiant nevertheless” set at a full stop against bitterness and resentment.
I remember one day, and so this is Sydney, Australia 1986-1987, and so it was the height of rave parties in Australia. So, the drug ecstasy was running rampant, and in the university scene, people were doing ecstasy and people going to rave parties. I hadn’t seen my friend for about three days. I was wondering, “What’s going on?”
Then one day I was doing my homework up there at the home building at Sydney Uni, and my friend comes running in, and she goes, “Chris, Chris, I couldn’t wait to see you.” She goes, “You would not believe I’ve just been at this most amazing rave party, and it was the most incredible experience of my life. There was so much love there. There was so much joy. There was so much peace. We didn’t sleep for three days.”
She put her hand in her pocket, pulls out half an ecstasy tablet, and she said, “Chris, it was the most unbelievable experience, and I didn’t want you to miss this experience, and so I saved you half of this ecstasy tablet because I wanted you to step into this experience.”
I remember that moment, tears started streaming down my face and internally in my heart I made a vow, and in my heart it was like I said to the Lord, “She is more passionate about the love, joy, and peace that this synthetic drug can bring to her than I am about my faith that theoretically is supposed to bring love, and joy, and peace, and kindness, and goodness, all of the fruit of the spirit.” I thought, “That is not the fruit of the drug of ecstasy. It’s supposed to be the fruit of the spirit of God,” and that started me.
Imagine Genesis if God approached his work as we so often do:
In the beginning, it was nine o’clock, so God had to go to work. He filled out a requisition to separate light from darkness. He considered making stars to beautify the night, and planets to fill the skies, but thought it sounded like to much work; and besides, thought God, “That’s not my job” So he decided to knock off early and call it a day. And he looked at what he had done and he said, “It’ll have to do.” On the second day God separated the waters from the dry land. And he made all the dry land ﬂat, plain, and functional, so that—behold—the whole earth looked like Idaho. He thought about making mountains and valleys and glaciers and jungles and forests, but he decided it wouldn’t be worth the effort. And God looked at what he had done that day and ‘ said, “It’ll have to do.” And God made a pigeon to ﬂy in the air, and a carp to swim in the waters, and a cat to creep upon dry ground And God thought about making millions of other species of all sizes and shapes and colours, but he couldn’t drum up any enthusiasm for any other animals — in fact, he wasn’t too crazy about the cat. Besides, it was almost time for the Late Show. So God looked at all he had done, and God said, “It’ll have to do.” And at the end of the week, God was seriously burned out. So he breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Thank Me , it’s Friday”
Of course Genesis looks nothing like that. Instead, it throbs with the refrain “God said… And it was so… and indeed it was very good.”
Many of us have got the impression somewhere that for an activity to count as a spiritual discipline it must be something that we would rather not do. However if we are training for a life characterised by joy, peace, and affection, we should assume that some of the practices are going to be downright enjoyable. Many of us need to discover “disciplines” such as celebration that will regularly produce in us rivers of wonder and gratitude.”
We’re often taught to be careful of the difference between joy and happiness. Happiness, it is said, is an emotion that depends upon what “happens.” Joy by contrast, is supposed to be enduring, stemming deep from within our soul and which is not affected by the circumstances surrounding us. . . . I don’t think God had any such hair-splitting in mind. Scripture uses the terms interchangeably along with words like delight, gladness, blessed. There is no scale of relative spiritual values applied to any of these.[
Steve Dale, a syndicated columnist who answers people’s questions about their pets, received an email from someone seeking advice on what to do with her twelve-year-old boxer that had a large tumor on his leg. Two different veterinarians had agreed that the tumor needed to be removed, but admitted that doing so would require the loss of the dog’s leg. “Any advice?” the letter writer asked. Dale responded that three-legged dogs actually seem to adjust fairly quickly after surgery, and are soon getting around just about as well as before, fetching balls and terrorizing squirrels. “The psychological trauma of being expected to feel sad because they’ve lost a limb just doesn’t seem to occur. Instead, quite the reverse, they act overjoyed To be alive
Over time, choosing gratitude means choosing joy. But that choice doesn’t come without effort and intentionality. It’s a choice that requires constantly renewing my mind with the truth of God’s Word, setting my heart to savor God and His gifts, and disciplining my tongue to speak words that reflect His goodness and grace–until a grateful spirit becomes my reflexive response to all of life.